Musings on Polyculture — Part 1

Yesterday I stumbled on the concept of mixed vegetable gardens courtesy of Anni’s Perennial Veggies. First let me provide a little background. In the natural ecology of the forest we can see a structure.

Woodland Structure: Offwell Woodland & Wildlife Trust

Ecologists name seven layers: the vines, grasses, ground level plants, the herbaceous layer, scrub, small, low trees (sub- canopy) and large trees. (canopy) This system which encompasses a variety of plants is a polyculture as opposed to a monoculture where only one species is dominant.

The forest garden tries to emulate this concept by establishing a variety of food producing plants which replicate this pattern of the diversity and layering of plants in the forest.  The mixed vegetable garden replicates this pattern of plant diversity and  levels using traditional annual vegetable

Anni's Polyculture courtesy Anni's Perennial Veggies


The Permaculture Association UK  has developed instructions on this method of planting which they say was originally developed in Nepal and have adapted to UK conditions.  Toby Hemenway’s book, Gaia’s Garden lists a few polycultures.  This Mixed Vegetable Garden pamphlet  identifies  plants by  plant families and layer and encourages you to develop your own polycultures.

UK Permaculture is currently running tests to assess the benefit of this approach in the UK.  Planting 12 crops: onions, kale, beans, peas, corn, spinach, beets, radishes, lettuce coriander, rocket (mustard greens) and marigolds, they suggest you:

  • sow your onions in the ground and start your beans and kale indoors in march (UK planting times)
  • plant your peas outdoors and start your corn indoors in April
  • plant out all of your transplants and sow all the other seeds in May.

You sow basically once and then pick everything as it comes in. I’ve been thinking about my fall garden and so I kept searching for the fall planting times for the cool weather crops using this mixed gardening method. There is no fall planting! You plant  the lettuce and greens in March and harvest through the summer until October without a second planting (!!!) Like in a forest, the shade from the canopy and understory protects the ground cover.

That’s almost unbelievable to me here in Georgia . I’m guessing that the UK is part of the temperate deciduous forest biome just like we are here in the southeastern US.  I’m in hardiness zone 7, most of the he UK is in hardiness zone 8 (another surprise .  I would have guessed it was much cooler.  A little research shows that the metro-Atlanta region has more rain than the UK and is a little cooler.  Central GA  does have much more sunshine, almost double the annual hours of sunshine in the UK.]

In summary, with the mixed vegetable garden:

  • the work to sow the garden is less than with a traditional garden
  • the polyculture is more resistant to pests and diseases
  • the polyculture has fewer weeds
  • the yield is greater than that of the traditional garden

This is something I really want to try next year.

Also see Musings on Polycultures pt 2.


Tear Out Your Front Yard!

I just checked out a copy of Ivette Soler’s book Edible Front Yard from the library Friday.  The book is not specific to permaculture though the idea of tearing up your front yard and turning it into a garden definitely is consistent with permaculture principles.

edible front yard

Photo courtesy: the edible office

(I read somewhere today that permaculture is not so much at set of technologies as it is a way of thinking about how these technologies go together. If I read this in your blog, comment to me and I’ll revise this sentence to credit you appropriately.)

I got a chance to skim through the book at lunch. Here’s a few of the big ideas I picked up:

  • Beauty. In a suburban context, your neighbors may not be too happy if you tear out your front yard and it lessens the property values of all of the surrounding houses.  Try to keep your front yard garden neat and design it to be beautiful.
  • Edible Annuals and Perennials. This book really does provide great suggestions of  very attractive edible annuals and perennials for the front yard; what they are, how to grow them and how to use them. She looks at both plants we are used to eating and invites us to “expand our edible palette” by planting some non-traditional edible plants. The pictures are great.
  • Edibles for shade.  I really liked this list (though short) because my yard has lots of shade.  She also talked about tree removal and pruning. This is an issue that not too many people talk about in the permaculture community. For me it also is a dilemma for a suburban garden. Do you cut the trees in your yard to provide more sunlight for your garden?  What do you do with the wood? Mulch it?  That really seems like a waste of a valuable resource.I’d really be interested if others have other ideas for reusing tree trimmings in an urban/suburban context, other than as fuel or lumber.
  • Edibles for winter.  Here in the southern US we should be able to stretch our growing season  well into the winter months.
  • Removing and reusing lawn plants.  This was a concern I had as I consider converting my yard to a permaculture garden.  How do you reuse the plants?
  • How-To’s. Starting about a quarter of the way through the book Ivette provides some great how-to’s.  I was most excited by this section of the book.  Here’s some of her suggested projects:
  • A lettuce lawn. I might try this in my back yard where I have a lot of shade.
  • A tri-fold trellis screen.  This is a multi-function screen that provides privacy while staking tomatoes, peas or beans.
  • A corrugated metal raised bed.  I love this.  I have seen so many of these corrugated metal beds in permaculture videos but had absolutely no idea where people were getting them.  Ivette tells you how to make them. Her suggestion is to place them in the strip between the street and the sidewalk.
  •  A simple compost cage.  Again I love this. I have been

    old and newly started compost piles, july. left pile is enclosed with chicken wire, right pile is not contained at all.

    making compost in a chicken wire cage that I just prop up any old way.  Ivette’s design is easy.  I went a picked up some horse manure from the local horse farm earlier this week to amp up my second compost pile of this growing season. I may try to upgrade my compost cage this weekend.

All and all the book is a great addition to the permaculture library.

P.S.  The compost cage upgrade didn’t happen over the weekend.

Pairing for Urban Garden Sharing

garden sharing

Photo of Cornucopia Community Garden Calgary Canada courtesy of ItzaFineDay

Urban Garden Share pairs together eager gardeners with eager gardens. When neighbors come together and cooperatively grow food, dirt flies and good things happen.

This seems to be a new website, which is pretty sparsely populated right now.  If lots of people use the site, it will be very helpful if in time.

I’ve linked to the Atlanta listing; this is the area I’m most interested to build up.

Be sure to look at the Seattle listing to see  what is possible.  Urban Garden share lists both gardeners looking for soil and soil looking for gardeners.   Perhaps we can add permaculture as an area of interest in the comment section of the sign up.