Bringing wild pasture into cultivation without tilling or spraying



Both the perennial rye and perennial wheat formed very dense growth. No weeds at all appeared. They had no competition. But they were growing in a raised bed because it’s the ideal place to start seedlings. The soil is rich and there are few weeds. Any that appear can be immediately pinched out. But that’s not how we want to grow perennial grains. Essentially, we want to completely replace the wild vegetation with these grains.

How to do that is the question.  In the spring, do we transplant these seedlings into the field after we have closely cropped it and hope that they grow fast enough to overcome what is there?  Our experience with these old pastures is that what is there grows quickly and overcomes young plants including trees.  I’d like to see how the wheat and rye fair against the wild vegetation but I don’t have enough seedlings to experiment that way.

Using Roundup is not an option. Nor is solarizing the soil, at least, not this time.  We have a bit of experience to draw on. When we started our willow bed in the fall, we first cut the grass very short, then added about six inches of fresh cut grass and then a thin skin of soil. This we covered with cardboard and another thin skin of soil into which we planted fescue grass. We immediately dug holes and planted the willows.  This worked well. None of the surrounding vegetation found its way back into the willow bed and the willows have done well in the uncut fescue which only gets about 8″ tall.  We had another instance of vegetation suppression when we mulched 6-8 inch deep 5 foot circles of grass clippings around our young trees.  Nothing grew through the mulch all summer long.  Pulling back the mulch this fall showed that not only was the vegetation dead but it had rotted because of the moisture and lack of light and air provided by the mulch.

I don’t think that we can use the willow option exactly the same way since the fescue will provide competition and might provide a host for ergot.  And we can’t plant into a layer of soil since Nature will be quick to fill in the empty space around the plants.  A combination of the willow approach and the tree mulching might work.  But instead of grass for mulching since it could be a host for ergot, we’ll use leaves from our fall compost pile and run them through the mulching mower to chew them into a fine, dense material.

In preparation, I’ve run the riding mower into the area that we want to transplant the wheat and rye plants into.  It’s been covered with a very thick layer of grass clippings.  In the spring,  I’ll skin a layer of compost soil on the top, transplant the rye and wheat plants and surround which a heavy layer of mulched leaves.  I suspect that we’ll have to do some weeding until the plants get going.

While this may work, it takes grass mulch, compost soil, and leaf mulch.  While we are producing more than we used to, we still seem to never have enough.  And these fields are mostly sub-soil because the top-soil was scraped off and moved in around the house.  So there is a fertility problem as well.   I’d heard of cover crops and a bit of reading led me to smother crops –  But they have to be no till since we don’t use a rototiller. I like the idea of using soy and buckwheat or even bush peas.  Soy and peas are multipurpose plants. They fix nitrogen and can be used for food.  And I can produce my own cover crop seed without having to buy it.  And peas can be planted really early which would give them a good leg up on the wild vegetation. Buckwheat is a bit more problematic.  I would like to grow it for our bees but that means letting it go to flower and then seed if I’m going to produce my own seed.  Since buckwheat requires cross pollination to produce seed, there is the risk that it will cross with the perennial variety.  I will experiment with some of our Laura soybeans, some bush peas and  try some annual buckwheat as well.   In future, if the perennial buckwheat turns out to be a vigorous perennial, I could use it as a source of seed for a smother crop.  Of course, scything it early would have to kill it or we’d have another unwanted plant.

It will be important to keep the soil continuously covered so that weeds cannot get a start. Planting a succession of cover crops that fit each part of the growing year will deal with that problem. So we’ll start out with an early seeding of peas which we’ll chop-and-drop before they start to flower.  Into that, we’ll seed buckwheat which we will chop-and-drop before it goes to flower. Into that we’ll seed fodder and Diakon radish which will winter kill.  Whether we do this again next year will be based on the results we see this year.  As a final seed suppressant, fertility building crop, I’ll seed with Dutch clover which will provide a low, perennial nitrogen fixing living mulch into which transplants can be made.  Seeding would be a more difficult because of the competition from the clover. It would have to be cut back until the seeds had sprouted and established themselves.

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7 Responses to Bringing wild pasture into cultivation without tilling or spraying

  1. Richard says:

    I am in a continuing battle with bermudagrass, which is content to work its way through deep mulch until it surfaces. You mention solarizing is not an option at this time. I am following a suggestion by Martin Crawford and using black plastic and when I remove it in a couple of months I will see if it nailed the bermudagrass. I know bermudagrass goes dormant in winter and comes back in spring – I am hoping that, without sunlight, the dormancy will become permanent. Nice link on cover crops.

    • MikeH says:

      Hi Richard,

      I’ve seen Bermuda grass and I’m glad that I don’t have to deal with it. I will try solarizing a test area but it won’t be ready to take the rye and wheat. It shouldn’t be too difficult to get the vegetation that’s there right now under control. I won’t till because, from experience, I don’t want to disturb the thistle seeds that are in the soil. If I do, they’ll be thicker than dandelions. There are other reasons for not tilling but this is the primary one when putting an old pasture into cultivation.

      We do have twitch grass, Elymus repens which tends to creep back into cultivated areas. We have found that a barrier strip of deep rooted fescue does an almost perfect job of keeping it out. I’ll seed fescue wherever I’m not putting growing areas. I wonder a barrier strip of a non-invasive grass would keep the Bermuda grass from creeping back into the areas where you don’t want it.

      There’s a huge amount written on cover crops but I get the distinct impression that little of it reflects first hand experience. It’s also written assuming that one is using farm equipment. Even the no-till information assumes that the area taking the cover crop is already in production. Thinking about it, I’m pretty sure that no-till land was ploughed, and disced when it was first brought into cultivation and then switched to no-till.


  2. readrobread says:

    I’m curious to see how this experiment goes. Though I’ve not done it myself, and don’t want to presuppose you use animals in your systems – have you considered pigs inside electric fence? My assumption based on what I’ve read is that they would do the tilling required for a clean bed to plant into (with extra fertility), and also eat the thistle roots, as well as the roots of any other well-established perennials. The key is always how long the pigs are on the land before moving on.

    Also, I read somewhere that a farmer embraced thistle (not sure the species though) and harvested it as a bird seed – which brought in higher profit than using the same area for most food applications would have done. Without mechanized equipment, I imagine thistle harvest would be a pretty slow and unattractive bit of hand-labour!

    On a much smaller scale, I was trying to prepare an area of lawn for cover crops without machinery. My initial attempt – which was buckwheat on top of cardboard covered with a small amount of top soil (something I happened to have extra of – but don’t usually bring in) – was a moderate failure. The buckwheat didn’t have space to grow deep roots, due to the cardboard not being decomposed yet, and weeds began to grow.

    Year two, I scythed back the weeds, and planted winter rye by broadcasting, then walking over it a bit – though most of it was literally right on the surface. Though I planted quite late (actually kind of hard to find winter rye seed in my area), the crop did very well, and I actually let it mature, scythed it when ripe, and harvested both a ton of straw for my chickens and some rye for human consumption.

    Year three, Winter Rye again, though I ran out – and couldn’t get more, so the whole area wasn’t done. Note that the part that wasn’t done is the part that has reverted back to lawn. Other areas have mostly gone to broad-leafed weeds.

    The spot now has a mix of broad-leafed weeds, a bunch of lupines comfrey, a few purposefully planted herbs, and lots of grass. I’ve come to embrace where it’s at in succession – the balance of grass to broad-leafed is not ideal, but much better than it was. (I’m trying to keep grass pretty a lower part of the mix because there are young fruit trees planted in the same area). I’ll continue to plant in clumps intentionally of some of my preferred plants.

    • MikeH says:

      I’d use pigs but what to do with them after they have done their work? Goats can be rented but I suspect pigs would have to be a loaner.

      We had pretty good success with ths –


      • readrobread says:

        Yes – I like that method of site prep as well (which I’ve called Lasagna Composting – and is really similar to hugelkultur, but without the wood). I had great success with tomatoes in such conditions – especially for the first year or two. The area has stayed really weed free, but fertility has dropped as the materials inside rotted, and air pockets decreased. Easy enough (with available time) to just build up the bed again.

        True – you’d have to have enough land you wanted to till to keep the pigs busy for the season, and keep moving them. That would be a major concern of mine: do I have enough land that I want to be bare to move the pigs through. I know a bit more about how herbivores work on pasture this way, but pigs without some kind of surplus being added (such as whey) might eat you out of house and home.

        I’ve got a handful of perennial wheat started to play with, but am not giving perennial grains much focus at the moment. I feel like reducing grains out of my diet (in the long term) might be a better solution for me – I’m thinking of chestnuts and hazelnuts as alternatives – especially chestnuts, which are similar macronutrient breakdown to grains, and can be used in most of the same ways. I’m really inspired by Mark Shepards discussion of this.

      • MikeH says:

        Even if you had the land, rooting for food in the winter would be a problem with the ground covered by snow and frozen hard. Taking animals through the winter in this climate means buying in feed, slaughtering to reduce the number of animals you have, or putting more land into cultivation in order to grow winter feed if your not going to buy in feed.

        It seems to me that nuts definitely have a place but not at the exclusion of grains, especially if they are perennial. A nut crop failure would make for a lean winter. Better, I think, to keep as many different streams of food going as possible. Mark Shephard is inspirational but I wonder if there are no grain products on his table.

      • readrobread says:

        Actually – in Shepard’s case I remember someone asking him that precise question, and I’m pretty sure that in most circumstances (certainly when not travelling), he is grain free.

        I fully agree about diversity of crops – I certainly don’t eat grain-free myself. That said, the variety of different nuts we can grow (beyond the chestnuts and hazels that Shepard most talks about) means that a total crop failure in any given year is not as likely – most of them also store exceptionally well in-shell (also true of grains – though I suspect the amount of nutrition loss might be higher with grains after, say, two years).

        How about alley cropping with perennial grains between fruit and nut trees? Then we can have both!

        For animals – I get the idea that Joel Salatin (for instance) raises most of his animals only over the growing season, and keeps a pretty lean winter herd (after sending most to slaughter), buying in replacement stock in the spring. I question the long-term sustainability of some of his methods, only because they rely on external inputs (new animal stock, grains (for supplemental chicken and hog feed), but so many of his practices are just spot on.

        And of course, as I write this, I realize the enormous advantage of perennial grains for animals like chickens and pigs, whether browsing it, or if stored for winter feed.

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