What is Polyculture?

polyculture potager

Over the past few years of growing my own fruit, veg and herbs, I’ve learned a lot. I started with books (and still reference them frequently), garnered bits and pieces of information from my mum and other growers, and gleaned snippets of knowledge from gardening programmes. I haven’t seen much about polyculture in the mainstream media though, and it seems a shame.

In Britain, I suspect many of us green-fingered types tend to think of a “good garden” or “successful allotment” as a tidy space, where neatness and order abounds. But that just isn’t me. What I love about nature are the blurred lines between order and chaos. I’ve always felt that my garden should be a glorious collision between art and science. That means looking to the natural world for inspiration and guidance, especially when it comes to my planting schemes. That’s where polyculture comes in.

When you try to inflict absolute order over the underlying chaos, I feel like it becomes a fight with nature. I cannot stand reading posts on allotment or gardening forums about the various ways to kill this pest or spray that weed. I feel that many gardeners are at war with their plots. Really, gardening should be more about balancing and nurturing.

polyculture - gyo

That’s why I’m increasingly moving my thinking over to polyculture and permaculture. Polyculture, in essence, means “the simultaneous cultivation or exploitation of several crops and animals“. In gardening, allotmenteering and in agriculture, we often see planting done in large blocks (monoculture). There is a lot of uniformity, and this can lead to creating an ecosystem that is vulnerable to quick and widespread attack from pests and disease. This means the blocks of crops or animals can require a lot of support with fertilisation/feeding/antibiotics. In agriculture, soil can become arid and depleted because of the continued drain on its minerals.

But in nature, even the smallest patch of wild land is a mish-mash of plants of different varieties, heights and distances. Each plant has a function, growing pattern or yield time that often benefits other plants, such as companion plants or intercropping. Sowing the same crop in different places at different times can extend the harvest period, and keeps groups of plants safer if one group falls foul to a pest or disease.

And polyculture can also extend the growing capacity of one plot throughout the year, keeping both plants and soil healthy and thriving whilst helping to reduce the need for weeding. Yes, less weeding!

Together with a no-dig approach, polyculture has helped me to reduce the time required on the plot maintaining the soil from weeds and trying to tackle hungry pests, like aphids. Essentially, in between a little weeding here and there, my veg plots look happier and much fuller. OK, they might not look particularly orderly or neat, but they are thriving.

The nasturtiums were planted next to my beans, and have proved a total success. Whilst some of my flowers in the borders and the elder was ravaged by blackfly, the little suckers have been attracted to the leaves of the nasturtium and left my peas and beans well alone. The marigolds have not only produced a burst of colour on the plots, but I also think their strong scent has served well as a deterrent against munch-happy bugs too.

There is so much more I can do this year, with plenty of time to sow and plant into my plots. I’m excited to learn more.

 

 

Top Ten Attractive Companion Plants

I’ve been battling with the aphids in the last couple of weeks. Well, I say “battling” – I’m a vegan and I find it very hard to do any direct kind of pest control, preferring to leave nature to take care of the job… more of a permaculture holistic approach. But in the absence of predatory ladybirds, the aphids have been mounting attacks on my flowers, fruit and veg and I’ve had to take some sort of action. Companion planting.

English lavender

In the large vegetable plot, I’ve already planted nasturtiums and french marigolds around the beans and sweet peas to ward off aphid attacks – the idea is that the strong scented plants confuse or attract the “pests” away from crops and blooms. But I need to extend my companion planting to other areas too. The aphids are relentless at this time of year!

I’ve also come to learn that although companion plants may be functional, but they can also add a touch of cottage garden elegance and charm to veg plots and garden borders. So after some research, here are my top ten companion plants for the allotment, potager and kitchen garden:

marigold

  1. Marigold/Calendula
    Another popular addition in many kitchen gardens is the marigold. Whether it’s a frilly french marigold (Tagetes patula) or the simpler, but delicate and pretty english pot marigold (Calendula officinalis), these bright blooms are a welcome addition to any successful growing plot. The strong scent confuses and deters many pests, with french marigolds in particular useful in warding off whitefly. The open single blooms of english marigolds also attract pollinators, which in turn pollinate flowers that yield crops.
  2. Nasturtiums
    A mainstay of any potager, the humble nasturtium is easy to grow from seed, or cheap to buy as a pot-grown specimen. Copious orange blooms and a strong scent lure aphids and pests away from tender crops like beans, whilst nasturtium leaves serve as an attractive site for cabbage whites to lay their eggs – so a great ‘sacrificial crop’ for brassicas too.
  3. Thyme
    When in flower, this perennial herb is attractive to beneficial insects. It’s also a great deterrent for whitefly that are attracted to brassicas like cabbages – just distill some fresh sprigs in water for 24hours to make a “tea” and spray your brassicas to leave a scent that could send the aphids on their way.
  4. Sage
    Like most herbs, the strong scent of sage confuses pests and aphids. Sage is a great companion plant for brassicas like cabbages, brussels sprouts and broccoli, but also works well with carrots and strawberries too.
  5. Garlic chives
    This striking member of the allium family produces long spikes topped with star-like clusters of small flowers. The strong scent is great at deterring and confusing carrot fly, and can also serve as a pest deterrent when planted near or under roses.
  6. Lavender
    This popular flowering herb is a veritable pollinator magnet, so will help to increase pollination rates and yields. Its strong, pleasant scent also confuses pests, and is particularly well-placed near carrot crops, leeks and tender vegetables.
  7. Sweet Alyssum
    A charming, low-growing ground covering plant that can not only help to suppress weed growth, but also helps to protect potatoes from pests by attracting natural predators.
  8. Rosemary
    Chillies and pumpkins are two grow-your-own favourites that would benefit from rosemary companion plants. Blue flowers in spring help to attract pollinators, and the
  9. Zinnia
    Bright and bold, these blooms are a brilliant addition to any edible garden. Opt for single flower strains, and mix and match taller and shorter varieties to attract aphids away from crops and capture the interest of butterflies, who tend to cruise higher above the ground.
  10. Mint… or Catmint! 
    OK, so it’s not the prettiest plant around, but mint certainly has an attractive aroma, especially the likes of spearmint, applemint and even pineapple mint! But good old ordinary mint, when restricted and planted in a pot (even in open ground), can be really useful in confusing pests and potential plant munchers with its strong scent. Plant near brassicas, tomatoes, carrots and alliums like leeks, onions and shallots as a deterrent to the likes of aphids and ants.
    If you’re not keen on introducing the thuggish mint into your veg plots or borders, try the similarly named (but unrelated) cat mint instead. Cat mint – or nepeta – produces pretty spires of blue flowers that pollinators love, and its scented leaves repel the likes of flea beetle, aphids, ants, squash bugs and even rats and mice. Plant near squashes, pumpkins, beetroot and even roses to keep pests at bay.

Full of beans

shallots in the greenhouse

Chilling winds have swept through our corner of Bedfordshire, and I find myself absolutely LONGING for the balmy skies when the thermometer was peaking in the mid 20s. The veg plots and flower borders continue to romp ahead regardless, and bit by bit, my little veg patches are starting to fill up. Much to my surprise, actually.

This year, with a little family in tow, I’ve had my work cut out and my expectations for growing were low. I wanted to keep it simple, opting for tried and tested varieties of fruit and veg and minimising the amount of sowing and potting on I’d usually do… but somehow I can’t help myself when it comes to growing fruit and veg. Already, I’ve planted in new varieties of strawberries and raspberries, and with widespread discount promotions on packets of seeds, I just cannot resist.

Whether I actually get around to sowing on time, is another matter. But I’ve got further this year than I thought I would, and that’s got to be a bonus. Rich’s time has been severely limited, as he spends the majority of his waking hours stuck to a laptop or computer, furiously programming in a bid to keep us afloat whilst I’m on maternity leave. My end of the bargain is to try and keep things running, look after E as she grows and develops at an alarming rate, beat back chaos with an invisible stick, try to keep the house from descending into chaos, and try to feed us all on a budget.

So apart from Rich helping out with the odd lawn mow, it’s all down to me this year. I’ve started off the shallots in the greenhouse, waiting for the sun to warm to the soil and the risk of frost to pass before planting in situ. Shallots are one of my all-time favourite homegrown staples. I’ve also opted for some dwarf bean plug plants, as my ability to water regularly and give seedlings the TLC they deserve is limited more than usual. I am not organised, despite all the will in the world and a very real motivation to do things right, and do things well.

I’ve started a few beans up a willow obelisk, more for decorative purposes than anything really as I love the homespun potager approach to little kitchen gardens. I’ve also planted in a few nasturtiums – partly as companion plants and partly because I love their cascading haphazardness, and the delicate but boldly coloured blooms. Next on the agenda is constructing a pea harp for edible peas and scented sweet peas. It’s a bit of an ambitious task given that E will only tolerate so much time playing in the garden alongside me as I work before she starts screeching like a mini siren…but hey ho, a girl’s got to dream!

beans and willow wigwam