Polyculture Vs. Monoculture
Hey, when we talk about gardening here, we always advise you to choose different varieties of edible plants to grow. We recommend growing various kinds of, for example, tomatoes so that you can see what type grows best in your area, but also so that you can find at least two varieties of each crop that will do well. This is important because you never know when some blight might come around and decimate one variety or another, leaving you with nothing if you didn’t plant another type of the same crop. You’ve got to keep these somewhat separate, of course, because you don’t want cross-pollination that will give you some weird hybrid. Hybrids don’t always produce the same fruit or veggie reliably generation after generation. This may seem like common sense, but whole countries oftentimes plant one variety of a particular crop.
This is called monoculture, and I wrote a post on the blog about it you can read. (hint: I’m against it!) Some years ago, farmers in India had found that one type of rice had the best yield, and so almost everyone planted that variety. A disease came around that wiped out that crop, and if it weren’t for small farmers growing different varieties, there would have been a worse food shortage than there was.
So we know that monoculture is bad. Well, if monoculture is bad, polyculture must be good! Polyculture can be defined different ways, but this time I’m talking about the practice of planting a community of plants that derives benefits from each other.
What is a Good Polyculture Garden?
If you plant a good polyculture garden, you reproduce the relationships that are found among plants naturally. These plants benefit and protect each other in different ways. The bigger plants provide protection to the smaller ones from heavy sun or rain. One plant might attract an insect that might help in the pollination of another, or that eats bugs that damage still another plant. One type of plant takes nitrogen from the soil, and still another puts it back. Beans and peas come to mind as plants that actually put nitrogen back in the soil.
Now, our concept of vegetable gardens is that of orderly rows, lines of this plant or that, and that works well for most people, but let’s think outside the box a little! A polycultural garden has various kinds of plants growing together, more densely than the usual garden, and much more random. What you get is a big green jumble! it’s isn’t your prettiest arrangement, But there’s good stuff happening. The faster growing plants will protect the tender new shoots that are just germinating from the harsh sun. The thick plantings will cut down on the weeds (there’s nowhere for them to grow) and functions as a kind of mulch, keeping the dirt moist and cool. The fact that it looks like a big green mess might even disguise it a little bit, and that can’t be a bad thing if the you-know-what ever hits the fan.
We’re also accustomed to growing one crop in its bed or field, then harvesting it and planting another round of the same thing or maybe a different single variety crop. But think about that. Especially if you’re an urban homesteader, do you really want one crop, and do you really want all of it to be ready at once? No, you want different plants, so that you can have some variety, and you want things to be ready for harvest at different times, so that you’ll always have something you can pick to add to the stewpot. You want to choose things that will have different maturation rates. Just look at the “days to harvest” information on the seed packet. Keep those seed packets, or write this information down somewhere so you’re not wondering: When are these carrots supposed to be ready? (happened to us a couple of times)
Now as you harvest your plants, and they finish their productive period, you pull them and add seedlings to the bare areas. You should always have seedlings growing, outdoors or indoors, in little pots so that you’ll have stuff to plant as the growing season progresses. This way you’ll always have something going. The polyculture garden, which works really well in raised beds, is an experiment. You learn as you go, and your garden will be as unique as you are. It’ll teach you about companion planting, and you’ll learn a lot about what likes the early spring weather, what likes the heat of summer, and what lasts into the first cool spells of autumn. A good polyculture will have lettuce, carrots, swiss chard, beans and peas, onions, maybe cucumbers, cabbage and kale.
So don’t be afraid to experiment! This is the time to get that practice garden growing. You don’t want to wait until some kind of collapse occurs to start putting together a workable, food-producing system to supplement all those dry goods you’re stored away! Get some polycultural gardening experience under your belt, heck, If Nurse Amy and I can do it, you sure can!