Studying Polyculture Productivity in the Balkans

Paul Alfrey - Balkan Ecology Project
Wednesday, 13th February 2019

The Balkan Ecology Project in Bulgaria are opening the doors again for volunteers on their summer polyculture trials. A great opportunity to learn about polycultures, fruit, veg, timber and nut production and live in a stunning location for the summer.

Encouraged by high yields and high levels of biodiversity that we have been recording in our home gardens, we have extended our research to look at how we can provide nutritious affordable food whilst enhancing biodiversity in polyculture landscapes. We are delighted to be offering a unique opportunity to take part in this study. Would you like to join us?

What are we doing? 

We are undertaking a multi-year study of market gardening, growing herbs, vegetables and perennial fruit and nut polycultures. The study aims to compare our polyculture plots with conventional organic plots, record levels of biodiversity in the gardens and look at set up and running costs (in terms of finances and time) and outputs in terms of produce and income.


The approach we take to market gardening goes way beyond "organic". We design biological systems that rely on the native ecology to function as opposed to external manufactured inputs, and as a result our gardens service not only our needs but the needs of other organisms too.
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Permaculture/Polyculture Market Garden @Balkan Ecology Project

What will you be doing? 

You'll be working closely as a team producing food from the market garden for yourself, local markets, and a food co-operative and will be recording all aspects of the process including how long it takes to develop, maintain and manage the associated costs, the fertility requirements, the returns in produce weight and income derived from the sale of the produce.
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Our Polyculture Market Garden - photo by Huma

We will also be working on a new experimental garden growing perennial polycultures providing fruits, nuts, vegetables, biomass, timber and wildlife habitat. You can find out more about our perennial polyculture trail gardens here.


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Perennial Polycuture Trial Garden

We are planning to record all aspects of the project including observed levels of invertebrate diversity and soil analysis. We’ll be looking closely at inputs i.e set up/running costs, fertility/water requirements and time, and outputs i.e produce, income, soil fertility and invertebrate diversity.

The aim of the trials is to test the ecological and economical viability of growing these polycultures in market gardens and farms in order to meet the following needs/wants:
  • production of high quality, high value food 
  • cash crops from secondary/ tertiary polyculture partner species
  • improvement of soil fertility
  • provision of biomass for use as mulch
  • timber supply for use as vegetable supports and larger round wood material for farm infrastructure
  • enhanced levels of biodiversity.
Finally, this year, we'll be starting the development of a new Bee Garden - Eudaimonia.

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Why should you take part?

​This is an excellent opportunity if you are considering starting a garden, enjoy landscape design and/or are interested in ways to provide affordable healthy food whilst increasing biodiversity. 

As a participant of this study:
  • You will gain valuable insight into what it takes to actually run a market garden. As well as the practical skills you will develop, we'll dedicate time each week to covering essential theory including site design and implementation, plant propagation, polyculture management, basic botany, record keeping, harvesting, irrigation, marketing and advertising, and budgeting/financial planning. 
  • Enrollment to the 6 month program entitles you to participate in courses and training events that take place during the program. 
  • You will be contributing to an area of research where little information exists i.e the productivity of polycultures and associated biodiversity dynamics. 
  • This study will be published online and freely available to all for future reference and you will be credited accordingly.
  • You will be spending time in a truly unique area of the world, working as part of a dynamic team of fellow enthusiasts in an inspiring environment.
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Previous participants in the gardens 

Where will you be?

The project is based in the town of Shipka, Bulgaria on the foothills of the Central Balkan mountain range in the Rose Valley. It's an area of high biodiversity, beautiful countryside and historical sites of global, cultural and scientific significance. The project site is located on an abandoned piece of agricultural land on the western outskirts of the town that we call the Paulownia Garden. See Map for Paulownia Garden Location.

You'll also be learning from our existing garden, a 10 year old residential property with a highly productive and well established forest garden composed of over 400 species of plants. Our central garden is a good example of small scale intensive ecological design and includes examples of rainwater harvesting, wildlife ponds, multiple composting facilities and hosts a small plant nursery. We practice various methods of biological vegetable production including guild planting and crop rotation, and have reared pigs, chickens and rabbits from this property.
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The Home Garden

How to take part?

The study will run from April 1st - September 30th. Ideally you will be able to commit to the project for the full duration of time. We are also willing to accept applications for shorter periods of time if you feel passionate about joining the project but cannot dedicate 6 months, 4 week being the minimum.

The contribution for joining the study for the full 6 month period (April 1st - September 30th) is €650. This includes rent and bills for the whole period and admission to all courses and events held during those dates.

If you would like to participate for less than the full 6 months the fee is €150 per month, (price includes rent and bills.)

Once we have received your registration we will contact you and arrange a Skype meeting to talk through the process and answer any questions that may arise.

Following this, if you decide you would like to take part, the fee for the duration of your stay should be paid in full to secure your place. Payment can be made via PayPal (processing fees apply) or bank transfer in £,€ or BGN.

Accommodation

Our self catering volunteer house is basic but comfortable in a beautiful location at the edge of Shipka and around 15-20 minutes walk away from the project site. The house has Wi-Fi internet, a shared kitchen, bathrooms and a garden. ​

Fruits and vegetables produced from the gardens are available to you from June onwards, and quality products such as eggs, milk, cheese, honey and meat can be purchased from local producers. The cost of living is relatively low here and estimates of living costs based on the experience of previous participants is between €90 - €120 per month.

There is plenty to do around Shipka and our location is perfect for exploring. The wild coasts of the Black and Adriatic Sea are just a few hours away, extensive trails deep into the Balkan mountains start from your doorstep. Istanbul, Bucharest and Thessaloniki are a bus ride away and there are great day trips includng Koprinka Lake, Kalofer waterfalls, Buzludja and Etara living Museum to name but a few.

Why are we undertaking this study?

Industrial agricultural practices often result in destruction of habitat for many organisms. We believe this is unnecessary, and want to provide healthier models of agriculture that can provide nutritious affordable food while at the same time promoting biodiversity and general ecosystem health.

Industrial methods are heavily researched and funded, and there is a general belief among many farmers that this is the only practical way of operating. Following 12 years of cultivating polyculture gardens we are seeing that small scale biologically cultivated polyculture gardens are a realistic and practical way of providing food for humans whilst preserving biodiversity in the environment. Furthermore we believe this type of agriculture can help create thriving local economies that strengthen community and enhance the amenity value of an area.

Little data exists showing the productive capacity of polyculture systems and the economic viability of them. There is a big need to fill this gap and provide solid data and concise coherent models that can be replicated easily and provide real solutions to the environmental damage caused by industrial agriculture. This project intends to go some of the way in filling this gap.

Registration is now open. Register here.
For more info, photos and comments from previous participants, visit: https://balkanecologyproject.blogspot.com/2019/02/a-unique-learning-opportunity-studying.html

Useful links

The polyculture market garden - year 4 results

5 hectare polyculture design

Book: Edible Paradise: How to grow herbs, flowers, and vegetables in any space

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