Friday, February 24, 2012


"A field of corn sounds like a dial tone.

 A field that has never been touched sounds like white noise.

I think God wants me to create symphonies in seed and soil - and that is permaculture.
Paul Wheaton "ode to polyculture"

Polyculture is in essence the opposite of what "Big Ag" (large scale commercial agriculture) does. With conventional farming you plant acres and acres of one crop, you may rotate your crops but typically there is only one crop in the field at a time. This creates an environment where pests run rampant and weeds abound. With only one type of plant in a large swath the pest has it really easy, 1000 acres of goodness for him and all his friends and family. So the obvious thing is to drench the fields in poison to rid the pests. The weeds are also a "problem," they cause issues including for the large harvesting equipment and so what to do....drench with herbicide. All of those toxins are taken up in the plants.

Polyculture is from Permaculture and is a methodology of having many plants inter-planted together leaving no bare soil. They then support one another in many ways. They shade all of the soil, reducing "weeds", they share nutrients at the root level, they confuse pest insects with the broad variety of plants.

Onions, Carrots, Turnips, Beets, Spinach, and Zinnias.
So what is the number of plants needed to be considered a polyculture? Well poly refers to more than one but the more the better I feel. It is worth making the effort to get as much in as possible. There is one school of thought out there where you just mix up a bunch of seeds and give them a toss, kick some dirt on them and see what grows. This is a novel idea but when your planting area is limited you need to be a little more judicious with placement.  The more the merrier.

In Permaculture these bunches of plants are called "Guilds".  But don't expect recipes for guilds to work perfectly for you, they are very site specific depending on your climate zone, your micro climate in the area planting, soil type etc.  Use any guild recipe as a guide and work from there.

A good example of a simple polyculture is the three sisters garden that some Native American Tribes used.  It consists of planing corn, climbing beans and squash in mounds.  The corn needs lots of nitrogen, the beans provide it, the beans need support the corn provides it and the squash covers the ground keeping the weeds at bay, the soil cool and moist and utilizes all of the unused space.  

We don't have to look far in nature to see polyculture in action.  Forests, meadows, savannas all have a diverse variety of plants growing amongst each other.  Some are there to support others and other find available niche's to fill.  These ecosystems find balance, when one thing becomes overly abundant typically a pest comes in and reduces the population.

How to implement poly culture in your garden.  My feeling is get in there and do it, if you look at the picture Below is one of our small beds.  This is our kids garden area, we planted it using Polyculture.  We planted probably 18-20 different types of seeds.
We ended up with only 15 of those things come up and produced: broccoli, cauliflower, rutabaga, turnip, beets, Kohlrabi, dill, parsley, carrots, onions, garlic, cilantro, a cucumber, peas, and marigolds.  They are all mixed up, some here and some there etc.  So we learned a bit about why the others did not come up; we needed to space our plantings a bit in time and not plant all at once.  We also learned that nearly everything we planted worked well together and some spacial limitations with some of the plants.  We will have even more variety and make better use of the space as we move forward.

  • Start inter planting in the open spaces in your garden
  • Think about what you could plant in the area your vining crops will cover later in the season, plants that will grow above the vine layer (like the 3 sister garden).
  • Utilize vertical growing spaces like fences, trellises or sides of the house.
  • Plant a lot of things together, you can typically plant closer than the package says.
  • Avoid rows after row of one thing, if you want rows try to alternate what each row is.
  • Look for plants that complement each other; for support, shade or nutrients.
  • Add non-edibles to the bunch, flowers and ornamentals.
  • Plant bee forage, and beneficial insect attracting plants.
  • plant with succession, or plant your crop to spread out over a month, spreading out the harvest.
  • Don't get bogged down over analyzing, learning by doing is always the best.   
Get out there and mix things up a bit.  Work to maximize every possible inch of your soil.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

LIKE!! Companion planting and bordering our gardens with pest-evading marigolds, dill and nasturtiums helps use our garden space more wisely. We agree that seed packages call for way too much spacing between seeds.