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Tips for converting from garden beds of single crops to polyculture - short season  RSS feed

 
steward
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We have a fairly large garden with dedicated beds separated by wood chip paths.  Each of the 28 beds is about 2.5' wide and 25' long.  Previously we just planted one crop in a particular bed.  Two years ago we started sprinkling marigolds into random spots.  Last year I subdivided the beds into "half beds" 12 feet long.  That way I could keep my crop rotation plan and spread the crops around a bit more.

I'd like to aim for even more polyculture in my garden but I don't want to mess it up.  Some of my concerns are:

  • I have a short growing season.  Waiting for a hole to appear and then plant something probably won't give the new crop time to mature before frost hits.
  • I don't think I want to strew seeds everywhere and let the strong survive.  Even if cantaloupes are weaker than potatoes, I still want some cantaloupes.
  • I have to start a number of things inside or I won't get much of a yield (tomatoes, peppers, onions, sweet potatoes) or they won't grow well from seed (lettuce, kale, cabbage, basil).  Saving the right amount of space for them when the early crops are already underway worries me.  What if there aren't enough holes or too many?
  • Watering/harvesting/monitoring a particular crop when it's spread hither and yon could be a challenge.  "Didn't we plant some beets?  Where'd they go..."

  • I am planning on sticking with the dedicated crop beds for some stuff that needs trellises, takes over the neighborhood or are harvested more efficiently together (peas, pole beans, dry beans, taters, garlic, zucchini, squash).

    One idea I have is to plant the early season seeds on the West half of each row (the rows go N/S) and then the later season stuff on the East half.  

    I just don't want to get to September and find out I have either no carrots or 200 lbs of carrots and the opposite amount of peppers.  I know how many "beds-worth" of each crop I want, how do I turn that into a polyculture?
     
    Mike Jay
    steward
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    Here are some pictures with the last two year's gardens.
    DSC04592s.jpg
    [Thumbnail for DSC04592s.jpg]
    2018 Garden with half beds
    DSC02667s.jpg
    [Thumbnail for DSC02667s.jpg]
    2016 Garden with full beds
     
    gardener
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    Location: Vilonia, Arkansas - Zone 7B/8A stoney, sandy loam soil pH 6.5
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    In the three sisters type planting you plant the corn and let it come up and get growing, then  you plant the beans then you plant the squash, this allows each of the crop plants to get established so it can support the next crop plant.
    The corn grows tall and the beans climb up the corn, the squash shades the ground so more moisture remains in the soil.

    There are many different plants that you can use this method for planting, thus growing more variety at the same time in the same space, the trick is to look at the way a plant grows so you can optimize the growing space productivity.

    Redhawk
     
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    I like polyculture and plant my trees that way, using guilds.  One thing I don't do, is mix up a bunch of plants together in my annual garden beds just for the sake of it.  I've tried the three sisters plantings that Redhawk talks about but I didn't see better results.  Mixing annual plants adds unneeded complexity in my mind.  If you were planting an acre of corn, an acre of potatoes and an acre of tomatoes, maybe it would make a difference if they were mixed together (although I'm not convinced of that).  I am convinced that separating your annuals into beds of like plants make many things easier.  Your garden looks great.  i wouldn't mess with it.
     
    Mike Jay
    steward
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    Thanks Bryant and Trace!  Bryant, the struggle I have with that planting approach is that if I don't start the corn, beans and squash at the same time, I won't get any squash.  They all go in the ground around the first week of June here.  They need to be wrapping things up by early September or they die.  For instance, if I plant corn on June 1 and then beans June 21 then squash July 7, the squash probably won't mature much fruit in 9 weeks.

    I realize that's just one plant combination and I could apply it to other ones on my list.  Unfortunately I don't want to have to figure out every advantageous relationship among all my annuals to plant them deliberately.  I was hoping that polyculture (for annuals) would allow me to not think so hard and let nature do the work.

    Maybe I'm just not seeing it yet?

    Thanks Trace!  I am happy with how it looks and works now.  I figured if going from big beds to littler half beds looked/worked better, I should keep going further towards polyculture...
     
    steward
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    I think that there are varying degrees of polyculture. The “toss the seeds all mixed together” method might work for some people and situations, but not for most.

    Since polycultures are about diversity, I believe we can get the same benefits by planting our usual beds, but incorporating more herbs and flowers. Companion planting works great to increase diversity, attract beneficial insects, and hide veggies from voracious pests.

    I would plant your beds the way you usually plant them, and then incorporate other plants into the beds according to what grows well with, and helps, the main crop: Sweet Allysum with lettuces, dill with Brassicas, green onions with carrots, etc. You can find a gazillion companion planting guides online.

    I believe the most important factor is getting a diversity of things growing in the garden, and this will help with pest management and healthy soil building.

    Happy gardening!

    Tracy

    PS You have a lovely and productive looking garden!

    T
     
    Mike Jay
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    Thanks Tracy, that makes a lot of sense.  I have been sprinkling in marigolds since I don't struggle to get them started.  I'll have to broaden my plant choices.  I guess that's a good way to get some annual flowers/herbs in the mix.

    I have been transitioning the north end of each row to perennial garden crops like sorrel, asparagus, strawberry spinach, etc.
     
    Bryant RedHawk
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    I understand the problem of short season gardening Mike (I used to live in up state NY and my garden time was pretty short). You do have options, you can plant all the seeds at the same time and that usually does work out ok. You can pre-start the slower growing corn and transplant it then plant the other seeds at the same time (my beans usually are fast to start so that they are up and running before the squash is large enough to shade the bottom of the bean plants).  I also have an area that gets all kinds of seeds spread out at the same time (this is an experimental space for seeing just how well toss and forget planting can work), I keep records on what grows well and what doesn't, what takes over and what can't compete at all.

    I love marigolds in garden beds as well as garlic borders (keeps the moles and voles out for some reason).

    Redhawk
     
    Mike Jay
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    Thanks Bryant, if I was to plant all the seeds at the same time, how do I make sure I get the right amount of each crop planted?  And how do I make sure they aren't overly crowded or spread out too far?  I usually base our needs for a particular crop upon how many beds I normally plant.  If I mix them all together, how do I keep the ratio correct to get the right amount of stuff?

    I'm just imagining myself standing at the end of one of many rows with a handful of lettuce, cantaloupe and carrot seeds along with another handful of 20 onion starts and a broccoli start.  How do I distribute them in a random/polyculture way without going onesy twosy and making a pattern.  

    I don't want to have to think about which side of the broccoli to put the lettuce seeds or to not waste kale by broadcasting it when I really only need a kale plant per square foot.  I plant about 25 different plants with a few extra varieties mixed in.
     
    pollinator
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    I like what redhawk said but I would probably reverse it. Plant corn in ground and start squash as transplants.

    One thing I am realizing is what i eat at what quantities. Granted its just my wife and I, but a 4x8 area of leafy stuff (lettuce, spinach, kale ) will keep us with all we need. Potatos, carrots, and tomatos are the bulk of our garden, or at least they need to be. 2 squash plants is adequate. I've got herbs that grow to 6ft diam cause i never use them. So i have to ask why keep them? Deer proof space is precious.

    Perrenials are key also. Blackberries,  asparagus, goji berries, horseradish, blueberries so far.
     
    Bryant RedHawk
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    Mike, the traditional way my  people plant gardens is very "mandala" like, that means round, the corn goes in the center and spirals out, the beans go next to the corn plants the squashes go in the open spaces. When the whole thing is growing there is no exposed to the sun soil.
    I figure each corn plant is going to give me one meal for two (two ears per stalk) then I plant for how many meals we eat corn plus around 10 extra stalks.
    This year I have to recalculate the corn since wolf wants to try canning corn along with everything else, so more corn plants will be needed (happily I have undeveloped land for this, but now I have to get one new area ready to go.)

    I love the way you have your garden laid out in a pretty traditional layout, to make less work I would take however many rows you plan for corn and plant beans with the corn. I would take one row for squashes, (we grow patty pan, zukes, yellow straight neck all together) we grow our winter squashes like acorn, butter nut, spaghetti together in another area.  Diversity does not always mean grown together in the same space, it can also mean groups of plants near each other (as in close spaced beds within the overall garden area). What I would do in your case would be to find which two or three different types can grow together, then give part of a bed to a trial of that grouping, you might find some don't work in your location and by limiting the trial space you ensure you will grow enough foods to meet your needs as well as trial some new ideas for maximizing productivity of your garden space.

    To make sure we plant the right amounts we were given fingers and toes to count with, today we know we can use our mind, pencil and paper, computer, or other method to keep track of what we need to plant. Garden math is pretty simple, just determine what foods you eat and how much of each you eat then plant according to your needs. We like to can whole tomatoes, tomato sauce and tomato paste, so we plant one species to eat fresh and three that go into the other end products, I grow something like 100 feet of tomato plants two deep.

    We plant one 4 foot by 20 foot bed of beets too. All the other stuff gets plopped in where it will grow the best for us. Oh, this year I will be planting 3 50 foot rows of beans and corn to go along with the previous 4 foot by 16 foot bean space that also was for peppers and broccoli.
     
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