Companion planting is an age-old secret of home gardeners, but today it’s become far more than just planting marigolds next to the tomatoes. Like those savvy gardeners, farmers are learning that putting the right plants in or near specific crops can have significant benefits. By increasing the diversity in their fields they’re cutting production costs, improving crop health and even increasing crop yields.

At the Yust Farm near Sylvia, Kansas, Derek Zongker is using a cover crop blend of cow pea, radish, rape, milo, barley, and buckwheat planted with his double-crop sunflowers. “Everything in the blend is there for a reason, but a primary goal was for the buckwheat to attract beneficial insects that will be predators of pests — like the sunflower head moth — when it arrives,” says Zongker.

“Buckwheat is well-suited to this task because it flowers early and blooms for a long period of time, so populations are high when the sunflowers bloom and come under attack from various pests,” he adds.

The tasks for other species in the blend are to provide nitrogen for the sunflowers, cycle other nutrients to prevent their loss, reduce weed pressure and provide fall hunting cover and winter grazing. Next year’s plan calls for adding flax as a companion to enhance the blend’s flower power.

A cover crop blend planted between rows of sunflowers provides several benefits for Derek Zongker.

A cover crop blend planted between rows of sunflowers provides several benefits for Derek Zongker.

Zongker uses an airseeder to plant the combination in a single pass. “It has two seed compartments so we put the cover crop blend in one and the sunflowers in the other. This results in alternating 7 1/2-inch rows of sunflowers and the cover crop. The sunflowers are tall enough that we can harvest them separately.”

“Our goal is to produce 800 pounds of sunflowers and we’ve reached it with minimal inputs — no fertilizer, herbicides or insecticide. Seed cost is $30 per acre with the sunflowers.”

Seeded together. The troublesome sugar cane aphid is the pest Pretty Prairie, Kansas, farmer Chad Basinger hopes to ward off with the cover crop blend he uses in his double-crop milo. “We think it helped quite a bit this season. There were a lot of lady bugs, bees, and other insects in the field that kept aphid numbers down. We had to spray other fields that didn’t have a companion planting,” he says.

Basinger planted buckwheat, crimson and white clover, radish, turnip, rape, flax, cow peas, and mung beans in his cover crop blend. Milo seed — at a rate of four pounds per acre — was mixed right with that combination.

“Plant height was a factor when we selected the companion crops and we chose milo that was known for its head extension. We didn’t want anything to interfere with harvest. Our input costs were minimal and the seed cost us about $19 per acre.“

Broader view. South Dakota entomologist and Blue Dasher Farms founder Jon Lundgren says companion planting eliminates the cost and environmental impact of insecticide use. “Interseeding the crop and companions together is the best approach so they work together. However, some growers are planting companions in field strips and borders, ” he says.

“Diversity is the key to these systems,” adds Lundgren. “Choose species that flower at different times, grow to different heights, and bloom in different colors as this adds diversity in the insects attracted.”

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