I’ve been toying for a while with the idea of designing perennial polycultures. I have my secret garden, and other areas that are a bit piecemeal, but I would like to come up with schemes where the plants work together, rather than being an odd bit amongst other plant types. I guess I have this idealised view of what the native Americans achieved with camas meadows and silverweed/springbank clover gardens and I’m aiming at trying to do something similar here. I am based in the north of the UK, but am very close to the sea so despite my northerly lattitude I have a very mild, wet maritime cool temperate climate. My winter minimum temperature is usually above -5 deg Celsius (23 Fahrenheit), summer maximums about 17 deg Celsius (62 Fahrenheit) and about 1770mm (70 inches) of rain throughout the year - a little drier in the spring.
The area I’m going to use I cleared for my natural Farming project, but never dug, just mulched with cardboard and organic matter: seaweed, woodchip and hay. The soil is therefore still very compacted, silty and acidic, so I’m going to mainly use transplants to start with which might have a chance of getting their roots down.
There are two sort of circular areas cleared, which I bounded with currant cuttings, and I’m planning to have one area with mostly root harvest plants, and the other which are mostly harvested for their upper parts – shoots, leaves or flowers.
I made lists of plants I was interested in for food value or soil building, and divided by growth habit and harvest part (root, flower leaves) as well as what sort of growing conditions they might prefer, whether they grow well for me (if I’ve grown them before). I’ll attach the spreadsheet here as a .csv file to make it easy if you are interested and have similar growing conditions to me. I’m thinking of planting some of the slower growing root crops in with the leafy crops on the basis that when the main plants need digging and dividing, the roots may have come to harvest point too.
I’ve making a start planting some of the roots into the upper circle: Camassia, jerusalem artichoke (sunroot), Sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata) silverweed, fennel, zigzag clover, marsh woundwort and skirret. There is already lots of pignut that seems to have survived the mulching last year :) and I never bothered dig the mashua, so hopefully that will come back fairly strongly.
My plan is to try and plant them up as much as I can, mulch them a bit and then pretty much leave them to it and see how it all grows! I think the woundwort may find it a little dry – it’s happy growing in the pond in my polytunnel, but we’ll see.
Zigzag clover I’m hoping may be a substitute for springbank clover. It is a not very common native clover, which I have in a few big patches, and seems to spread by underground roots rather more than I had realised before I dug a bit up to look at. I did try chewing a bit and they appear to be rather tough. This might be because of the growing conditions, or because they were older roots, so I’m going to give them some space and see what happens. In the worst case, if they survive, they will be nitrogen fixers for the system.
A bit of an update on my polyculture progress a month on:
We've had some warmer weather and getting some grwoth at last. I broadcast sowed some seeds into the "leafy bits" polyculture area. I got a bit overexcited and sowed my salsify seeds, which I was intending to put as part of my roots rotation in my simple farming system, but I don't suppose it matters. As well as the salsify, I sowed scorzonera, leef beet, sea beet, buckwheat, Angelica, Sweet Cicely, and alpine strawberry seeds amongst others. The perifery of the circle is growing rye grass and chiccory which I sowed last year. There is also a bit of clover coming back there and a few skirret plants which were planted last year, but didn't do much growing. Most of the area is mulched with cardboard, bracken and hay from last year, but there is a fair amount of regrowth of the "onion grass", docks, sorrel and creeping buttercups.
The jerusalem artichokes/sunroots are starting to sprout in the roots polyculture area. I think they are getting a bit slug eaten, which is pretty normal here. The skirret transplants have taken well. At first the leaves were quite purple, but they have picked up and are growing green now. The Camassia are looting a bit tatty; really they were transplanted a bit late, but I think they will take OK. Some sprouts from the mashua show they have made it through the winter OK. The silverweed spread well last year and has some lovely silver new leaves.
I'm quite happy with the amount of useful seedlings I've got growing in this area. Not all roots mind you, but lots of the ragged kale that seeds around in my polytunnel, a fair amount of Angelica and fodder radish. I can see the Spear leaved Orache I imported from the beach inadvertently and spread the seeds of last year. Again there seems to be quite a bit of onion grass that survived the mulch, and lots of pignuts too. No sign of the zigzag clover as yet, although it is growing in the area of the field I took it from. I'm wondering whether to try again to transplant it...