Joyce Bupp, farm wife

It wasn’t pretty.

Some of our fields looked really scruffy, like stands of forgotten, overgrown brush that had given up the ghost and turned that pale, beige color of dead foliage we become so familiar with, and bored of, through the long months of winter. Only the early signs of small, emerging spikes of greenery in rows suggested that the fields had not been forgotten.

No doubt, our straggly looking, early corn plantings have generated a few raised eyebrows. This was true especially where neighboring fields of long, straight, picture-perfect, weed-free stretches of corn were in marked contrast to our uneven-looking stretches.

“Planting green” isn’t always landscape-beautiful; some have dubbed it “ugly farming.” But the aim of seeding a crop into an already growing crop is to keep something living and covering the soil at all times, along with the benefit of reducing the need for chemicals. The longer-term goal is to prevent erosion of the precious topsoil and to feed all those minuscule/microscopic critters that live there and enhance its biology as well as the ultimate health of both soil and crops.

Rolling down the tall, winter-protective cover crop creates a blanket of flattened, drying grasses that form a weed barrier and moisture-holding mulch. Disappointed at having been unable to acquire in a timely fashion the piece of heavy, foliage-rolling equipment The Farmer had ordered, we were incredibly fortunate to be blessed with friends who allowed us to borrow their field roller to knock down our cover-crop growth.

Since it is our initial experiment with this particular part of planting green — rolling down winter-cover grasses rather than a total chemical-kill of the foliage — it’s an ongoing learning experience this season. Depending on the thickness and height of the cover crop grasses, some fields “rolled” better than others.

If every field had the same height and same thickness of cover grasses (the ideal for sure), the overall rolled effect would present a look of much more uniformity and neatness. Some of the rolled grasses lay flat and even. Some, especially those a bit shorter in height and thinner of stem when the roller flattened it, left sections reminiscent of a “bad hair day,” and wouldn’t have won any landscaping prizes for the first few weeks afterward.

We agreed that we’d feel a lot more confident about the whole rolling procedure once the flattened cover died down and the emerging rows of corn and soybeans took over.

As the rows of corn stalks emerged, grew and began shooting up past the boring-beige, bad-hair residue of dying grass mulch, the overall effect became much neater in appearance. Now, the growing corn hides most of the “bad hair” effect.

The old cliché of “knee-high by Fourth of July” as a corn-growing measurement has become pretty much irrelevant in this era of tremendously improved hybrids bred for earlier planting. On this fireworks weekend of Independence Day (maybe fireworks will glitter in some places), corn has stretched way beyond knee-high to approaching shoulder height. Even my small patch of garden sweet corn is nearly that high.

After becoming a no-till gardener more than 25 years ago (because I could never get anyone to take time during spring planting to plow my veggie patch), I’ve developed considerable tolerance for the initial scruffiness of planting in undisturbed soil.

The garden doesn’t get “rolled,” it gets mulched. Years of repeated layers of mulch — calf-pen bedding, manure, newspapers, cardboard, lawn grass, old hay, whatever materials were handy and I had been able to save through winter — has left the garden soil dark, crumbly and absorbent.

But, in early spring, before plants really get growing, it looks pretty ratty with some of the “bad hair” effect. What’s worse is when wind catches some newspaper that was inadvertently left too-lightly covered with mulch material to weigh it down and blows pages all over the place.

Nature doesn’t plant in neat, tidy rows with bare, disturbed soil between. Nature covers everything in growth, tosses in the likes of thistles and red root and lambs quarters, twines wild sweet potato vines over fallen trees and stone fences, runs kudzu and poison ivy up tree trunks and generally just runs rampant over whatever is in the way. But, years of accumulation of mulched growth that dies, decomposes, and adds organic and nutrient materials leaves the soil beneath full of life and vigor, with sponge-like absorbency.

If you’ve ever walked the soil of an untouched forest and felt the resiliency, the “give” of the soil underfoot, you’ve experienced nature’s amazing soil-building handiwork when left undisturbed.

“Ugly farming” might not be calendar-picture-beautiful at first glance. But the process uses both controlled planting and the recycling of natural plant vigor to protect the precious topsoil on which all our food, fiber and, indeed, our way of living, depends.

What’s ugly about that?

Joyce Bupp is a freelance writer in York County, Pennsylvania.

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