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

NGPRL's Cover Crop Chart

Sunflower cover crop

Cover crop chartFor a couple of years now, Managing Cover Crops Profitably has been my cover crop bible.  But although the publication has great depth, it only covers 19 species, and I'm starting to get a handle on which of those will work on our farm and which won't.  Being who I am, I'm not content to rest on my laurels and stick to buckwheat in the summer and oilseed radishes and oats in the winter --- I want to keep trying new things!

Enter the Northern Great Plains Research Laboratory's Cover Crop Chart.  This publication replaces depth with breadth, presenting the highlights of 46 cover crop species both pictorially and in the form of a bulleted list.  That's the source I headed toward when I started hearing about sunflowers used as a cover crop.

Pollinator on sunflowerAs I already know well, sunflowers are great for attracting pollinators (and for feeding chickens), but how do the plants operate as a cover crop?  The Cover Crop Chart mentions that sunflowers pull up nutrients from deep in the soil, perhaps because they're good at teaming up with arbuscular mycorrhizae.  Sunflowers' C:N ratio is listed as 11 to 14 for the leaves, 41 to 46 for the stems, 50 to 68 for the roots, and 14 to 19 for the flowers.  What that data says to me is that sunflowers are good to plant in troubled soil that's going to be taking the whole summer off, or in the chickens' winter yard, scratched bare from last year and needing some high carbon materials (and playthings) to keep your flock happy this winter.

I'd be curious to hear what unusual cover crops our readers have been trying in their gardens.  Be sure to mention your garden conditions and how well the plants grew in your comment so someone else can learn from your experience!

Our chicken waterer keeps the flock healthy with minimal care-taking time, summer and winter.

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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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My local Walmart or Tractor Supply (can't remember which one!) has a 20lb sack of seed mix for planting a deer feed plot. Seems like it was mostly clover and some tillage radish (which is all the rage in the deer hunting world this year). I may grab a sack or two and plant as a cover crop in my garden, which the deer graze in late fall. I am hoping this might kill two bird with one stone.
Comment by Phil Thu Jul 26 19:01:15 2012
Phil --- I'll be curious to hear how it does for its dual purpose if you give it a try!
Comment by anna Fri Jul 27 07:33:04 2012
I guess I'll be planting some of these!
Comment by Irma Fri Jul 27 23:57:14 2012
I went back by TSC, looks like it is a mixture of rye (60%) , clover (10%), unknown brassica (10%), and an unknown variety of Daikon radish (10%). I assume the Daikon would have the same effect as tillage or oilseed although the disadvantage could be they might not grow as big?
Comment by Phil Sun Jul 29 15:08:11 2012

Phil --- Sounds like you might need to till the cover crops in in the spring, but an interesting mix for cold weather otherwise.

A quick search on the differences between Daikon and oilseed radishes is a bit confusing, so I'm not quite sure who's right. I suspect folks use those common names interchangeably sometimes, and sometimes use them to refer to different subspecies of the same species.

I hope you take photos of your cover crop/deer plot!

Comment by anna Sun Jul 29 16:48:10 2012
Thanks for the tip!
Comment by Phil Sun Jul 29 18:08:21 2012
What would I do at the end if the summer??? I can understand cutting the tops and collecting the seeds but the stalks are pretty tough. Do I chop and till into soil or what?
Comment by Richard Largaespada Thu Mar 12 02:13:34 2015
Richard --- I tend to just let the stalks stand. They don't keep the soil surface covered, but do provide winter nesting habitat for wild bees that pollinate my crops, so they're handy to have around. Any that don't fall down by planting time the next year are knocked down to let lie along the side of the bed as mulch. If your soil is in good shape microorganism-wise, those seemingly tough stalks will disappear in short order!
Comment by anna Thu Mar 12 10:01:42 2015
Thank you Anna. I've grown sunflowers on a small scale around my garden, but never on a large scale.
Comment by Richard Largaespada Thu Mar 12 18:24:28 2015

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