The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Experimental summer cover crops

Sunn hemp

I've been trying lots of cover crops this year, and even though the results aren't in, I thought I'd write a midterm sum up.  The image above is from the forest garden, where I planted sunn hemp (the tall things in the foreground), sunflowers, and sweet potatoes as cover crops in the last few weeks.

The sunn hemp is growing great in good soil, but is struggling (as most things do) in poor soil with high groundwater.  The sweet potatoes seem to be doing well everywhere, and have the major bonus that I can plant a single set and then expect it to grow exponentially despite the troublesome trio of chicks who have been roaming the garden lately.  The sunflower seeds, I'm sad to say, all went down those chicks' gullets.  (More on the drama of the chicks coming up over on our chicken blog.)

Perennial cucumber

Even though I put it in as a vegetable, I'm now considering this perennial cucumber (sent to us by a kind reader) to be a cover crop.  Despite its name, the plant has yet to fruit for us, probably because it doesn't like living in the land of all rain and no sun.  I won't repeat this experiment since it's not worth keeping a cutting over the winter just for biomass production, but the cucumber does seem to be covering bare soil well (and also growing up into my trees).

Flower bed

Although not a cover crop, I thought I'd show you my comfrey bed, turned flower garden.  Last winter, I ripped out every single plant and root I could find to transplant to a chicken pasture, but of course the comfrey came back with a vengeance from the root fragments left behind.  I ripped the new plants back to the ground once this spring and planted annual flowers in the gaps, then ripped the comfrey back again to give those flowers a chance to bloom.  Looks like I'm due for another ripping job.  The nearby plum trees are enjoying their monthly doses of comfrey mulch.


In the main vegetable garden, I'm playing it safe and just filling gaps with my trusty standby --- buckwheat.  The bees (wild and cultivated) adore the flowers, and it's always a joy to pull up buckwheat just before planting time.  I end up with free mulch to cover perhaps a quarter of the bed, along with nearly weed-free ground for my seedlings to enjoy.  While the other cover crops mentioned in this post are experimental play, the buckwheat is tried and true.

Our chicken waterer keeps even our troublesome trio hydrated as they make their rounds, scratching up the garden.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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As usual, really enjoying all you are up to with your reading, writing, experiments and gardening projects. How you find the time, I am not sure.

I just recently purchased another of your ebooks, "Homegrown Humus" and have found it to be extremely interesting and useful. I have started sourcing some of the seeds for your big three cover crops. Oats are not a problem. Buckwheat is available, but the $16 price you quote is miles away from what I have found here in NC. The local feed store is asking $45 and Southern States wants $75. To verify, I have looked online and found prices at >$50 plus shipping. Where are you getting $16 Buckwheat.

As for the radishes, I am not finding them at all. Dakon are available but not Tillage. Any suggestions on sourcing?


Tim Martin MartinFarm

Comment by Tim Martin Wed Jul 24 10:36:19 2013

Tim Martin --- Good questions. I suspect being able to get cheap buckwheat locally is dependent on what the nearby farmers use as cover crops. If enough buy buckwheat that the feed store can get it in bulk, the prices go way down. We get ours at various local feed stores, all of which seem to keep that low price for both oats and buckwheat, but they aren't chains, so I can't point you into a direction that's local for you. (Also, I bought our yearly 50 pound bag several months ago, so it's possible there's now some shortage that's driving up prices that I don't know about.)

I've been getting my oilseed radishes from Johnny's ( It's nowhere near as cheap as the cover crop seeds I can get locally, though, partly because shipping is very costly, and also (I suspect) because oilseed radishes are still a bit more trendy. I haven't decided yet if they're worth the extra cost compared to oats, but we have half of a 25 pound bag left from last year, so we'll planting them again this year at least. :-)

Comment by anna Wed Jul 24 10:51:18 2013
Gr8 article. I'm interested in learning more about cover crops as I've been battling with weeds in my orchard.
Comment by Lola Sun Sep 9 05:36:32 2018

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