While we may just think of rye as a necessary part of pumpernickel bread, it’s so much more. I love baking with rye, cooking with rye berries, and using rye as a cover crop to nourish the soil in between growing seasons.
Rye is also one of the easiest grains to grow successfully. This nutty, earthy grain is a delicious and soil-supporting grain that can grow well in almost every climate.
Looking for a good winter crop? Then let’s dig into the world of rye.
Introduction to Rye
Whether it’s called winter rye or cereal rye, it’s the same grain. Secale cereale, or rye is a cool season annual.
But, don’t confuse cereal rye with ryegrass. These two plants are not closely related. Both are cold weather tolerant, but ryegrass (Lolium perenne) is not going to provide you with any rye grains.
Secale cereale, as you can see from the botanical name, is a cereal. You sow it in the fall, and it starts growing before the first heavy frost. Then, rye will continue to grow slowly under the snow, throughout the winter.
In the spring, your young rye plants will shoot up and be ready for harvest by late July or early August.
This grain grows a little slower than barley but faster than wheat. It thrives up through USDA Hardiness Zone 3. Rye can even be sown in the spring for a fall harvest in Zones 1 and 2. Above Zone 6, rye can grow if you plant it late in the fall or early in the winter.
Rye can handle poor soil better than most grains. While it prefers to grow in light, loamy soil or fine, sandy loam, rye will grow almost everywhere. This grain can grow well in clay soil, heavy, waterlogged soil, and very dry, packed soil.
If you can prepare your soil by adding in a light amount of well-composted manure, your rye will be thrilled. If you can’t, your rye will be fine.
This ability to thrive in poor soil is one of the reasons rye is such a fantastic cover crop. You don’t have to improve your soil before planting this soil improver.
You’ll want to plant between 60 and 100 pounds of rye per acre of land. If you’re only sowing a small amount of rye though, buy a one-pound bag. One pound of rye should give adequate coverage to a 10×10-foot garden bed and light coverage to a 15×20-foot bed.
Broadcast the seed on the surface of the soil. When all the seeds are scattered, rake the soil so that your rye is covered by about a half-inch of soil. If possible, gently tap down the soil over the seeds to make sure the soil and the seeds are touching.
Then, water the soil well. Rye doesn’t need consistent watering, but that initial irrigation will give your seeds a great start.
Your seeds will germinate quickly. Rye can germinate in temperatures as low as 34°F. But rye will only put out strong, vegetative growth in temperatures over 38°F.
When to Seed
Sowing dates vary based on the date of the first expected frost. Generally speaking, you should plant your rye about 2 to 4 weeks after the first hard frost. That’s right, after. It sounds crazy, but rye likes the cold.
Some people in colder climates prefer to sow rye in early fall, before the first frost. If you do so, your rye will have a longer early growing season.
This is a great practice if you’re using rye as a weed suppressor and cover crop. It’s less ideal if you’re planting rye as a cereal crop. Plant cereal rye close to the frost date to ensure that most of the growth happens in the spring and summer.
Sowing early in the fall is a great way to extend the grazing season if you have livestock. Young rye provides a great fall grazing option when many of the summer grasses have died off. Fall grazing also has very little impact on spring and summer growth.
Pests and Diseases
Once your rye is seeded and watered, you can just sit back and wait until it’s time to harvest. Rye has few pests and even fewer diseases. While rye is capable of succumbing to all the usual grain pests and diseases, it rarely does.
The most common concerns for rye growers are armyworms. Since real infestations are incredibly rare though, most growers will just destroy the crop instead of treating an infestation. Occasionally, rust, smut, and anthracnose will afflict rye crops, but these fungi are rare.
If you’re concerned that they may affect your rye, plant one of the many resistant varieties on the market, such as the excitingly named ‘AGS 104.’
Rye is so disease resistant that some growers use rye-based mulch to reduce diseases on some less hardy plants. Rye mulches are great for reducing blight in tomato plants in particular.
Once it’s time to harvest, don’t feel intimidated. Though we think of grain being harvested by big, farm machines, you can harvest a small field easily by hand. Use a scythe or plant shears. It’s not as hard as it seems.
After overwintering in the soil, rye starts growing in earnest as the temperatures warm. If you’re growing it as a cover crop, cut your rye in the spring and either till it into the soil or burn it before preparing the soil for the next crop.
If you’re growing rye as a grain crop, just let it be for a few more months. During a drought, your rye will appreciate occasional watering. Otherwise, just leave it alone.
Depending on when you planted and how cold your winter is, your rye will be reading to harvest by early or mid-summer. When the rye stalks turn brown at the top, they’re ready to harvest.
Don’t worry about having the right tools to harvest your grain. Just cut the stalks at the base with whatever tool works for you. When all the stalks are cut, bind them up into bundles, as you see with corn in the fall. Let them dry somewhere out of the reach of rain, birds, and mice.
Your rye stalks should dry for about two or three weeks before threshing.
Threshing Winter Rye
At threshing time, lay the stalks on a sheet or drop cloth. Then, cover them with another sheet to keep the seeds from flying out into the air as you thresh. Then, simply beat the sheet-covered stalks with a stick to free the rye berries.
Of course, you’ll have to separate the rye from the chaff after threshing. You can do this by straining them through a mesh sifter or by picking through the sheet and gathering up the seeds (or berries).
Using Rye Berries
Once the rye is threshed, you can store it in a bag or jar in your pantry. Family-sized flour mills are growing in popularity. They’re not too big and they can fresh-grind just the right amount of flour for your daily baking. If you have a small flour grinder, just grind your rye berries as needed.
If you don’t have a flour mill of your own, try using a food processor or blender. Some people swear by them for simple grain grinding.
With plenty of rye berries on the shelf, you may be tempted to use them for something other than flour. Whole, sprouted, or soaked rye berries make a great addition to seed and grain-rich bread.
You can crack the berries in a pestle or on a rougher setting in your grain mill too. Cracked rye adds a lovely, nutty flavor to seed-based bread soakers.
You can cook the rye berries whole in boiling water until tender. Strain them out, then serve them as a base under garlic-y, sauteed kale.
Or, mix the cooked and drained rye berries with honey, poppy seeds, and raisins for a delicious traditional Slavic dish. This “kutia” has been an essential part of Polish Christmas Eve meals for centuries.