Small Mysteries Never Solved


I husked out my little patch of open-pollinated corn last week. It was something of a disappointment because the deer ate about half of it. But perhaps I should be grateful. I planted it so late (June 6) it is a wonder I got any. Frost did not come until Oct. 24 and many of the trees in the woods were still beautifully gold and green going into November.

But I noticed something mysterious while husking that made it all worthwhile. In the little field next to the corn plot, barnyard millet, or barnyard grass, or Japanese millet or whatever the dratted stuff is called (livestock won’t graze it except when it is very young) is growing in strips in the grass and clover pasture. It is easy to see the strips because the millet is brown and the other grass and clover still very green. I surely never planted it. It finally dawned on me that the strips of millet were growing where I had planted corn in strips in that field seven years ago.

How could cultivation that long ago still be influencing what is growing there now? Beats me. That field has almost always been pasture or hay, except for those strips of corn so long ago. Earlier I had grown corn and oats there once or twice— about 20 years ago. In other adjacent fields, the barnyard grass grows all over. So what is going on here?

One deduction seems obvious. The effects of disturbing the soil are more profound and long-lasting than I had imagined. Perhaps Andre Voisin, the eminent pasture scientist, was right when he wrote that once land is plowed, it takes a hundred years for it to gain back its original natural equilibrium of soil life.

Another possibility, which I have a hard time believing, is that the field has had these strips of barnyard grass growing where the corn was planted every year since then and I just didn’t notice. This year, because we made hay twice from the plot, the barnyard grass shows up better. But even if that is true, why hasn’t the grass advanced more out into the ground between the strips?

Accuse me of being overly superstitious, but since barnyard grass is so undesirable in pasture, I can’t help but wonder if the soil in those strips is punishing me for planting corn there. Maybe all our weed problems are punishment for disturbing the soil too much.

Then, as I husked my corn, I had to wrestle with another mystery. Why do the deer seem to like my corn so much more than the thousands of acres of GMO stuff growing around me? For years old farmers have insisted that wildlife prefer o-p corn to hybrids, and I have repeated that in my books, but frankly I have never really believed it completely. Now that we are talking about hybrid corn that has unnatural genes stacked in it, I am changing my mind.

And then of course there is another mystery. Even corn planted on June 6 dented and matured enough to make a crop because it didn’t frost until late October. Makes me wonder about the science that claims early planted corn, even in April, does better than later planted. The deer surely don’t see any difference. And another mystery: the devils picked only nice big ears to eat, leaving the nubbins for me.

Easy enough to blame it or praise it on global warming, but the climatologists say that pronounced warm and cold spells are weather events, not necessarily indicative of climate change. Sure enough. Friends near Bellefontaine, Ohio, about 40 miles south of us, sent us an email photo of their market garden under three inches of snow on October 24. Climate change is a redundancy.


Gene, I too have been bombarded with that dang barnyard grass. The old timers called it “cockspur”. I did some research and found out that barnyard grass sucks up 80% of the nitrogen available to the growing crop. I have it so bad, it stunted my corn! They also say, though many parts are edible, the roots, grain for man and hay for beasts as well, it should not be fed after frost due to nitrite poisioning.
I have my sows gleanning the corn field now. They are rooting the heck out of that field. It looks like they are going after the rootlets of the barnyard grass. I sure hope they erradicate it! The wet cool year is also a part of this, as the grass responds best in those conditions…it was wet here in northeast Ohio this year too…had to cultivate with a row boat!

I’ve observed this too, Gary. A couple of years ago I had a farm pond reworked. I was unable to mow the rim with my little tractor and the first year pigweed grew up all around the pond. I scythed it down after it had died in the winter well after it had gone to seed, thinking I would have even more of it the next year. But no, this year goldenrod grew in a thick tight ring around the pond–which was very nice for my bees this fall! Just like some the conditions in some years are better or worse for certain types of insects, the same seems to be true of what “weeds” grow each year.

Wayne, around here, farmers are calling it “picket fence corn.” Gene

Pasture cropping has been around forever if you think about it.Most any so called ‘weed’ seed is superior in nutrition to most grains that are grown commerically.Right now my ducks,geese and chickens are havesting the ‘grain’ off of the ragweed thats grown up in various places,last month they ‘harvested’ the Poke Berry seeds that had grown up on a big dirt pile and around some fence rows.There are thousands of plants that produce seeds that livestock can harvest themselves that are equal to any grain.Of course thats the logical Nature’s way for animals to fatten up and fill out for the coming Winter.I have a 30 acre field I never got around to cutting for hay this year and it has a huge crop of Ragweed on it hundreds of Morning Doves are ‘harvesting’ the seed and the funny thing is the grass was shaded out for the most part in the Summer but now that the Ragweed has died and dried up the grasses and clover is growing better there than in the trails I cut thru it in the middle of July.Purple Mint the scrouge of many pastures have seeds that fowl of any type love to eat.Roundup and severe cases of ‘Short Grass Phycosis’ are actually costing many farmers a great source of food for their animals and costing them Big $$$ and time to do it.

Looking for alternative explanations on the corn here. It is possible that the modern corn fields are plants so densely now that the deer can’t freely browse the field and eat the corn other than at the edges?
(I haven’t tried, but I know that lately the fields I drive past look like the stalks are inches apart.)

I recall reading about the Australian “pasture cropping” in Acres USA two or three years ago, though the specifics escape me. I remember thinking that it sounded like a neat idea, but that it seemed to present some management/logistical issues with timing of grazing, and that perhaps the yield wasn’t necessarily worth it. And in retrospect, I wonder if it’s any better of a solution than the minimal-tillage pasture/ley/crop rotation espoused by Newman Turner in the UK some 60 or so years ago. Now I’m going to have to dig up that issue and reread the article.

I well remember when I was blessed with some obviously open pollinated corn seed which I originated from seed found in an archaeological dig somewhere around Taos New Mexico a few generation previously. I was directed to excavate a narrow trench nearly si inches deep, then use an elk antler to poke a hole another six inches in depth at eighteen inch spacing in the trench. Only one good seed was to be used for each hole. it grew profusely with many stems between five and six foot in height. Most of the ears were prodigious in size with many layers of husks which seemed to confound earworms inasmuch as I found many dead larvae which evidently tried to chew their way into the kernels but died before they made it. The pigs I was raising at the time literally fought over this corn leaving their regular yellow hybrid corn untouched until all this open pollinated corn was eaten. No proof of quality of O.P. vs hybrid, but I’m not about to argue with large, strong hogs in regard to food preferences. Incidentally the pork was absolutely delicious. I would think that arguments about grass fed meat versus grain fed meat notwithstanding, the venison from deer that fed on open pollinated corn would be very tasty as well. Shoot and eat a corn fed deer and let me know how it tastes. On occasion deer around here might get some wheat or alfalfa but very seldom corn. They mostly feed on sagebrush steppe forage, acorns along the creeks and shrub origin browse and forbs along those same creeks or mushrooms in the deep woods. Maybe the abundance of corn and soybeans in the Midwest is why you Midwestern folks are over-run with deer with hunting tags for multiple deer being readily available and we in Washington State are limited to usually one deer per year.

In regard to soil disturbances, I still wonder why I don’t hear much of continued use of seed balls inter-planted into a clover understory as Masonobu Fukuoka did in Japan for so many years for small grain production . It seems to me that minimal disturbance of a well established pasture such as planting desired crops via seed balls or poking holes in the pasture in which a crop such as the deep rooted, open pollinated corn is planted in small holes poked with a metal bar or a stick would work well. I know there has been some fairly limited research on this practice by USDA (Look up Jeremy SInger’s work at the Beltsville Maryland USDA ARS Center) and University of Pennsylvania former faculty Nathan Hartwig and a few other folks, including cattle ranchers. In addition, USDA formerly published a pamphlet recommending inter-planting corn at wide spacings in an alfalfa field but I don’t see many folks actually trying it. Agricultural Consultant Jim Martindale ( in Spencerville, Indiana has tried such a practice with some success. However he told me he suppresses the alfalfa via tillage with his own tillage tool designed to loosen, but not invert, soil or if need be uses some herbicide to additionally suppress the alfalfa until the corn can get a head start. He stated that the alfalfa actually provides some extra moisture to the over-story corn.

I would think that any reasonable grain yield would be not only produced with minimal damage to the soil and surrounding environment, but would sequester a significant amount of greenhouse gases. I also think it would be relatively inexpensive to produce compared to conventional extensive tillage, fertilization and herbicide use. The double cropping of the same ground as pasture would y add to income from that same groundso it seems to me to be economically feasible to both crop and graze the same ground. . I set out my own experiment to trial this practice, but the set aside space turned into a playground for grandchildren. Such is the risk of a small homestead and lots of active grandchildren.

So are any of you all homesteader or permaculture types willing to follow up with some documented experiments on Gene’s musings? Sure it would be easy to just let the USDA or Land Grant university folks do the heavy lifting in regard to such research; but it seems real progress in such areas vital to the continued existence of mankind will, as it usually does, only occur if us homesteader, back to the land types of folks help out the government researchers. Farmer/ Ranchers such as Colin Seis in Australia have been working on such practices, which they refer to as : “Pasture Cropping”. But I don’t see it happening here in the USA for reasons that escape me.

Also although even my sheep would pass up the weedy grasses Gene describes as “barnyard millet”, my ducks and geese gobble up the seeds with seemingly great relish, so I don’t worry about it being much of a pasture weed anymore, whether it grows in formerly tilled strips or seemingly at random. A few pass-throughs of grazing waterfowl and barnyard millet is kept in check. I’ll be cooking one of those grazed geese fed with barnyard millet in the pressure cooker shortly, with the addition of some bullion or broth in the cooker. If indeed all flesh is grass and we are what we eat I guess in a few days I may be partially consisting of barnyard millet that was processed through a goose.It could be that helps with the delicious flavor of the goose too. I’ll keep my taste buds tuned for a hint of barnyard millet in the goose flesh. Note the goose down is great for pillows and the wing plumes made good semi-waterproof arrow fletchings. And the goose manure–well you already know about that. So is barnyard millet really a weed?

J.Keye, Wes Jackson and I do quite a bit of musing together. Gene

How opportune! I have just finished reading “Altars of Unhewn Stone” by Wes Jackson. A complete answer to Gene’s musing may not be in the book, but I am confident that Wes would have considerable insight into the state of such things. Yes, I do realize that Ohio is not Kansas. Could it be that we are all down the rabbit hole?

Our church bought a field that had been cash-cropped for a century, and we reshaped it into a soccer field, heavily seeding it with the usual grass mix. The soil had other ideas, and the field covered itself with the Shepherd’s Purse. You’d have thought we were growing the stuff. Keep in mind that field had been continuously “conventionally” growing corn and beans etc for generations. But all it took was one fall, winter, and spring undisturbed by herbicide and tillage, and it exploded in Shepherds Purse. Continuous mowing eventually knocked it out, giving the grass the chance to show its competitive advantage. Just think how many years that Shepherd’s Purse seed bank has been tumbled around in the cultivation, waiting for just the right moment.

I have often wondered why all of a sudden a certain will take over a field,I can plow up a plot in any pasture field on my farm that hasn’t been cultivated in years and I guarantee a good crop of Morning Glory will sudden appear.Charles Walters in his many excellent books on soil,minerals and farming says weeds or any plants that grown are mostly a product of the mineral/nutrient mix in the soil along with the billions of microbes(or absence).I feel there is much that we still have to learn about the soil and growing things.Gene I’d bet that if you took a disk harrow and disked up a strip running laterally across the plot of land you refer to that if left alone a whole new set of plants would come up that aren’t like those in either strip.Timing is also important as I will take a couple strips that I plant into to various things every year and let them fallow into whatever comes up and will disk them up for green manure before they seed and every time all Summer long it’ll be something.In the end I don’t really worry about weeds because a soil that won’t grow weeds probably won’t grow much of anything else either

After reading books like “Teaming with Microbes” by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis, and “The Holistic Orchardist”, by Michael Phillips (both really interesting, informative books) your comment about soil disturbance lasting so long makes some sense to me. So do permaculture ideas. Thus, as you might infer, I am not at all a fan of GMO crops. But, Gene, your comment about “hybrid corn that has unnatural genes stacked in it…” could lead some to confusion: a hybrid plant could have GMOs in it, but not necessarily. Just to make that clear 🙂 The comment above about the deer eating the Wapsie Valley corn made me smile; for some reason, probably because our woods have enough food for wild critters, deer don’t bother my garden during the summer. However my sister-in-law’s cow, that lives in my barn, lopped the tops off of a dozen stalks of my sweet corn before I extended the electric fence out more so she couldn’t get at it or the Wapsie Valley corn I grow. I managed to get a good crop of both.

Aside the gm nightmare, an orchard friend of mine says here in Vermont that his apples have been blooming within 10 days in May over the last 20 years. I was surprised to hear that. I’d have thought bloom time was earlier.

My critters (that’s sheep, cows, horses and chickens) even get grumpy if we feed white corn instead of yellow and don’t clean it up nearly as well. Yellow corn has more antioxidants in the form of carotenoids — “dumb” animals my foot…

Early this week I witnessed deer, pass on the much talked about “hybrid gmo Apple feed corn” and eat the op non gmo Wapsie valley ear corn I raise for my cows/pigs/chickens.

I was really late getting O-P corn in this year. Iowa was just plain wet through mid June and I didn’t get to it until late June when I was able to plan both my sweet corn and O-P Corn. I paid for it in yield (corn crib is only 1/2 filled this year). Like Gene, I just finished the picking and found the Deer were very busy as they are every year in my corn. I actually leave them a 1/4 acre standing each year. This is merely a four year observation, but my O-P is planted right next to Hy-brid corn 2 of these four years. In this time, the deer have always eaten the O-P and left the hy-brid untouched. And of course they always eat my large ears. Good thing the girls (my buff orpingtons) don’t mind the nubbins.

I agree with many that the garden season is getting longer. I can generally close up the garden in late October. When I was a kid late September to early October was when we had to close it up for the year. It’s seems warmer later into the year and not as wet as when I was a kid. Here it is November and a forecast of 50 degree temps for the weekend. I’ll take it as I have many trees to protect from the deer this winter.

Keep pondering the mysteries Gene, I love to read your post and continue to reference your many books throughout the year.

Thanks so much for your efforts to educate and cause us to think longer and harder about the world we live in.

When I lived in New Mexico, there was much said about staying on roads and not off-roading onto public lands. They also said one drive over some of that sandy, scratchy land would leave tracks that would take 100 years to repair. Having walked, lived, and watched that soil for only a few years I believe it. I hesitate to call it “barren” because I witnessed an incredible amount of “life” come forth from what was hard (for me) to call “soil”. But that soil and life was so fragile, even a foot path could be followed that was probably laid down years before I discovered it …. wandering into the pinons and junipers. What did appear everywhere once a road or driveway was carved out were wild sunflowers that waved their high, yellow heads to us all during the late summers. Glad to be back in Ohio!

“Maybe all our weed problems are punishment for disturbing the soil too much.”

Punishment, yes, but for something involving eating a piece of fruit in a garden somewhere in the Fertile Crescent a long while ago. (But the soil disturbance certainly doesn’t help.)

I find permaculture and no-till/deep-mulch gardening very interesting, and in many ways beneficial, and while I concede that in some ways it follows “nature’s” design (or plan or pattern or what have you) I feel like working the soil is perhaps an essential human endeavor and that we miss out on something when we opt out. We probably, generally speaking, do disturb the soil too much, but the remedy isn’t to entirely refuse. There’s something about freshly worked soil that seems to reinforce my humanity, and having the garden ready to plant is one of my favorite times of the year.

As I age I seem to see more than I use to and ponder the mysteries of nature. I had broccoli last year with what looked like galls. Not a single expert (PhD) could give me an answer. This year there was no such growth present.
I thought I had yellows in cabbage this year and it turned out a sulfur deficiency. I know this due to a soils test and the response I got on the same ground with sulfur added to a late cabbage crop. Come to find out the scientists have found much less sulfur in Midwest soils due to the reduction of acid rain over the last 30 years. I was taught in agronomy years ago there was no such thing as sulfur deficiency in the Midwest.
So, Gene, I too have seen mysteries in my garden and am glad I still can.

Reading this makes me thing about my econ teacher in high school and how he always talked about trade-off’s. He would say that having the deer eat your corn is a trad-off of growing a O-P veriety over a hybrid veriety. I wonder if you were to plant corn of a organic hybrid veriety if the deer would do any different.

Just cause you’re from Ohio and I’m from Indiana doesn’t mean that we need to confuse ourselves in thinking about climate change. Yes, yes weather happens. But, Gene, in the time your children have grown and had kids of their own the length of your Ohio growing season has increased by about a month on average. These are the kind of effects of climate change that we are dealing with now. The march of kudzu, tree-of-heaven and japanese stiltgrass among others from the north is another. Yes, yes I’ve planted figs and gone from a solid zone 5 to a 6 in the gardening charts.

Climate change is not a redundancy. It is a gift from your generation to ours (no offense, and I forgive you). Boomers are curious like Pandora of the ancient sun’s treasures locked deep in the earth.

As for the deer, I’m not sure how closely you’re watching the fields of GMO corn and thinking of depredation permits, but if they anything like they are here in parts of Indiana, it could just be that the population all around has grown, one of those correlation does not equal causation. I don’t know.

We’ve reached the point now where ALL weather is influenced by the global warming, and all those wildly erratic temperature shifts that keep flip-flopping back and forth are directly connected to the extra heat energy in the global system. Mostly it has to do with the loss of the steep energy gradient between the poles and the equator. The poles warm the quickest and the most, so that gradient becomes shallow and the heat diffusion slows the energy accumulation in the jet stream. So instead of acting as a laminar flow circulating around the pole, keeping that really dense cold air trapped up there and keeping the warm, moist air out, the jet stream really starts to meander, just like a river does after it leaves the steep energy gradient of the mountains and hits the plains. Those meanders give us the blocking highs and lows that paralyze the entire planetary weather system, so Colorado gets 9 months of rain in 4 days and so on.

The same is true here in Maine. It’s the first week of November and I’ve still got frikkin robins on the lawn cruising for worms. They should have been long gone and outta here by the last week in September. It was 18 degrees when I got up Monday morning, yet today or tomorrow it will be in the 60s. Understand that those kinds of insanely irregular and unseasonal temperature swings will become more and more common, with even wider variations in seasonal differences. We might as well get used to it, as it’s only gonna get worse.

Love your rumination on these mysteries. Sure are a lot of em… 🙂

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