When I first started gardening, I couldn’t imagine planting anything in the fall. Sure, I knew about tulip bulbs, but I thought of putting them in the ground as winter storage, kind of like keeping your sweaters safe from moths in summer. I couldn’t wrap my head around plants that didn’t follow the path of trees. Plants that grew as maple leaves dropped made absolutely no sense to my un-horticultural mind.
Turns out that a lot of grains are sown in the fall. Winter wheats, barleys and ryes are in the ground now in the Northeast, some just planted before the threat of the hurricane. Other plants are inches above the ground in spikes and tufts.
My little patch of rye falls into the former category. I wasn’t sure where to plant it, or even if I would plant it, because I couldn’t put wheat where the wheat had been – wheat on wheat is an invitation to disease. Finally, I decided to clear a bed of volunteers and abandoned soaker hose and planted some Danko rye with Felix.
Planting the same crops in the same place year after year is not good for the plants or the dirt. Farmers and gardeners use rotations as a tool to help interrupt the antagonism of pests and diseases, varying crops and what they give and take from the soil.
My husband Jack and son Francis had a rotation planned for our gardens, but that was before I introduced grains. Rotations are complicated, and I’d rather ferment vegetables than figure out a new plan. My friend Howard has mapped a cycle for seven beds, but he can’t remember it without looking at his records. Right now he has Banatka wheat and black emmer started, and two beds of rye. One will be a crop he harvests and the other he will till into the ground to fortify the soil.
Crop rotation is a new old concept. For organic farming, it’s part of the package. A piece on rotations in the New York Times gives a nice overview of the practice. The story refers to a recent study by agronomists that shows adding rotation crops in conventional corn-soybean plantings did not decrease yields.
Grains are seen as a good rotation for organic vegetable farmers because they have little or nothing in common with the food crops that are grown. Research groups like OGRIN encourage such planting, and enlist vegetable farmers to plant test plots of different kinds of grains to research how to work grains into their rotations.
Walter Riesen is one such farmer. His rotation has been vegetables, to buckwheat, to oats. He’s experimenting with adding grains to the mix, and this fall planted some warthog wheat and black emmer. He sees the rotational aspect of grains as a bonus, and is trying to see what types might work as a market crop in the future. Here are some pictures of Star Route Farm in the Northern Catskills – look for the pretty emmer ready for harvest over the summer.
Dates for fall planting vary. For wheat, there is the Hessian Fly Free Date to observe, so that the larvae of the insect don’t eat the tender shoots in either fall or spring. Plantings need to be early enough to allow enough growth above and below ground for winter survival, but working around fall rains – trying to find time when the ground is dry enough for the tractor to not hurt the soil structure – can be tricky. But farmers work within these challenges because there are advantages to fall sowing, too. The plants grow fast in early spring, and have a jumpstart on weed competition.
Valley Malt – micro-maltsters to microbrew allstars like Peak Organic – plant barley, rye and wheat as winter grains and use buckwheat as a summer rotation. Oechsner Farms grows grains for Valley Malt and lots of other places, including Farmer Ground Flour, the farm’s mill. I went to visit the new mill site early in October, and got to see the wheat in the ground. In some fields, the warthog was planted in strips next to forage turnips.
Just as grains are a good break for a vegetable farmer, vegetables are a good break crop for a grain farmer. Grain rotations have many different grasses, which can be strong or weak hosts of different diseases. The wheats Thor Oechsner plants don’t have a lot of resistance to problems like fusarium, so brassicas like turnips can do a lot of work. Once the forage turnips are tilled in, they’ll act as a biofumigant, and break down pathogens in the soil. The brassicas are a new addition to his rotation, he says, and in five years, he might be trying something else.