Posted by & filed under Biodiversity, Demonstration Sites, Food Forests, Food Plants - Annual, Food Plants - Perennial, Plant Systems.

One benefit of a single crop farm is that it isn’t hard to remember what it is that you are growing! Most of that single crop is sown at one point in time, grows at about the same rate and is then harvested at about the same time. 100% too easy, well apart from all of the very real problems created when growing a mono-culture….

Permaculturalists, on the other hand tend to grow poly-cultures which is simply growing a large number and variety of plants at the same time and location.

Poly-cultures in agriculture have a number of benefits including:

  • The sheer number and diversity (size, shapes, types, sub species, etc.) of plants makes it a confusing environment for insects and other herbivores which may otherwise breed large populations in a mono-culture and possibly eat the lot (or a large percentage);
  • A diversity of plants means that it will attract and provide housing and food for many predator insect species and birds which prey on insects which would otherwise eat the plants that you are trying to grow. In a mono-culture the farmer applies insect sprays to kill off any large and unbalanced insect populations, which only ever bred up in the first place because they were given the opportunity to do so, due to the mono-culture environment;
  • Each plant will have different nutrient/mineral requirements/demands on the soil. In a poly-culture, plants can harvest nutrients/minerals which then become available for yet other species of plants in a symbiotic relationship (ie. They help each other out). In a mono-culture, soils can still be quite healthy, but they can have certain particular nutrients mined out. Liebig’s Law of the Minimum, states that a plant’s development is limited by the one essential mineral that is in the relatively shortest supply. Therefore if your mono-crop depletes that single essential mineral/nutrient from the soil, you will no longer be able to grow that same crop again (or it will become progressively unhealthy) until the mineral/nutrient is restored back into the soil; and
  • A poly-culture has the benefit of supplying a larger variety of plant materials over a longer period of time than a mono-culture. This longer harvest time with a poly-culture is suitable to local production and distribution but is not generally adaptable to large scale mechanised agriculture which requires an environment that more closely resembles a factory (ie. Consistency of size, ripening times, and plant spacing). Nature rarely resembles a factory!

People are just like the example of the soil above in that they require a wide variety of nutrients in order to be healthy. You can for example, eat the same food every day, but like the soil example above, sooner or later you will encounter Liebig’s Law of the Minimum and find that you are missing out on a nutrient or mineral which may possibly lead to ill health. The simple answer to this is to eat from a poly-culture!

The only downside to a poly-culture is that you have to practice plant identification, otherwise you won’t know what you are eating! Also, some plants or only parts of those plant can be harmful or toxic, so it is worthwhile taking the time to get to know what the plants look like, what they taste like and what parts can be used and how. This is actually pretty easy to do and eating things that you’ve grown is always fun and enjoyable, but the secret to this skill is practising growing plants and then eating them! Simple, and you get to eat the plants too.

I’ve put a fun video together providing a virtual tour of all of the plants growing in some of my raised vegetable beds here and you can quickly see just how many different plants you can grow in a poly-culture and just how much food you can produce over a space as small as about 40m2. I hope you enjoy the tour and remember that with a world to choose from there is usually some edible plant that can adapt to your location.

7 Responses to “Food Forests, Part 6: Diversity, or Picking a Garden Salad”

  1. Susan Kwong

    Very informative, I didn’t know you could eat the leaves of the peas and brassicas you mentioned, thanks Chris!

    Reply
  2. Chris

    Yeah, it is amazing what you can eat from a garden. I’d steer clear from the ornamental type peas though as they’re reputed to be toxic, but someone here may know more. Looking forward to your next article too. Regards.

    Reply
  3. Reuben

    Looks like you’ll be making some tasty and diverse salads! The brussel sprouts your growing are going to flower and will not produce ‘sprouts’. However the florets can be eaten just like broccolini and are very tasty! I’ve grown them purely for this reason.
    Also do you import or make your own compost for the beds?
    Cheers
    Reuben.

    Reply
  4. Chris McLeod

    Thanks for that, I’ll give them the taste test. Initially I brought compost in, but now the raised beds get top ups from the chook run which is a deep woody mulch litter system. Nothing organic leaves this property – everything ends up in the soil. I covered this issue in detail in the article:

    http://permaculturenews.org/2012/05/04/food-forests-part-3-closing-the-loop/

    The worm farm which processes human wastes in an aerobic fast compost system is covered in detail in the article:

    http://permaculturenews.org/2012/08/11/food-forests-part-4-humanure-black-water/

    Nothing is wasted here!

    Regards
    Chris

    Reply
  5. Nicole

    Just wandered over from the Archdruid Report. Always enjoy your shameless plugs! Here in Canada (S. Ontario) the gardens are just about done. I did take advantage of the sun yesterday to get in some more garlic. One of my favorite crops; plant in the fall; up in the spring; harvest in mid-summer. Otherwise looks after itself ! Did you spring plant your garlic ?

    Looking forward to more reports,
    -Nicole

    Reply
  6. Chris

    Hi Nicole,

    Thanks! Does your garlic over-winter well in Canada or do you take it inside, dry it and then replant in Spring? It has only been in the ground here for about a month now. The warm days seem to knock it around a bit, but it seems to recover. There’s more updates to come, the next will be on the fruit which won’t start to ripen until after New Years (unless Summer really heats up).

    Regards

    Chris

    Reply
  7. Nicole

    Yes, the garlic overwinters ! It is put in in mid to late fall. It will put down some roots, and then in the spring it is one of the first plants up; sometimes poking through the snow. This allows the plant to get quite big before bulbing occurs around the summer solstice. It is picked about a month after. I tried planting a few in the spring this year, but they just didn’t have enough plant growth time. This all applies to hard neck garlic. I’m not sure if the soft neck varieties can handle the cold. Fall planting might be worth a try in your area.

    Hope the fruit does well. Most of the orchards around here had a very bad year due to an early warm spell in the spring which broke dormancy, followed by a week of hard frost that killed off most of the blossoms.

    -Nicole

    Reply

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