What is Polyculture?!

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What if I told you could reduce weeding, create a little ecosystem with your vegetables and deter pests? That’s what polyculture aims to do. Polyculture is a form of permaculture that shifts from our current monoculture way of growing our food. Visualize a full bed full of vegetables all over the place, masses of colour and different textures instead of traditional rows.

What is Polyculture?

Polyculture tries to imitate nature by growing a range of different crop varieties within one growing space to create a little ecosystem. That’s right, a little garden jungle. It can help to reduce weeding by filling in the gaps where weeds would thrive with fast growing crops that you can harvest within a few weeks. I would consider polyculture gardening a more intricate version of successional sowing. It also involves companion planting and attracting beneficial insects which help to deter pests (think alliums and herbs). Some vegetables have a deep root system while others have a swallow one, by mixing different vegetables within a bed you can maximize the growing area. Food forests are a larger scale version of permaculture polyculture. I’ve slowly been switching from growing things in rows to growing  polyculture beds and I’ve had good success so far. The exception was the 3 sisters guild (growing squash, corn and beans together) but you can read my review here as I think that has a lot to do with our climate.

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I first read about Polyculture gardening in the book ‘Gaia’s Garden: a Guide to Home Scale Permaculture’. This book has many examples of in-depth polyculture ‘guilds’, listing exactly how many plants per person and the week span needed for the successional sowing. Incidentally it’s also a great permaculture book for those looking to learn and apply some of the permaculture principles at home. I’ve found most permaculture books  are geared towards larger scale growing, which is why I like Gaia’s Garden and The Vegetable Gardeners Guide to Permaculture as it applies to the smaller sized home backyard.

Polyculture Examples

Polyculture example #1

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  1. Scatter lettuce, spinach, toy bok choi, and radish seeds.
  2. Plant some onion bulbs and transplant broccoli.
  3. Harvest baby greens & radishes within 3 weeks and thin them out to make space for larger head lettuce. Toy Bok Choi will bolt fast and is usually harvested in 30 days. I let a few go to flower to help the bees out as there are few flowers at this time.
  4. Harvest lettuce around broccoli transplants first to allow growing space. As you pull up more heads of lettuce transplant some fall cabbages in the empty spots.
  5. Sow green onions, swiss chard and carrots once the lettuce has bolted (gone to seed from the heat) for a fall crop.

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Below are similar beds but with traditional uniform rows rather than scattered seeds (basically companion planting). Brassicas (broccoli & cabbage) are grown close to garlic to prevent aphids (it worked!) lettuce is grown in-between and pulled up before the brassicas need the space. Once the garlic is a couple of weeks away from harvest sow carrots for a fall crop. As you can see, the main difference between polyculture and companion planting is the layout.

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Online Garden Planning Tool

Polyculture example #2

This past year we grew a very large polyculture bed, the largest we’ve ever had, in a 16’x 2′ raised bed.

  1. In the spring time direct seed mustard greens (giant red, komatsuna, mizuna), mache, arugula, lots of carrots and green onions.
  2. By early to mid- June direct seed brussel sprouts (or broccoli if you prefer), leeks, scallions, swiss chard and beets once all the spring greens have bolted.
  3. In July harvest all the carrots  (we had about 30lbs) which has now left space for the leeks, brussel sprouts and beets to grow. Where the carrots left large gaps direct seed fall broccoli and swiss chard,  and scatter radish and lettuce seeds.

We had a bean teepee on the one end and had nasturtiums growing around the base of the brassicas to help deter pests (along with the leeks and scallions masking the smell). I also left some of the overwintered carrots to go to seed as they attract ladybugs which then eat the aphids. Below are some pictures throughout the season.

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Is Polyculture for Everyone?

No, it definitely isn’t. I personally enjoy the slightly chaotic and lack of uniform feel to polyculture beds and I have fun filling in crops where there is empty space. I would definitely not recommend it to beginners and people who don’t know weeds from food (I actually keep many ‘weeds’ growing in the garden as an extra food source). It also requires base experience with successional sowing (knowing when is the proper time to seed the next crop is important in polyculture).

Better Yield? Yes or No?

I think that greatly depends on what you’re growing and how good your soil is. I think polyculture works fantastic for spring greens, as you can harvest the micro greens, then baby leaf lettuce/greens, then harvest all the head lettuce and plant your next set of crops for a fall harvest. In this case it will offer a slightly higher yield than rows, however won’t be much different than block planting except your growing more than one crop variety. Because there are no ‘official’ documented experiments to compare them to monoculture growing methods, some people disagree with the greater yield potential of polyculture beds. It’s not the potentially higher yield that draws me to polyculture, it’s that every one of the poly beds I’ve grown has had almost no pests and hardly any weeds. I think in general, growing in zig zags or block planting works better than rows for increasing yield of certain crops.

Companion Planting Versus Polyculture.

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Are they that different from one another? No, I don’t think there’s a huge difference between companion planting and polyculture, other than the ‘rows versus scattered seeds’ look of the bed. I’ve noticed that the slightly greater proximity of the plants does help to mask more smells to deter pests.

One benefit of polyculture gardening that I’ve found is better pest deterrence.  Not having rows allows more areas for bugs and snakes to hide. Yes, snakes, I’m talking about the good garter snakes which greatly reduce the cricket population which can wreak havoc in the garden.

* a note about scattered seeds* don’t clump them, and don’t mix heavy and light seeds together. I scatter them but I don’t just ‘throw’ the seeds, I still try and distribute them somewhat evenly. If you end up with big empty areas that’s not a problem! Just direct seed something new. Too clumped? Eat the micro greens!

Fast Growing Vegetables:

Radishes, mesclun greens, lettuce, spinach, toy bok choi, mustard greens (giant red, mizuna, mibuna, osaka purple, komatsuna), orach (mountain spinach), arugula, baby swiss chard and baby turnips like hakurei.

Best Plants for Pest Deterrence:

Strong smelling herbs (oregano, basil, cilantro, parsley, sage etc) and alliums (leeks, onions, garlic, shallots). Attracting ladybugs via frilly leaves of celery, dill, parsley and carrots. Marigolds, nasturtiums, borage, and many other herbs and flowers work great.

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So will polyculture work for you? It depends on how you like to grow food. Many people prefer the look of growing in rows and the ease of weeding in-between the rows because you can see what’s what. I’m busy and lazy with weeding so I prefer to lift lettuce or carrots than weeds, and I like the chaotic look of polyculture beds. In the end, you won’t know until you experiment! I’ve found that many children’s gardens are accidental polyculture beds because they scatter the seeds rather than making rows (at least younger children).

Have you grown polyculture beds before? Did you like them or not? What would you do differently?

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Comments

  1. What a wonderful post. and great pics of your own examples. I admit that I read Gaia’s Garden and felt a little overwhelmed. However, polyculture interests me greatly. Thanks for a great post to get me thinking about the possibilities.

  2. Great job covering this. Keep up the good work!

  3. I’ve never heard of this before…definitely coming back to this more later as we get our garden in!!!

  4. Great post.
    We tried our hand at polyculture this year, although i’ve discovered we don’t seem to eat the fast growers all that much so much got wasted. I tried more companion planting which seemed to work ok. My brassicas got hit hard by white butterfly caterpillars so I need to try onions in the bed with them next year (I had masses of nasturtiums next to the bed but no luck)

    I need to do more reading!

    • Isis- Little Mountain Haven says:

      In my experience smell deterrence works better than having the flowers around. If space is tight in the bed grow green onions or scallions as they take up far less room than storage onions but have the same smell effect. If the white butterfly is very persistent year to year I would look into lightweight row covers to place over your brassicas. Best of luck with this year’s gardening!

  5. Polyculture fascinates me… It seems a little overwhelming, but really random-looking garden beds appeal to me in a very natural, Mother Earth sort of way!
    I thought this post was very helpful. :)
    Thanks!
    ~ Christine

  6. Since I cannot stand the sight of empty space I have always more or less done this. I have a hard time with scattering. It always ends up being too !much or too little. I prefer to organize my poly beds in squares, square foot style, or in rows. For instance, a double row of carrots or leeks on the side of the Brussels sprouts marching down the middle of the bed. My beds are 3 foot wide and 21 foot long. When using squares I make them a foot and a half each way, so I like my beds to be a multiple of 3.

  7. Thanks for this post! This kind of reminds me back in the day when my parents were growing vegetables in the backyard just like this, although there were other vegetables ( a little exotic as we are asians) but nevertheless planted just like this. They are good memories of just watching my Mum and Grandma weave their magic through their own vegetable gardens. Thankyou:)

  8. This was interesting as I have not read anything about it befor. Im not sure I could cope with the chaos but I think I’ll try a small section. Thanks for the information!

  9. very good very good article about this polyculture

  10. Thank you! This is wonderful! I’m a big fan of companion planting and forest gardens, but tend to revert to more traditional rows because of the lack of information like this. Hopefully I can make my beds just as luscious as yours with these pointers.

  11. Kim Kelley says:

    I’ve used this technique for years, weaving flowers, herbs, vegetables together throughout the yard and garden areas. I seem to have higher yields than traditional rows, and I much prefer the look. When I grow mustard and leave it, the insects will feast on the mustard leaves, leaving the plants nearby untouched. When I’m lucky enough to have pigweed spring up close to tomatoes (Yes, I said lucky), I leave them. I don’t know why but when they grow together my tomatoes are heartier and more prolific — particularly in withstanding drought. I suspect it has something to do with the pigweed’s tap root drawing up more nutrients, but I’m not a botanist. I discovered it by accident when a family emergency called me away from my garden. On my return, the pigweed tomatoes were awesome.

  12. I’ve always been curious about perma and polyculture, but it seemed so hard to understand. Thanks for breaking it down and discussing all the questions that might arise! Very helpful :)

  13. Thanks for the link to the book Gaia’s Garden. I will be looking for it at my local gardening shop and putting it on my Xmas list. Great post.

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