Perennial Polycultures and the Richness of Diversity

The Way Nature Provides

Imagine walking down a country road. On one side of the road, you see acres and acres of corn grown in neat rows. On the other side of the road stands an old-growth forest filled with towering trees and a thick underbrush. If you were to ask anyone which side of the road produced the most food, almost everyone would say that the cornfield is a symbol of abundance; and while the forest might be pretty, it is simply not productive.

We have been taught that food can only be grown in orderly rows and that the wildness of nature might be pretty but simply can´t provide for our well-being and sustenance. Imagine, now, that you turn off that country road and begin to walk through the old growth forest. Underneath a pine tree, you might find thousands of pine nuts scattered on the ground. Oyster and shitake mushrooms sprout from decaying logs while a flush of morel mushrooms blooms in a patch of fallen leaves.

A wild blueberry bush provides fresh fruit in a clearing while currants grow well in the shade of the larger trees. You might even come across a gnarly, old apple tree providing an abundant crop. The thick forest provides a great habitat for deer, turkey, and other tasty wildlife as well. Hundreds of other less known edible greens may make up part of the ground cover of the forest floor.

Nature always tends towards abundance, though it may not be the neat and orderly abundance that we see in the cornfield. The production of edible foodstuffs in an old growth forest may very well outcompete the cornfield on a calorie by calorie basis. Our food industry, however, isn´t designed to take advantage of this naturally occurring abundance. Rather, we prefer single crops that can be processed into boxed and canned products that have absolutely no semblance to the corn, soy, and wheat from which they originated.

Permaculture´s Take on Diversity

Obviously not every natural system offers the same amount of abundance in food as does our imagined old growth forest. Not all pine trees produce edible nuts and trying to survive on pine needles and pine cones wouldn´t lead to a happy existence.

Permaculture, however, urges us to observe the natural world, and design landscapes that follow from the principles of diversity and natural abundance. If the natural world tends towards diversity and abundance, then through careful observation we can accelerate that succession and choose certain species and plants that contribute to the overall systemic health of the ecosystem while also providing foodstuffs to us humans. Though a few oak trees do provide edible acorns, perhaps we could replace those oak trees with chestnuts or pecans. The forest understory of ferns and other bushes could be replaced by hazelnuts, currants, and other species that offer us edibles.

Polyculture Garden in Summer (Image Credit: Balkan Ecology Project)

The tenth design principle of permaculture asks us to use and value diversity. By growing polycultures of different species, not only are we mimicking the way nature provides, but we are also increasing our resiliency through creating a productive, interactive food system where different species mutually benefit each other.

What We Lose and What We Gain From “Disorderliness”

So how do we go about actually creating a diverse and productive food system that mimics the way that nature works? The best place to start is in a garden.

When you think of a garden, most people probably have an image of neat rows of different annual vegetables such as tomatoes, green beans, and zucchini. To grow those neat rows, you probably imagine dozens of hours of kneeling underneath a hot sun to weed out the competing plants.
While there is definitely something comforting about those neat rows promising an abundant (and easy to access) harvest, it is entirely possible to cultivate a wilder garden. By foregoing those neat rows of the same type of plant, we may lose a sense of order and control over what we grow. However, a “disorderly” garden almost always allows for much more production.

Different plants planted close to one another allow for a greater diversity which always brings benefits. The more diverse your plant species, the better chance you have of drawing beneficial insects that will control predator bug populations without the use of fertilizers. Furthermore, other plants that don´t offer edible products may provide needed nutrients for the edible crops.

While your wild garden may very well look like just a bunch of weeds growing uncontrollably, with time you will be able to discover the abundance that wildness offers. The drawback, of course, is that harvesting your produce will take longer, but instead of returning home with a basket of tomatoes, you will have a couple baskets full of a whole assortment of different types of edible foodstuffs.
How to Grow a Vegetable Garden Without a Rototiller

One of the most important principles for developing a wild garden is to completely avoid tilling or cultivating the soil and avoid weeding. While many people may consider tilling and weeding to be the two essential pillars of any garden, these two practices rapidly lead to the depletion of soil fertility.

The earth itself produces a number animals and organisms that cultivate the land naturally. The deep tap roots of certain plants, microorganisms, and earthworms all help to loosen the soil for other plants to grow. What we have learned to call weeds are actually important crops that help to build soil fertility and balance the biological activity of the soil. Instead of pulling weeds by the root, controlling them through mowing and mulch is a better practice.

To grow a no-till vegetable garden, one of the easiest ways to get started is with the use of cardboard mulch and raised beds. We´ll take you through a step by step process to begin your own no-till, wild garden below.

1. Begin by loosening the soil where you plan to build the garden bed with a hoe or pitchfork. It´s not necessary to turn the soil over, but simply loosen it to allow for greater root penetration.
2. Place several layers of cardboard over the area where you plan to grow your crops.
3. If you want a raised bed system, simply place old bricks, rocks, firewood or any other large material to form the raised bed shape.
4. Add topsoil, compost, mulch and other organic material on top of the cardboard.
5. When it comes to planting your raised bed, add several different types of species that complement each other. This “companion planting” scheme allows for greater diversity and production. For example, in one 8 foot by 4 foot raised bed system, you might consider planting two or three tomato plants together with basil and marigolds which both help to repel some common pests of tomatoes. As a ground cover to help control weeds you might plant crawling thyme or some species of mint. Borage provides delicious flowers and helps to repel the tomato hornworm which can decimate a tomato crop in a few days.
6. When weeds start to come up (and they will), simply chop them back and let them decompose as a mulch on top of the soil surface. Heavy use of straw or leaf mulch will also add extra fertility as well as lessen the number of weeds in your beds.

By fall time, chances are that your tomatoes will barely be visible amongst the lushness of green. However, as you pull aside the beautiful blue borage flowers, orange marigolds, and deliciously smelling basil leaves, you´ll find a healthy crop of tomatoes growing amongst the foliage.

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