Planting Naturalistic Polycultures in the Vegetable Garden

Maddy Harland
Tuesday, 22nd May 2012

Maddy describes the Harland vegetable patch in May, a riot of flowers, self-seeding salads and perennial and annual veg, and gives 7 tips for planting edible and organic polycultures.

Our one third acre garden started life as a permaculture design on paper before it was made, but 20 years later Tim and I are erring more and more on letting nature take its course and as well as experimentation. Our vegetable patch is an example. We sow winter vegetables in August, eat them well into late Spring, pull out what has gone over or hasn't worked well and make room for spring plantings. Mixed up with annual veg are self seeding salads, a few perennial veg that have not been transplanted to the forest garden, green manures and as many flowers as nature wishes to provide. Ox-eye daisies and opium poppies have seeded all over the mulched paths and I can't bring myself to re-establish order so I am spot weeding out the grasses, docks and dandelions and leaving the flowers be.

What has resulted is a riotous polyculture which is low maintenance, seems to robustly cope with hail and late frosts in May after unseasonal warmth in March and heavy rains in April. It is entirely organic, vibrantly healthy (we just have to net out the cabbage white from our greens) and it has a feeling of wildness that I love.

The lead photograph shows one side of the vegetable patch with spinach in the foreground mixed with red clover, originally sown for its nitrogen fixing properties, but wonderful forage for bees and other insects. Mixed within it are Babbington's leeks (Allium ampeloprasum var. Babingtonii), a native British perennial allium that produces bubils from its flowers that you can sow as individual 'seeds' or you can divide the bulb. It has a mild garlicy flavour and can either be cut at ground level after a couple of years and eaten or cut like chives in the summer months. Then follows autumn sown rocket gone to seed plus an asparagus bed that is hidden but in production with some Isle of Wight garlic popped in a corner. Beneath all this riot of plant life is another layer of self-seeders, mainly American land cress, corn salad, salad burnet and other edibles that have been saved from the weeding hoe.

Rainbow chard with broad beans

Next we have a bed of broad beans and rainbow chard. I like the juxtaposition of the colour of the leaves and stems of the chard (red only in the picture but we have vibrant yellow too) with the broad beans’ flowers and pale green leaves. I hope that as the beans grow they will shade the chard and prevent it bolting. Just an idea! Underneath this is a layer of compost and if any small salad plants pop up I will leave them be.

There is also another bed with Isle of Wight garlic (Solent White, and Elephant which is strictly a leek). This is undersown with clover in late Spring. It fixes nitrogen, swelling the garlic bulbs and increasing yields, and also means we have little weeding to do in Summer.

We will also grow squashes and courgettes, French beans and sweetcorn but we delay planting these until we are sure the bad weather has passed. This is increasingly hard to judge with climate change...

I don't bother to grow tomatoes outdoors unless they are a tough Siberian variety. I keep the greenhouse for them along with peppers, basil and other tender herbs and potatoes in pots in winter. On the back wall is an own root espaliered peach tree grown from stones given to me by Achim Ecker from ZEGG ecovillage in Germany. It is fruiting!

Behind is more rocket (we know it will have to go) mixed with spinach plus an autumn sowing of Mizuna and Mibuna that have gone to flower, comfrey and some rogue red clover. Bees love the rocket, clover and comfrey flowers at this time of year. Our local beekeepers at the Sustainability Centre tell us that because April was so cold and wet the bees are short of food and because of that they cannot take any honey yet. We have a passion for planting bee forage and the deepest concern for our plummeting bee populations (an awareness heightened by the tireless work of my friend the bee campaigner, Brigit Strawbridge). I am sure we can make a difference in our gardens.

Beyond this bed, still full of edibles, is a kitchen wall where Japanese wineberry climbs with vigour. This year Tim has planted sugar snaps to grow up hazel prunings in front of the wineberry. Pink puslane grows in the shadiest depths and nearby I progate trees and other plants. Being out of strong sun means I can miss a few day's watering in summer without killing young plants.

I mentioned that we net the greens to keep out cabbage white butterflies. We use a mesh called Veggiemesh (cheaper than the more proprietary Enviromesh). It doesn't tangle in the way that some nets do so we hope if we are careful we can reuse it for years. Here grows spring greens (which are deliciously sweet) and the cavolo nero. As you would expect Tim has popped in a little more red clover!

Soon we will thin the rocket and fill in with beetroot, beans, onions, carrots and other plants. We will no doubt plant more phacelia, (a beauitful flowering green manure) and the salads will continue to self seed. This is a small part of our garden. There are coldframes with oriental salads, a herb area, a forest garden and orchard and nuttery areas, plus spring and summer meadows. I have also planted a conservation border by the vegetable garden full of insect attractants that flowers from January onwards from when the first snowdrops emerge.

What you can guarantee is that the whole garden will be wild. Nature gardens. We try not to interfere too much!

7 Simple Tips for Permaculture Polycultures in a small patch

1. Plant self-seeding salads and bare soil with green manures and add crops to the mix.

2. Sow in drills when necessary or progate under glass so you can fill the spaces as they appear.

3. Move plants around if they become too squashed but have as little bare soil as possible. Consolidate your spaces by thinning and transplanting.

4. Stack time by planting for winter in August and adding areas of Spring sowings from March onwards.

5. Welcome volunteers - salads and flowers.

6. Don't be afraid to clear unproductive areas once the crop has peaked but allow for self-seeding and bee forage too.

7. Sit back and enjoy the solitary and honey bees whilst planning your supper.

Maddy Harland is the co-founder and editor of Permaculture.

Further Resources

Edible Perennial Gardening: new plantings for March and April

5 Ways to Grow Edible Vertically

Edible Perennial Gardening: growing uscessful polycultures in small spaces

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