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Balancing polyculture with efficiency?

 
Kate Downham
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In some ways I don’t really like to use the word “efficiency” in the title of this thread, as it brings to mind vast fields of “efficient” monoculture. On the other extreme is gardens I’ve planted in the past where there are so many different plants growing that to harvest a decent amount of a particular plant for a meal, I’d have to dart back and forth between the different plants scatted all over the garden, and I’d sometimes forget where things were and what needed harvesting.

After reading more about root exudates in Paul and Shawn's book, I began to wonder again about polycultures, and if there are ways to grow them that would still be reasonably easy to harvest on a large family or small CSA scale?

One thing I am doing is mixing up the crop rotation ideas I gleaned from The Market Gardener, but instead of having a full bed of carrots, a full bed of lettuces, and so on, I will fill up a 2 1/2 feet wide raised bed with a row of carrots, a row of turnips, a row of radishes, a row of lettuces, a row of beetroots, and so on. This makes it easy for me to harvest bunches of things for market or big meals, while still offering some of the benefits of polyculture.

In my round chicken-tractor beds, I am mixing things up more, following some of Linda Woodrow's ideas mixed with my own cold/temperate climate experience, but I still find myself putting direct-seeded plants together in rows or clumps, and planting quite a lot of one thing at once.

Does anyone have ideas about ways to grow lots of food for a large family or small community while growing things in polyculture?

Are there any guild combinations of annuals and/or perennials that have worked really well for you?

Which perennial greens and other perennial plants are good for feeding lots of people?
 
Steve Thorn
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I've started planting polyculture groups generally with a "main" crop for the group. I plant the most seed of that plant so I will have a lot of that crop in the area, so it's easier to find and harvest it like you mentioned, and there is a lot of that plant in the area. Then I lightly seed with a mix of other crops and let some weeds come up too.

If the variety of plant that is going to be the main crop is not a super fast or vigorous grower, I've had success planting the main crop first and then planting the other polyculture plants a little later after the main crop has started growing a little bit, to give it a head start and a chance to compete well with the other plants.

It's been fun also having free for all beds too, where a whole lot of different plants are sown together and the strongest survive. It's like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're gonna get.
 
Mike Haasl
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The best I've been able to do is subdivide my 2.5' by 25' beds in half (12' long) and expand my crop rotation schedule to use twice as many half sized beds.  I like the idea of growing a 25' row that has carrots, beets, lettuce in it though.  Maybe I could do that for some beds and leave the others as monocrop 12' beds (broccoli, garlic, squash, tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, cucumbers, etc).
 
Sena Kassim
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Last year we attempted to step up our garden game We planted a bed that was 4ft wide and 60ft in length. Alternating rows of carrots and onions. The carrots did well, but the onions didn't. Which was a bummer. In hindsight. 4ft is too wide of a bed for a terraced hillside. It is just difficult with the angles.

I think of a our garden beds as having a top middle and bottom. Like planting tomatoes on a trellis, carrots for the bottom and a mix of herbs for the middle. These are all planted in a staggered rows in the same bed. Maximize space while making it easy to harvest. At least that's the plan.

I too plant and then say...hey what is that??

We do have a free for all garden/flower bed out front. that's fun watching it bloom through the seasons.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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hau Kate, The way we plant is "open grouping", born from the three sisters style. We generally have each plant species in groups of 4 to 6 plants with enough space between for bug deterrent plants.
Our beds are right at 3 feet wide and this style of planting allows us to have a polyculture which is easier to harvest. We alternate species from one side of the bed to the other as well, when everything is growing it looks like a proper willy-nilly garden bed but as you start to seek the fruits, it becomes apparent that we did have a method to the madness.

Extra seeds tend to get scattered in some of our pasture areas and those spaces are true polyculture Nature's way, seeds are simply tossed out there and they land where they land, all of them grow at first then some get shaded out or eaten by the donkey when she finds them.

Redhawk
 
Andrea Locke
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Kate, I have been giving thought to that same question of how to plant an efficient polyculture as we transition here from simply feeding ourselves to having enough crop to sell. In the long run the main crop will be from nut trees but we will be planting other perennial understory trees and bushes in the rows; and at least until the canopy is closed, vegetables in the alleys between tree rows. What i have been thinking about is the strategy for the alleys. I think a scaled up version of my approach to planting on a personal garden scale should work. To avoid that problem you mentioned of forgetting things that need to be harvested I usually try to cluster species that are harvested for similar purposes (e.g. Salad) together. In the case of salad crops thatusually means broadcasting all the varieties together in a bed that might contain kale, lettuces, purslane, carrots, radishes, etc. I would plant several small beds rather than one big one. In between the salad beds, plant other beds themed by function or plant compatibility or time of harvest.  The point is to have a somewhat consistent planting scheme to reduce the risk of forgetting where things are in the garden. This idea of patches of similarly composed polycultures within a larger scale polyculture mimics the way habitat patchiness works in nature. What i am thinking of doing is to have an alley like this on one side of a row of trees (which itself will be set up as a polyculture) and on the otherside an alley that will be used for grazing and so it is always possible to access one side of the trees with a truck.
 
Chris Kott
pollinator
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Jean-Martin Fortier addresses this in at least two of his videos. Here's one:



I don't agree with all of his compromises, but he's the one figuring it out as a business. I am sure that when better alternatives than plastic are available to achieve the necessary results, he will use them.

From a market garden perspective, polyculture can get dicey, and it's the best place to troubleshoot.

I think it can be done, though we have to look at polyculture in a way different than we would see it in a pastoral or food forest setting, for instance. Specific crops tend to come up in their own windows, and take up more space leading up to harvest. They also don't always come ripe or ready for harvest at the same time. These things needn't be negatives. I like to look to Square-Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew for suggestions on spacing, timing, and combinations, as well as several diverse sources on companion planting. Also, the kind of stratified planning that you see in food forests can be of benefit. But either access needs to be available for each individual group at each trophic level, or they need to come ripe at the same time, as is the case with traditional Three Sisters plantings, which, unless I am wrong, was intended to grow untended until harvest, when the winter squash would be done and all the corn and beans dried in the field.

The planning gets complicated unless you're talking about checkerboard blocks, arranged so that harvest windows overlap for different rows of blocks, or some such patterning that makes sense for adapted row culture. But I think that if we're talking about raised beds with permanent paths between them, planted in, say, a mowable meadow polyculture mixed to build soil and foster pollinator and soil life, and if there's a healthy mycobiome on the property, I don't think every plant needs to be in immediate proximity to benefit from polyculture, even on the root-zone, myco- and microbiome level.

I think that it's good to keep in mind that some of the effects of polyculture don't depend on being cheek-by-jowl with the plants they support, and that those effects are probably the ones to best reserve for marginal areas. For instance, scent distraction, sacrificial and trap plants, and pollinator food and habitat don't need to be in your market garden, but it may benefit from their presence in the corners and along the perimeter, and in hedgerows.

The question of efficiency is again one of these things that needs qualification before it can mean anything, except in abstract terms. Unless the system is accounting for environmental and social costs, we're not likely to come up with a very people-friendly, or permacultural, definition.

-CK
 
Michael Cox
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One of the foundational ideas of permaculture is "people care". It is totally legitimate to discard practices if they make things harder for people. For example, polycultures sound good on paper, but are less efficient. But what "efficient" means in this context is that some actual flesh and bones human has to spend more time planting, more time weeding, more time cultivating, more time harvesting. And many of those tasks are physically demanding by their very nature.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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I really don't know why I didn't add this in my original post, probably the brain was still waking up.

Nature is where the idea of polycultures was first derived. Nature doesn't plant willy-nilly, she plants where each item should do its best, so we see clumping of species, which might end up taking over a space that is particularly good for that species.
Humans have some how gotten the idea that if you disperse each species among a wide variety of species, this will be better for the plants and thus for humans. But this isn't how nature approaches polyculture so we can then question if polyculture is really permaculture oriented.
In the pure sense of working with nature, polycultures as described in many books, do not actually fit the  model of permaculture. That doesn't mean the use of polyculture planting isn't good. (it can work quite well in specific areas of the country and not so well in others)

Redhawk
 
Chris Kott
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Michael Cox wrote:One of the foundational ideas of permaculture is "people care". It is totally legitimate to discard practices if they make things harder for people. For example, polycultures sound good on paper, but are less efficient. But what "efficient" means in this context is that some actual flesh and bones human has to spend more time planting, more time weeding, more time cultivating, more time harvesting. And many of those tasks are physically demanding by their very nature.



"People care" could easily be interpreted to mean food systems that rely on people in the way you describe because that hardship, or excercise, if you will, is infinitely better than living on unemployment insurance and sitting comfortably in front of the telly scarfin' crisps.

In a world increasingly automated, that might be the best way to employ people.

-CK
 
Inge Leonora-den Ouden
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In my opinion there are different types of polycultures.
A polyculture can be a bed full of different types of greens you can eat in a salad (a 'salad bar'). Even the tomatoes and cucumbers to add in the salad can grow at the side of the bed.
A different polyculture can be a garden bed with small clusters of the same vegetable, or several different rows. Like: a row of onions, a row of carrots, a row of ... etc. All in the same garden bed. More 'permaculture' is such a garden bed, but then with clusters or rows of perennials, some herb-like, some shrubs and even a small tree.
 
James Landreth
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Kate Downham wrote:In some ways I don’t really like to use the word “efficiency” in the title of this thread, as it brings to mind vast fields of “efficient” monoculture. On the other extreme is gardens I’ve planted in the past where there are so many different plants growing that to harvest a decent amount of a particular plant for a meal, I’d have to dart back and forth between the different plants scatted all over the garden, and I’d sometimes forget where things were and what needed harvesting.

After reading more about root exudates in Paul and Shawn's book, I began to wonder again about polycultures, and if there are ways to grow them that would still be reasonably easy to harvest on a large family or small CSA scale?

One thing I am doing is mixing up the crop rotation ideas I gleaned from The Market Gardener, but instead of having a full bed of carrots, a full bed of lettuces, and so on, I will fill up a 2 1/2 feet wide raised bed with a row of carrots, a row of turnips, a row of radishes, a row of lettuces, a row of beetroots, and so on. This makes it easy for me to harvest bunches of things for market or big meals, while still offering some of the benefits of polyculture.

In my round chicken-tractor beds, I am mixing things up more, following some of Linda Woodrow's ideas mixed with my own cold/temperate climate experience, but I still find myself putting direct-seeded plants together in rows or clumps, and planting quite a lot of one thing at once.

Does anyone have ideas about ways to grow lots of food for a large family or small community while growing things in polyculture?

Are there any guild combinations of annuals and/or perennials that have worked really well for you?

Which perennial greens and other perennial plants are good for feeding lots of people?




I love this topic. I too have thought about it in the past. In addition to what you mentioned, sometimes things will ripen at different times on my farm if planted in even slightly different locations. It makes it frustrating to get enough for preservation
 
Victor Skaggs
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I presume many already know about the book, "How to Grow More Vegetables in Less Space than You Ever Thought Possible" by John Jeavons. There is an extensive discussion of polyculture therein.

I found that my "jungle" style of gardening created the problems others have mentioned: confusion, difficulty in finding things being harvested, etc. There is a happy medium, where a few compatible types are grown together, not randomly assorted but in rows or clumps.

Allowed to self-seed, many plants will create their own jumble of polyculture on their own "initiative".

I like to reserve a plot not urgently needed on which to throw all the old seeds, and see what comes up. I did this in a field once and had a LOT of summer squash, the only ones to germinate. No paths, just a jungle of squash... all different types.
 
Julie Reed
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I think some people envision polyculture as broadcasting a mix of seeds that are known companion plants, or deliberately avoiding rows or groups of one type of plant. That’s about as efficient as saddling up a cow to do barrel racing. It’s impossible to mimic nature, because nature works with natural selection based on a complex formula of soil types, pests, beneficial insects and microclimates that one could never hope to measure in any specific area. And sometimes nature features what appears to be a monoculture- such as prairies. We know there’s more than just one species even then, but certainly not a jumble either.
For polyculture to be efficient there has to be rows, or groups of broadcasting, both for effective planting and harvesting, as well as ongoing management. But a 100x100 area (approx 1/4 acre), or any other size, can have dozens of rows or wide beds of different crops, yet maintain enough order that it’s efficient. Crops can be succession planted within a season, and rotated annually. 10% could lie fallow each year as part of the rotation. To complicate this in an effort to reach some perceived standard of polyculture is inherently INefficient.
 
Linda Listing
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I live on a hillside like Sena. I terraced it. After reading through The Market Gardener, I could not figure out a way to make crop rotation work on the hillside. Row planters aren’t suited for the beds which curve with the hillside. The beds change width depending on the hill’s natural curvature. I also have different microclimates in each bed. And no, 4 ft beds don’t work because of geometry. This year I’m planting in sections a mix of plants suited for each microclimate. Whether I can develop the hillside for market remains to be seen. My current thought is if annuals don’t work out, there are also sections where different berries thrive. My current goal is still soil improvement, followed by experimentation. I am finding this discussion fascinating. Looking forward to reading more responses.
 
Sena Kassim
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One thing we are attempting to do within each bed. Is to plant a fruit, herb/flower and then something for the soil. Either a legume or grain we can cut and leave as mulch.
We cannot rotate crops much either, because of all the microclimates on the hillside.

To help visualize it, our hillside faces east, rows/terraces curving with the slope run pretty much north to south. At the bottom of the hill is a HUGE row of oaks. So they provide morning shade. Not ideal, but the hillside was a jumble of mostly invasives and close to the house. Allowing us to use rain water for irrigation.

That;s our idea of polyculture, growing different plants with uniformity with each bed. Like rows of corn with peas growing up stalks and some sort of living ground cover mulch. It will be interesting to see how the years progress.
Love this conversation. Really got me thinking about things...
 
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