Wind can be very hard on a garden. Relentless wind combined with the intense heat of summer can dry out the soil of our gardens and burn the plants to dust. This combination of wind and heat is one of the greatest challenges to gardeners in Rockport.
On our farm, we protect our gardens with sunflower hedgerows. This hedgerow is easy to grow and the plants are native, readily available, and free. A sunflower hedgerow is a valuable companion to your garden.
The sunflowers rise in the spring and summer, when gardens most need their protection, to form a dense wind-screen up to twenty feet tall. The wall is covered with tremendous yellow flowers. At the end of the season, when the hedgerow is no longer beautiful, it goes away for the winter, and comes back all on its own, thick, lush, and beautiful, the next spring.
The Value of a Hedgerow
- A sunflower hedgerow cuts down the wind erosion that can badly dry out a Rockport garden, especially in the heat of summer.
- Hedgerows are a wonderful sanctuary for beneficial predators. Birds, wasps, frogs, toads, lizards, bees, lacewings, ladybugs, dragonflies, and many other friends of the garden love the flowers and protection of a sunflower hedgerow. In Rockport, a sunflower hedgerow tends to flower when not much else is in flower, and that keeps beneficial predators close to the garden in the high heat of summer when pests are at their worst.
- A hedgerow is a bio-diverse habitat edge created by the gardener. The hedgerow provides many of the benefits of natural edge effects and focuses them into the garden.
- A hedgerow can significantly reduce the amount of irrigation needed in the garden. Because the hedgerow protects the garden from wind erosion, the rate of evaporation in garden soil is slowed considerably. As a consequence, the important top four inches of living soil stays moist and productive, more efficiently feeding and watering plants.
- While hedgerows prevent the soil from drying out too quickly, they also protect the soil during periods of flood. In a long-term drought, the soil becomes very thin and weak. When a big rain finally comes, it tends to wash away what little good topsoil remains. However, the deep roots of the hedgerow absorb a lot of water and help prevent the soil in the garden from washing away with the water.
- If the sunflowers are thick enough, the hedgerow can become a living fence. I have found that deer do not try to break through our sunflower hedgerows, but go around them, which makes it much easier to keep them out of the garden.
- A sunflower hedgerow is very easy to establish and maintain. After first planting our hedgerows by simply throwing wild seeds on the ground, I have never needed to replant or even to water them. The flowers come back on their own, thicker and healthier every year. Now, I simply mow the edges to shape the row.
- Hedgerows are beautiful. In our harsh and barren landscape, ravaged by drought, we can always count on our sunflower hedgerows to frame our gardens with their green and golden beauty.
Hedgerows in Europe
The hedgerows of Europe are famous for their beauty and their role in the development of agriculture. The hedgerow networks were originally established to prevent soil erosion from the pressing Atlantic wind. The hedgerows proved to be excellent fencing for livestock and facilitated rotational grazing on garden space. They sheltered hard-working farmers during inclement weather.
Ultimately, the hedgerows became property boundaries and part of the living history of Europe. In France, during WWII, the hedgerow fighting was notoriously difficult. The Germans set up their machine guns in the protection of the dense hedgerows, with clear fields of fire across the gardens, and Allied soldiers could not cut through the hedgerows, or burn them down, and even tanks could not break through them. In modern times, hedgerows are a major political issue: 500-year-old hedgerows are being torn down to build strip malls and parking lots for fast food chains.
A Native American Hedgerow
As I built our farm, I knew we needed to find a way to protect our soil from the relentless Gulf wind that wreaks havoc on our gardens. I had seen how well hedgerows work in European gardens, and wanted to duplicate the effect with a native plant that would be easy to maintain. Sunflowers are the perfect option.
Native American Indians planted sunflowers as a hedgerow for their Three Sisters gardens. The sunflower is a cousin to the Three Sisters companion planting system.
I can’t help but stand amazed at the genius of Native American farmers as I harvest the fruit of my summer gardens of corn, tomatoes, beans, squash, and melons. The driving wind whips the tops of the sunflowers along the hedgerow, and down in the garden there is only a gentle breeze to rustle the corn stalks. Heritage farming methods work.
Where to Plant a Sunflower Hedgerow
First, determine the direction of prevailing winds between March and October. In Rockport, standing in your garden, this is pretty easy to do. Plant the sunflowers in full sun directly in the path of the wind, as wide as the garden, and about ten to twenty feet away from the garden. The sunflowers will grow very tall. You should plant the hedgerow close enough to be an effective wind break, but leave enough space to get in and work your garden.
How to Plant a Sunflower Hedge Row
You can plant a sunflower hedgerow by seed in the Fall or Spring.
In the Fall: Wild sunflowers go to seed in Rockport around October. Simply cut the heads from a few established wild sunflowers when the yellow petals fall off, and throw the seed heads on the ground where you want your sunflower hedgerow next spring. It is best if the seeds make contact with the soil. You do not need to bury the seeds, or even to water them, just push them into the ground with your heel. Throw down as many seeds as you like, but it doesn’t take that many seed heads to start your hedgerow.
In the spring, try to find native sunflower seeds, as they will grow much better and faster. If you use a store-bought seed, find a variety designed for flowers, not “edible sunflower seeds”. Make sure the seeds have good seed-to-soil contact. Water this area every few days early in the season to help the sunflowers get established. Design your sunflower screen to be at least three feet wide for the length of your garden for optimal wind protection.
The following October, knock down all the flowers onto the hedgerow space. If you used store-bought seeds to start your hedgerow, try to find native sunflower seeds to re-seed the space. If you don’t want to see the large dead sunflower stems (or trunks), cut all the heads off the flowers and throw them in the space before removing the stems. Place the stems in your compost pile. Each year, the sunflowers will come back thicker and healthier as natural selection continually improves your hedgerow.