Winter rains are a great time to build soil root structure

2016-01-20 10.17.18 (NXPowerLite Copy)When I first started growing food, winter was a time when my efforts would slow down. With the reduced temperatures I couldn’t grow much of what I wanted to. But with the recent drought years in California, especially last summer, I’ve come to see things differently.

In the midst of a long, hot, dry summer it’s rather tough to get crops established, especially if growing from seed. Sure, I can also grow seedlings and transplant them, but for crops that are “many in number” like sorghum and wheat, I’d much rather be direct seeding. With a very full time job, a baby, and speaking engagements, I have to use my garden time very carefully.

I have direct seeded grains in the summer, however even with all of my tricks, it still takes more water than I wish it did, and requires vigilance in the first week to keep the ground moist. Carefully prepping and prewatering the soil, soaking the seeds, planting deep, and carefully covering the soil, sometime in two layers can make it all work in summer.

But in the winter, the relatively warm weather and frequent rains this year in California are making it very easy to direct seed. Basically everything is coming up readily. It feels like I could get a handful of cereal rye, through it in my soil, and walk away, and if the birds don’t eat it, it’ll grow.

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Why grow grains to cover the soil?

Which brings me to my favorite topic these days: keeping soil covered by growing grains.

1. Life. The soil needs something growing on it in order for the organisms in the soil to stay active. Those organisms are the life (or death) of your soil, and are my favored way of getting good yields. Fertilizer, bought compost, pesticides, herbicides? Screw that. I work with nature to take care of my soil.

2. Roots. Grains put down beautiful, extensive root structures that will support life in your soil fairly deep down. Grains have a decent capacity to dig down.

3. Ease. It is surprisingly easy to grow grains. Wheat, sorghum, cereal rye, even quinoa are hardy growers. I don’t have time these days to baby the soil. (I need to baby our baby.) So grains are perfect.

4. Longevity. Here in San Mateo my grains don’t seem to fully winter kill. Last year I left some volunteer sorghum in the soil just for fun, and it survived all winter. The beauty here is that if you get too busy to replace that crop, you can leave it in and it’ll continue to nurture your soil for a few years. Plus if you don’t cut the seed heads off, it’ll self seed on its own and keep going. It’s easy enough to pull when you need to.

What’s the takeaway?
If you have bare patches of soil in your garden, winter in California is perfect time to get some cereal rye or wheat established, while it’s very easy to do so. The root structures will leave you with wonderful soil for spring. Irrigation-free growing in California? Yes, in winter.

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