Polyculture

While reading through one of my favorite permaculture books, “Gaia’s Garden:  A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture,” I came across a section entitled “Gardening Goes Polycultural.”  The author Toby Hemenway defines polycultues as “dynamic, self-organizing plant communities composed of several to many species” (2000).  He goes on to describe how this method is a compilation of interplanting and companion planting.

  • Interplanting combines crops that minimize competition for sun and nutrients.  Companion planting blends varities that enhance each other.  Natural plant communities, tuned by billions of years of evolution, do both.  Why not emulate these plant communities in our gardens? (Hemenway 2000)

Because plant communities are not static, but rather dynamic, their composition is constantly changing and adapting to new or too few nutrients in the soil.  Since most of our garden is characterized by one raised bed holding one or a few crops, I thought it would be interesting to try a polyculture experiment in one of our two cabbage beds.  I followed these directions:

  • One month before last frost date plant cabbage, cauliflower or broccoli.
  • After the last front date in your region create an edible ground cover by densely sowing a mix of mustarts greens and other cool-season greens such as arugula, garden purslane and shiso.
  • Then add some salad crops.  Lightly sow the seeds of radishes, chard, lettuces and carrots among the previously sown seeds.
  • Herb seeds go in next.  Sow fennel, dill and coriander, somewhat more densely than the salad crops, since they do not seem to germinate as well.
  • Now add legume seeds to the mix.  Push fava beans, bush peas, or a blend of these into the soil roughly 1 foot apart.
  • Add some of your favorite alliums, such as onions, garlic, garlic chives or leeks.  Plant either seeds or starts of these about 6 to 12 inches apart.

For our experiment, we planted:

  • Mustard greens (a variety mix)
  • Salad bowl mix of lettuces
  • Fennel
  • Bush beans, and
  • Leeks

After three weeks, we will harvest the ground cover by pulling the entire plant out and replacing these gaps with additional cabbages, cauliflower or broccoli seedlings.  Later in the summer we will plant basil and more bush beans in the openings.

I will add more pictures of this food forest as it grows and florishes!

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