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no till corn through sod

 
Chris Holcombe
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Location: Zone 8b Portland
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So this is probably a silly question but has anyone tried growing corn through sod? They're both members of the grass family. I have a small 20x20 ft spot that I wanted to try growing corn but it has a thick cover of grass currently. I was thinking about taking a piece of rebar, poking a hole, dropping in a corn seed and filling the hole with compost. My wife said that sounds nice but how do you keep the grass under control that's growing in between the corn. I have no idea so I thought I'd ask the Permies Is this viable?
 
Joseph Lofthouse
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At my place, annual corn doesn't compete very well with perennial grass, but here's a suggestion if you want to give it a try. I'd love to hear later on how it works for you....



I plant into sod by using a steel pipe long enough to reach my waist, with the bottom cut off at a 45 degree angle. Then I can set it on the ground, with the long side of the cut facing away from me, and use my foot as a fulcrum to lever the pipe into the ground. Then drop the seed down the pipe. Best part of that is no bending over!!!
 
Chris Holcombe
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Location: Zone 8b Portland
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Interesting idea Joseph. I was thinking more along the lines of this: http://biomassmagazine.com/articles/4004/saving-the-soil-and-maintaining-corn-yields. Some quick Google fu revealed Iowa researchers are trying the same thing I dreamed up .
 
John Alabarr
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The corn will be stunted. The surrounding grass will steal all the nitrogen from the soil.
 
Chris Holcombe
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Sounds like I need to get a sod cutter .
 
John Weiland
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Somewhat echoing what John A. just posted, I did not see in the linked article about the inter-cropped grass as to what type of fertilizer regime was being used. Although there are exceptions, in much of the midwest it's pretty standard to use anhydrous ammonia among other things as a source of nitrogen. From a small-scale experience, when living in the Willamette Valley of OR, I did try the lazy-man's approach to cutting a groove in a grass lawn and planting sweet corn. It did not go well. In retrospect, too many things impacting productive growth of the corn, among them being compacted soil, established root system of the grass, and a crop species and variety that has been adapted for cultivated soil. Worth trying maybe if you adhere more closely to what the study was attempting to achieve.
 
Chris Holcombe
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Yeah I was wondering about the grass type also. They never said. The corn variety I bought was bred by Carol Deppe for the Willamette valley https://www.adaptiveseeds.com/product/highlighted-varieties/certified-organic-seeds/flint-corn-cascade-ruby-gold-organic/. She didn't mention in the description if they were bred for tilled fields. I suspect they were. I'll check out her book again for clues.
 
John Weiland
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Are you planning on mowing that grass otherwise? Taking a cue from Joseph L's photo, the dimensions of your plot, and how much you may want to use a shovel, you may just want to overturn the sod by manual labor with a spade and ending up with a few rows about 24" apart. If you do this before the soggy season (Portland, OR??) ends it would be easier to do before the dry heat of summer arrives. If you made the planting rows themselves just one spade-width wide (~ 9 inches?), and dig a bit deep to loosen the soil well, you could then go over it a few times with the spade to work everything up and even add in some compost/manure, etc. Your corn may do okay in this regard: You could keep the grass mowed by running the mower between the rows and just hand-weed anything else. If I were converting a (sub)urban lawn from scratch, I think I would do all growies that way so that the grass provided a natural walking carpet between the rows and plots.
 
Ted Moldovan
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Location: Western PA
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Yep have to listen to what was already said. Corn and weeds grass don't mix well.

On a longer day corn you can maybe plant in sod and mulch as it grows. Place fertilizer ( compost ) manure in rows under ground and cover with heavy mulch.

Would say if you can get it to 8-10 inches high and water as needed after mulching. It is going to need nitrogen and allot at 2' tall.

We always plowed and planted corn, any heavy weeds always set it back or worse. Planted and cultivated , hoe and mulch if not tall enough.
Weeds to heavy turns 7 inch ears to 4 inch ears or no ears at all.
 
Chris Holcombe
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I don't quite understand why corn is such a wuss plant. It has an advantage over most other plants with its c4 photosynthesis cycle. It should easily be able to outcompete weeds but everyone is saying if even light competition surfaces it stunts the corn.
 
Joseph Lofthouse
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Any annual competing with an already established perennial is at a tremendous competitive disadvantage. Most of the grasses around here are very cool weather crops. Corn is a tropical crop. So by the time it is warm enough to plant corn, the grasses have already been growing strongly for a few months. Corn has been selected for millennium to grow in cultivated fields. It lives in a close symbiotic relationship with man. It seems to me, that corn gave up it's ability to compete well with weeds in exchange for higher yields of bigger seeds. If the farmer finks out on the predator/prey contract, then the corn reverts to a more natural state of lower productivity.

From my perspective, of always wondering about the predator/prey contract, I think that permaculturists might be better off using species that have not been highly domesticated. They are generally better at competing with weeds.
 
Steve Farmer
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Clump on the right is 45 days from planting seed when pic taken. Clump on the left is at 24 days.
I don't know if you'd call it no till, I took the grass away with the edge of the spade just taking a tiny portion of topsoil with it, not really turning the soil over. Took about ten mins per patch.
Blazing sun all day, watered every evening, temps from mid 20s C to high 30s. Eating it within 90 days of planting. Each plant gave 1 or two ears of fully developed ripe sweetcorn.
No fertilisers, insecticides or any chemicals/additives except seeds & water.

You can just see at bottom right a bean plant that was intercropped. Beans and peas followed the corn as soon as the corn sprouted (4-7 days normally) but didn't compete well.
As you can see the grass is quite brown but was a lot greener when the corn was planted end of April.
I only arrived at this property a couple of months before the foto was taken. Previous policy was to burn the grass every June, ahead of the wildfire season and nothing was planted here for years.


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jimmy gallop
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I have caught it just right were I turned Bermuda grass and plated regular sweet corn 12 inches apart each direction.
fertilized heavy after corn was up and it shaded or out competed the grass.
soaked the seed so that it sprouted quick
did about my regular hoeing and weeding
I don't think you could do it without setting back the grass in some way.
like with any cover crop you have to feed and water for two
dependent on what type of sod if you wait till a hot sunny day spray straight vinegar just on short freshly grown like mowed short 5 days before it would defoliate and set it back .you might have to plan on a ph shock,even ammonia nitrate solution could do this and by the time the corn broke the ground be absorbed enough to not hurt the corn.just some off the hip thoughts.
 
jimmy gallop
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In the article the talk about harvesting more stover to use as biomass in the production of biofuels.
what don't make sense to me is after you make biofuels you have all of the organic material left .why is it not returned to the fields composted.
 
jimmy gallop
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I have always felt that my corn gave back more to the ground than it took as long as I returned the stalks and put plenty of chicken manure on it.nothing scientific just my thoughts.
 
jimmy gallop
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Chris Holcombe wrote:I don't quite understand why corn is such a wuss plant. It has an advantage over most other plants with its c4 photosynthesis cycle. It should easily be able to outcompete weeds but everyone is saying if even light competition surfaces it stunts the corn.

I don't think corn is a wuss plant . I say it has a very deep root and can hold it's own.
http://soilandhealth.org/wp-content/uploads/01aglibrary/010137veg.roots/010137ch2.html
60 to 68 inches fairly deep for sweet and 5 to 8 feet for field corn
 
Marco Banks
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One thought would be to lay plastic down over the grass and let the sun solarize (cook) it. It wouldn't take very long -- maybe a couple of weeks, and it would kill it. THEN plant through it.

When I was in college, I was house sitting at a really nice place with a big pool in the backyard. They had one of those floating pool covers that looks basically like bubble wrap. It was cut to the shape of the pool, really thick -- a flexible clear plastic mat with the little bubbles in it. It was a big cover --- about 8 meters by almost 20, cut to the curvy shape of the pool.

Well I pulled that plastic cover back and laid it out onto the lawn adjacent to the poll. It sat there on the grass for the afternoon while some friends and I enjoyed the pool. That evening, when I went to pull it back over the pool, I realized that I'd totally cooked the lawn.

OH CRAP!

It didn't seem like it was that hot out there, but I had replicated the shape of the pool perfectly in the middle of their pristine patch of fescue. Burned it up.

In less than 8 hours of warm Southern California sun, I had pretty much cooked the lawn. It took months to come back.

So years later, as we moved into our place, I used this same technique to kill my own lawn, albeit this time I did so intentionally. I solarized the grass with a big sheet of plastic, and then after a couple of weeks, covered it with wood chips. This is now my food forest.
 
jimmy gallop
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excellent idea Marco Banks .
 
Evan Nilla
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pretty sure it was done here
 
Roger Taylor
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As an afterthought this year, I experimented with not tilling, fertilising, weeding or watering some corn. I did two small patches each from one packet of seed for a given variety (~30 seed each), in different parts of the field. Each was just cleared of grass/weeds and the seedlings dropped in holes pushed in the ground. They got watered in for perhaps a week and then I left them. And a third small patch (~20 seed from a nasty cheap packet of red treated seeds I was gifted) was direct seeded as an afterthought and never watered. It was a poor summer with little good weather, and many plants grew slowly and in midautumn still haven't ripened.

Patch 1/seedling/Bloody Butcher. By midsummer the grass was thick through the patch, up to at least my knees and had some californian thistle among it. The corn was up to my shoulder and had some cobs growing. Once I cleared the grass/thistle it appeared to take off, but I can't say for sure as summer may have improved and we may have had more sunshine around the same time.

Patch 2/seedling/Painted Mountain. By midsummer I assumed the corn was dead as it was completely surrounded and covered over with dock, californian thistle and other similar weeds. I cleared the weeds and while the best surviving corn plants were thin, stunted and up to my knees, somehow they'd gotten pollinated and they each had at least one cob with a sparse amount of pollinated kernels. How they managed that, considering the distance between them and the heavy weed cover - we're talking one around 9 feet from other plants, is beyond me.

Patch 3/direct seeded/Sweetcorn. The larger area was sprayed with roundup for heavy californian thistle the Autumn before and the grass hadn't really taken off for the Spring yet, by that I mean there was light grass with patches of soil, just not a thick covering like there is now. I poked holes in the ground and dropped the seed in. The grass took off before I saw any sign of the sweetcorn. Perhaps four plants germinated and pushed through the grass, and so far I've had three solid sweetcorn cobs off them. None of the plants are particularly high.

I suspect that the Bloody Butcher would have done okay in any patch, but the Painted Mountain or Sweetcorn both would have suffered a similar amount in patch 2.
 
Chris Holcombe
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Wow that's a really interesting trial! Thanks for doing that. I might roll the dice and see what happens like you did.
 
Scott Strough
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I grow my sweetcorn right into the sod. Good yields too. There is a trick to it though. I have experimented with 3 ways.

Most important part is properly preparing the sod by using the "second bite" principle vetted by André Voisin but in reverse. In other words instead of being careful to make sure the grass doesn't get clipped twice until it recovers lost energy reserves, I purposely clip it twice to stunt the sod growth temporarily until the corn can get up and out. Between rows of corn I have either unrolled a bale of hay spread compost or mowed the grass once it gets too high. The hay or mowing wont kill the sod, but it will slow it down enough to give the corn a competitive advantage. The compost makes everything grow like crazy, so later once the sod breaks through, lots of mowing needed. One day I will try making a chicken or rabbit tractor to pull down between the rows to do my mowing, but I haven't tested it yet.

The technique is mow the sod one time at 4-6 inches, and exactly 3-5 days later mow it again flush to the ground and immediately plant. That 3-5 day window is extremely important. Soil temp is also extremely important. The corn needs to have conditions exactly right or the sod will out compete. It needs to literally jump out of the ground and take off before the sod starts recovering. But then it competes surprisingly well being taller and hogging the sunlight. Then whenever you need a boost of fertiliser for the corn, just mow and it steals the nutrients away from the sod, instead of vice versa.

It's a variation of pasture cropping developed by Colin Seis and Tom Trantham's 12 aprils method. You can grow any grain crop this way, but timing is key.

The only year it didn't work was last year. But that field had 3 feet of water in it from the floods just after I planted. So I wouldn't say it is fool proof. 2 years it worked, 1 year it didn't. It will take a few more years of experimentation before I could confidently recommend it to anyone else. But if you are the type that likes to experiment with things like me...by all means try it.




 
Roger Taylor
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The thing that bothers me about the assertion that his soils have higher fertility, is that even so, he was still using synthetic fertilisers before he started no-till. All the no-till did was increase organic matter in the soil, and carbon, and therefore water retention. If his soil fertility was really such a compelling factor, then surely he could just have not fertilised and continued tilling and saved the money? At the end of the day, you're only really going to know how much nutrients your crops have, by taking sensible approaches and getting it measured, just like he did.

His model seems pretty simple. Grow cover crops, have stock graze 2/3 and leave 1/3 on the surface for spring to provide a dry hay type soil cover/mulch to protect the soil and life within it. Then to plant through that. And in the cycle gain organic matter, carbon and water retention, higher and higher. It's a great presentation in the sense that he starts from one part of this, and does experiments to bring in other parts. The difference between one variety of cover crop, and multiple varieties. The difference between using stock to knock down the cover crop and not using stock. The difference in the same soil/fields, where different approaches were taken. However, when it came to no-till potatoes, he did spread compost and lucerne straw over top of the ground and planted into that. And got smaller potatoes.

One particularly interesting example was where he described growing household vegetables on 30 acres and just mixing lots of seed, and doing the same as he would for other crop. And what they ate would be what he stumbled over in the fields, and the rest was donated.

Given my results growing through grass on cleared ground (with hay mulch from the clearing), I don't think I would grow in bulk this way, but as a whim for some no maintenance results in my location with it's weather conditions, I know I'll get something at the end. Take my sweetcorn, for poor quality seed resulting in four plants, I got five cobs. I'd say two were 95% pollinated, the others less than 50%. Take the Bloody Butcher, with perhaps 18-20 plants that eventuated, a decent of the cobs I've peeled back are sufficiently pollinated for the number of plants I had. So the plants in the first generation struggle somewhat, if you planted enough and selected the best, I don't see why you couldn't get a better result. Of course, taller corn like the Bloody Butcher where the cobs are always above the grass makes sense.

However, I think I now know my way forward. Cover crops. With the bonus that it's nicer to walk through a field where you're not walking in tall wet grass and thistles.
 
B Ward
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No-till is an excellent farming method that has many benefits. It improves organic matter, water retention, soil structure, increased biotic factors,(worms, bugs microbes, etc), and can lessen the need for fertilizers. It requires less herbicides because it creates a mulch that helps shade out weeds. It prevents erosion by protecting the soil surface. It also minimizes soil compaction by minimizing tractor trips across the field as well as prevents/eliminates plow pans that can form 6-8 inches below the surface due to repeated tillage. And finally, it can increase yield as a result of all this.
 
Hans Quistorff
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You could try my carpet garden. only use narrow strips 16 to 24" wide. I mowed the planting area then covered it with long grass cut from the surrounding field then covered that with the carpet. Rain could soak through the carpet and layer of grass. the roots rotted then the grass mulch began to compost. Taking up the carpet this spring the only thing that survived underneath was quack grass rhizomes. Some were beginning to get through the carpet. Because there are no other roots in the soil, the long quack grass rhizomes can be forked out without breaking and leaving pieces to sprout again. I will be cutting the wide peaces in narrower strips as I put it back down so that I can plant corn this year.
 
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