If you grow corn, sorghum, millet, or sunflowers, you will end up with a bunch of dead, leafy stalks standing in your garden. That collection is called stover.
The word stover evolved out of the legal term ‘estovers’ from English history. An estover was the ration of wood and other resources that peasants were allotted from the King’s forests each year. It was a woodsy version of gleaning the fields. Gleaning refers to the practice of allowing peasants and strangers to collect whatever was leftover from a field after the harvest was completed.
Just as straw is left behind after a crop of oats, alfalfa, or wheat is harvested, stover was traditionally left in the field for cattle or other grazers. Some modern mushroom farmers use stover as compost for mushrooms. Dairy farmers often use stover to create silage. Silage is plant material that is cut and crushed and then stored in a relatively airtight silo without being dried ahead of time. This fodder ferments, making more easily digestible. But, I’ll bet that you do not have a silo in your backyard, or cattle to feed. So, what can you do with your stover at the end of the growing season?
The first and easiest use of stover is to add it to the compost pile. Stover often consists of half of your crop. That’s a lot of plant material. Held within that material are nutrients that other plants can use, but only if the stover has broken down. You can compost stover by cutting the heavy stalks into one-inch pieces and keeping it near the bottom of your compost pile. For shorter crops, such as millet and sorghum, I simply cut the plants off at ground level and toss it all to my hens, who make short work of the greens. [The sorghum comes back each year for a continuous supply of greens and seeds for my hens and I always manage to miss some of the millet seeds, so they pop back up each spring, as well.]
In commercial agriculture, stubble cultivation refers to the act of plowing all that stover back into the earth. This returned the nutrients back into the soil and improves soil structure (assuming the heavy farming equipment doesn’t compact the soil too much). In my mind, stubble cultivation is a twist on the Three Sisters Method of planting. Rather than cutting down tall stalks of corn or sunflower, these sturdy poles can be put to work. Simply plant cool weather climbing plants, such as peas, at the base of each stalk. The petioles (tiny stems that attach leaves to bigger stems) make perfect handholds for tiny tendrils. The peas grow up and up and up and you don’t need to install or maintain a trellis! After your pea crop is harvested, you can cut the stalks off at ground level, chop them into bits, and add them to the compost pile. Or, you can use them again, as bean poles!
Whether you leave the stover in place or cut it off at ground level, these sturdy poles can be used to grow pole beans in the following spring. If you leave the stalks in the ground, simply repeat the pea planting process, but with pole bean seeds. If you prefer cutting the stalks of stover, you can create a pole bean teepee by lashing the tops of several stalks together and spreading them out at the base over several bean plants.
Other uses for stover
There are other creative ways to repurpose those tall, study stalks before they need to be composted. Here are some of my favorites:
How do you put your corn and sunflower stover to use? Let us know in the Comments!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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