Using Sunflowers to Christen a New Perennial Bed

April 22nd, 2018

I’m pretty excited, the last bit of construction on my house is finally done and we’ve moved into landscaping and cleanup mode and that means gardening.

I have ambitious plans and I know it will take me years to fully develop the garden beds I have in mind but I cannot wait to get started.

But, then there is the soil. I’ve got pretty hard red clay type stuff, fill dirt, it’s been compressed by construction activity for years, I can hardly even dig into it. It’s the kind of soil you need to take a mattock to. So we top dress it with a layer of cached topsoil, and then I had some really nice black dirt I had brought in, but still, some inches down, there it is, the crap soil. And this is typical in most new construction. A few inches of top soil over fill dirt. Some of these beds I’ve managed to do more than a few inches but it will still not be ideal.

So yesterday, after the guys were done spreading the soil where I wanted it, and in advance of the rain we will get today and tomorrow, I planted around 100 sunflowers, mammoth ones.

I don’t have a picture, and its just dirt anyway, so here, have a picture of one I grew years ago.

See, as I discussed previously in this other blog post on root depth, one of the best ways to improve your soil is to plant things with long and deep root systems. These roots will penetrate into the soil, even the subsoil, providing a channel for water infiltration and creating organic matter down there over time. Deeply rooted plants are also less susceptible to drought.

What if you’re not aiming for permanent plantings yet though? You don’t want to create a mess of deeply rooted shrubs or perennials that you’ll have to dig up. The best thing is something that will grow, and produce a large root system, and then die. So, my idea, is to use sunflowers.

Sunflowers are heavy feeders, which means they will take a lot of nutrients from the soil, so there is a tradeoff here, but I do not care about that as much. I can always fertilize and add nutrients back into the soil. I’m looking for something to improve soil structure and performance. I also wouldn’t do this in a vegetable bed where it will be dug or tilled on an annual basis. This is for a perennial bed where I will not be digging in unless I’m removing a plant or adding one.

Have you ever tried to uproot a sunflower? It is nearly impossible because of their long tap roots that can reach 5 feet down. I don’t know if they’re as strong as a daikon radish, which is another good plant for this objective, which exudes hundreds of pounds of force with it’s taproot and so I assume is able to penetrate my hard clay, but I’ll find out.

I don’t fully know if this will be successful, mostly because of critters. Everything loves to eat sunflowers and I am surrounded by forest out here, where I’m planting them is not fenced. If the critters do not get at them though I will be able to enjoy their blooms from my pool deck, I will get a copious amount of seeds to feed to the chickens I plan on getting, and I will have used the power of nature to break up my subsoil allowing future plantings to do better.

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