Thursday, August 1, 2013

Healthy Soil with Oats, not Weeds.

Sow those bare spots with oats as a cover crop.
After our lilies have been harvested in October - and hopefully, before the rains become constant - we first tractor-cultivate, then sow whole oats (stock feed) on the field where the lilies had been planted. This enriches the soil, discourages weeds and helps stop erosion over winter.  Oats usually germinate within a week and natural rainfall keeps the grain growing well throughout the remaining year.  Like your lawn grass, oats will grow whenever temperatures are above freezing. In midwinter, if the weather has been mild, Bob tills in the oats when they are still nice and tender and before they begin to toughen and form seeds.  This creates a nice, friable texture for planting lilies a month or so later in spring.  Other grain crops, like Buckwheat, can be used in summer, but Oats are cheap and plentiful.

Fenced "winter bird yard" grows veggies in summer.

Yes, even between the corn...
You can use the same technique in the home garden, but there is no need to wait until fall; any bare spot in the garden which is not immediately planted with another food crop, or even a new flower bed waiting for bulbs in fall, can be improved now with little effort.

...and cucumbers!
Farm stores are fascinating places.
A sack of whole oats (not rolled) can be purchased at any feed store; the cost yesterday in Sequim, WA was $15.99 (for 50 pounds) and that is retail, not a co-op "member price".  Oats kept dry and in a reasonably cool spot still germinate after a year, so you don't need to use the entire sack at once, but discard any grain that has become moldy. If you have a large garden, save money and buy your fertilizer in big sacks as well, storing it for years in a trash bag lined, tightly covered can. While shopping, check out tools and other handy objects for your garden because many places also have a retail gardening section.  There will be feed troughs, fencing, plus a few things that you'll probably wish you hadn't asked, "What's this for?" 

In the 30' x 40' fenced space shown above, about 40 pounds of oats were thickly sown around a small plot of dent corn, a few squash plants and cucumbers.  Most of this area was bare ground, newly cultivated, as the vegetables that were growing from spring had all been harvested.

Use a steel garden rake, not a springy leaf rake.

The technique is easy.
Oats are simply hand spread and lightly raked into the soil.  While covering the seed you are bound to pick up overlooked stray roots for disposal, an added benefit.  Some grain will be touching, others perhaps 2 to 3 inches apart, but it is not necessary to be precise because raking will disperse the seeds in a random pattern anyway.

In our garden, Anne Marie's Buff Orpington rooster, always out scouting for tasty tidbits, eagerly leads his free-ranging harem over the 6-foot fence when the sprinkler is off to pick up exposed grains.  Rodents will snag more at night, but the remaining oats germinate quickly, especially with regular, deep watering.  If you are concerned about exposed seed, a light sprinkling of peat or compost will do nicely to camouflage your planting from airborne marauders, like crows.

Sometimes "stealth" is in order.
Since our geese, ducks and chickens are fed a scattering of oats on the ground during "pen up" in the evening, it is absolutely necessary to move everyone out of sight, preferably on the other side of the house, before sowing a cover crop.  If we are ever caught dropping grain out of reach, there is an outcry (loud honking and grumbling) followed by "wailing and gnashing" of "beaks and bills".  After the cucumbers, squash and corn are harvested, the poultry are allowed to clean up the garden for winter, dropping a bit of fertilizer along the way while removing pesky weeds.  Winter crop rutabaga, cabbage, broccoli, kale, carrots, lettuce, spinach, rocket, etc. are planted elsewhere for people food, or would quickly disappear, leaving fifteen innocent-looking geese strolling about.

Pretty and practical.
Six inch tall oats make a clean and beautiful green mat for vine crops and a soft surface for kneeling while picking, but "bend over" the stalks and bring the smaller vines of cucumbers to lay on top on a regular basis.  Bees will find the larger squash flowers for pollination.  Because oats will tend to draw moisture from the vines, be certain to water deeply and thoroughly on a regular basis until your veggies are harvested.  Persistent weeds will be easy to spot and should be pulled out when discovered.  Slugs may take delight in the moist cover, so either use bait on the garden perimeter or another method of control.  (See 'How to Control Slugs in your Lily Garden'.)  Any time after oats have grown six inches tall - or are nicely shading the soil - their soft green stems can be dug into the garden as "green manure".

 UPDATE:  8.6.13
After three days, tiny sprouts had begun to show, but now five days later, a nice green carpet of oats is very evident.  A flock of eight Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura) found the oat seed a day after planting, but our chickens mercifully did not, or there would have been bowl-shaped craters throughout the area.  Keep your soil moist, but not soggy, until its time to rotary till, chop into the garden with a hoe or turn over clumps with a shovel.


  1. For a smaller area, do you till in the oats with a shovel?

  2. Yes, I do - there will always be little edges, corners and narrow spots where even a small roto-tiller will not fit. You can simply turn over the soil a couple of times with either a garden fork or a shovel. I'm about ready to do another update on this post - the oats in the garden are six inches tall and the sprinkler needs to be raised up for efficiency.