It's time to plant spring oats in beds you won't be using until late summer. Oats have multiple uses. Spring planted oats get going strongly by mid-summer and are turned over in the green and fluffy stage to break down and nourish the winter garden that you will be planting in July and August. You are planning a winter garden, right? You want that good stuff to feed your family all fall, winter and next spring. When you see organic kale at $3 a bunch in December and lettuce at $2 a head, you want to be smiling, thinking of the kale bush at home that feeds you every week and the lettuce going strong in the hot frame.
Oats can be left to form seed heads. The green oat seeds, hulls and all, make a nutritious and calming herb tea. My kids still love oat tea with a little milk and honey. Harvest the oats when they are in the milk stage, when the hulls are still green and squeezed seed produces milky juice. Just cut off the oat tops and spread thinly to dry. The yield is quite decent. I used to get a couple of quarts of dried oats in the milk stage, a year's supply, from the cover crop I grew in containers. This is an example of the value growing your own. A few times, I bought organic "oat straw" for tea when we ran out of the home grown supply, and it was just that: a disappointing shredded straw without the nutritious seeds and clearly harvested much too late, as the stems were turning golden.
The oat stems are valuable mulch for your garden. Use them to keep down weeds in the paths or chop into short lengths to mulch around your vegetables. Turn over the stubble for a fine planting bed. If left over winter, the stubble will hold the soil. Push some fava beans into the stubble, turn the lot over next spring, and you will be ready to plant the spring garden next March.
Oats left to mature will turn into a nodding golden grain, very esthetic looking. Harvest some for your next year's cover crop, gather the valuable straw, and feed any excess oats to your favorite chickens. Chickens love to play with oat heads. Spring planted oats mature just at the right time to turn over the stubble and plant your overwintered garlic.
Growing a grain in the garden as part part of your rotation helps to build organic matter in the soil and control insects. The usual recommendation in garden books is rye grass. I find the stuff turns into a weed in small garden beds and the roots are hard to turn over and work in. The oats are softer and break down better.
Oats for cover crops are available by the handful from the WFC on Meridian and Hohl's Feed and Seed downtown on Railroad Ave. The Seed Savers' Exchange, Fedco, Seeds of Change and Territorial will sell you one or five pound bags of organic oat seed. Share with your friends. They all sell out early. Tiny two ounce packets of organic oats are available from the Sustainable Seed Company in California and other internet sources. I grew out a fat handful of conventional oat seed from Hohl's for a cover crop in my container garden years ago and just saved and grew the seed for three years afterward.
The oats sold as cover and feed crops are Avena sativa. A.sativa has a tight hull which is difficult to separate from the seed. Chickens don't care. They pick the seeds right out of the head. Goats will happily eat the whole thing, head, stalk and all. A. sativa is hard to turn into people food because it doesn't thresh well. The buff oat, sometimes called the naked oat, Avena nuda, was often grown back in the day for people food, along side a larger field of A. sativa.
A. nuda opens as it matures, making it much easier to thresh out. Theoretically. Krista Rome tells the story of her naked oats being not particularly easy to thresh. Dan Borman, who apparently has the fix in at the seed bank, grew out 19 varieties of A. nuda last year. Only two threshed easily. The birds love A. nuda. Gene Lodgson had a plan to make it big in the naked oat seed business and gave up after being wiped out by birds. He later regretted giving up.
There has been a resurgence of interest in growing A. nuda recently. The seed is not easy to find. Fedco sold out early. I'm hoping our local growers can keep at it, birds and all, until we build up enough of a supply of locally adapted A. nuda to grow it more widely.
Oh, yes... how to plant oats. Turn over seed bed, pull out weeds, grass clumps and last season's vegetable remains. Rake smooth. Scatter oats, about one - two ounces for 20 square feet. Rake in. Water or just wait for rain. Done.