Oat Roots

Dateline: 7 September 2016

That familiar saying, "out of sight, out of mind," applies to plant roots in the garden. But I'm persuaded that roots are something that a gardener should think about more often. After recently posting Oats After Onions I've been contemplating oat roots in particular. 

The picture above comes from the 1926 book, Root Development of Field Crops, which is an agronomic classic (click the link to read the book online). Here's an excerpt from the book about oat roots...

"Oats have a system of profusely branched fibrous roots which are very similar to those of spring wheat. This is true not only at maturity but in all stages of their growth. The roots develop rapidly, those of the primary system reaching a depth of 6 to 8 inches by the time the second leaf begins to appear. A lateral spread of 6 to 11 inches, a working depth of 2.5 feet, and a maximum depth of 4 to 5 feet are usual. Great masses of profusely rebranched roots fill the surface 2 feet or more of soil. Root habit varies greatly with soil conditions. The whole root system is sometimes confined by lack of water to the surface 18 to 24 inches of soil, but in deep, mellow, fairly dry soil, some roots penetrate to depths of over 6 feet."

In Will Bonsall's Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening Will Bonsall says the following about oats:

"Many years ago we discovered that oats were a perfect catch-crop (a short-season filler crop) for us: something we could easily sow in a single row where a crop had been removed, or in a whole bed or block of beds. For quick lush growth during cool weather, oats are hard to beat. When we planted an oat crop in late summer, it would grow rampant, often reaching knee-high before freezing out. You see, as perennials, winter wheat and rye recognize the coming of winter and stoically hang it up until spring. But oats—an annual—knows it can only stand so much cold before it succumbs, and so it makes a desperate attempt to reach maturity..."

Interesting. And furthermore:

"For me the fact that oats eventually winter-kills is a big plus. It does what I need: makes lots of soil-building biomass right up to the coldest weather and then conveniently dies, covering the soil with its residues. Come spring it's barely there, having significantly decayed during the winter. Few people appreciate how much life happens under that blanket of snow, more fungal than bacterial. Pity the land that lies bare to winter's breath!"
My very first oat cover crop is coming along nicely. It will be interesting to see how tall it gets before the freeze. Here's a picture of my oats today...


  1. I like it! We just planted oats in a section of our garden 3 days ago for a cover crop. I would like to start playing around with cocktail covercrops...have you considered building a garden size roller/crimper to deal with cover crops that don't winter kill? I know it wouldn't work on some garden crops, but it might be a way to reduce tillage.
    -Matt the Farmer

    1. Hi Matt,

      It's nice to know another oat grower.

      For now, my approach to killing cover crops that don't winter kill will be to cut them down at ground level with a cheap, battery-operated grass trimmer that has a sickle-bar attachment. Like a hedge trimmer. I bought one of these for less than $40 (new) and tried it for the first time on my buckwheat cover crop. It worked surprisingly well. It certainly wouldn't be the tool for cutting cover crops if I were a market gardener, but for my garden, it will do the job. I could even cut the standing cover crop down in sections, starting at the top. I don't intend to till in any of the cover crops I'm growing.

  2. We are trying to reduce tillage, so I may cut non-winter kill cover crops as well. I have some crimson clover on the shelf I intend to try and maybe let that section lay fallow for next year.

  3. Just got some spring oats planted last evening. I plan on doing more. I may buy some mixes but at this point I think I'll stick with winter kill plants. With others it seems that roll and crimp is the preferred method and I don't feel confident in getting that right at this point. May need to invent something to do it with. Herrick, thanks for suggesting a hedge trimmer. We have one that I could use. Thus begins a new journey.

  4. Herrick,

    After trying for some time to come up with a roller crimper solution for a garden and not wanting to spend nearly $1000 for the unit from Earthtools I stumbled on a youtube video of a guy using a tractor mounted tiller to crimp by allowing it to freewheel so to speak. Many of use have tiller and this may be a viable option. I believe my BCS will freewheel the tiller. I'll have to try it out. Here's the video -

  5. Hi Herrick, What would be the latest you could plant oats in your location and have them grow at least 6-8 ". Seeing as I am a little further south and in the middle of the gulf stream, I'm hoping it is not to late for me this year! Always a day late and a dollar short!!

    1. Everett,

      I think you have plenty of time yet. I intend to plant some more beds to oats this week or next.

    2. Thanks Boss, I did two raised beds and most of my potato patch today. Thanks ! Now just to keep at it! Cheers!

  6. Today, at 0530 I went outside and was walking past my raised beds and thought I was seeing things! The oats I had planted and watered only two days ago was up about 1 i/2 inches! So I guess I am not going to have any germination problems! Thanks again for the advice.