What Crops to Grow & What to Cull

Wade Muggleton
Thursday, 22nd September 2016

Wade Muggleton has developed his permaculture garden over the last 13 years. Over time he has learnt which crops best suit his garden, and those that don't.

One of the features of permaculture gardening is that we inevitably experiment with a vast range of crops and my own mantra has always been that ‘Diversity Rules’; the wider the range of species and varieties the more we spread the risk. In any one year some crops will have a good year while others will not. Thus grow a wide enough range and you should always get something. The Irish Potato famine should stand as the all time lesson against the dangers of monocultures.

In the last 12 years in the Shropshire Hills, I have experimented with 35 different fruit crops and probably 30 plus types of vegetable, comprising well over 100 varieties in total. It is therefore time to take stock of what have been the successes and those crops that are not worth continuing to grow. While site, climate, altitude, soil and a host of other factors will influence your successes and failures and no two situations will be the same, is there a case for culling a few things?

Everyone I know who has planted a forest garden has ultimately concluded they over planted it and ended up thinning and chopping out certain components. Whilst my plot is not a true forest garden, it is a multi-layered and slightly congested system, albeit in a 24m by 12m (80ft by 40ft) rectangle behind a semi detached family home.

Difficult Decisions

In deciding what might stay and what should perhaps go, there are a few factors to consider before wielding the saw. These include:

* How much do you like a certain crop? There is a tendency to try growing loads of different crops but in truth we all have our personal tastes and preferences. So when weighing up the chop, ask yourself how much do I really like this fruit or vegetable?

* Exactly how productive is any given crop in relation to the amount of room it takes up on your plot and the amount of TLC you need to give to give it, be it pruning, mulching, sowing, nurturing, protecting from the cold etc.?

* How suitable is any specific crop to your site? There is a tendency to push the limits of hardiness and grow crops that are really on the fringes of their climatic suitability.

* How does the size of any crop relate to the amount you actually use in your household?

My Cull List

With all this considered, my decision to cull a few varieties is unique to my location and my family’s preferences. But from the list below of what we have grown at Station Road Permaculture Garden it will now be ever so slightly less diverse.

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Peaches: At 182m (600ft) in the West Midlands it was always a long shot, and they had to be under cover. I had selected a supposedly more cool climate variety in Wassenberger, but despite giving it plenty of greenhouse room, hand pollenating it and much feeding and watering it never cropped heavily and displayed a tendency for the fruit to fall off just before full ripeness. Added to which I am not that bothered about peaches as a fruit to eat, so after six years of messing about, they have been culled.

Japanese strawberry: After five years I have never yet cropped a single edible fruit. A waste of time.

Alpine bramble: Supposedly a sprawling ground cover producing an edible blackberry. On my plot it has hardly grown at all and never fruited.

Cranberry: This is an acid lover so needs to be pot cultivated in ericacious compost. Did crop really well for a couple of years and yield a few jars of cranberry sauce, but ultimately self culled by both plants dying off.

Worcesterberry: Ribes divericatum. Cropped really well, but in truth very similar to red gooseberries of which we have three varieties. It has the most evil thorns of anything I have ever grown in any garden!

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Goji berry: Supposed super food, did fruit significantly for a couple of seasons, but quite frankly they taste horrible and it’s an invasive spiny bush that was constantly having to be hacked back.

Kiwi fruit: Despite being a supposed self-fertile variety Jenny, it grew rampantly, flowered for three summers in a row yet never set a single fruit. A thug of a plant.

Asparagus: Never really liked our wet soil and took up an entire raised bed all year for a few handfuls of spears. Conclusion: not worth the space.

Successes and Fun

Before you think me a ruthless mad man, I might mention the successes and the irrational but fun challenges.

* Apples grow amazingly in our garden we have 30 varieties, loads of fruit and much apple juice made from surplus.

* Raspberries, currants, loganberries, tayberries and gooseberries love our site and produce profusely year on year.

* Apricots and figs: despite them seeming unlikely at our altitude and NW orientation succeed well.

* Blueberries in pots of ericacious compost can be good if tended to and protected from birds.

* Cherries are a bit of a luxury for the room they take up but, if netted, a couple of bowl fulls can be picked and there is something magic about home grown cherries.

* Quince seems happy and produces well.

* Damson is more than at home. Plant the variety Shropshire prune, a definitive English damson.

We are the envy of visitors as we don’t have squirrels so can crop a washing up bowl of cob nuts from our Kentish cob... Not forgetting the staples of potatoes, tomatoes, salad leaves, onions, garlic, peas, beans, carrots, beetroot and courgettes which put in their less glamorous appearances year on year.

Some crops make no sense, like growing lemons at 182m (600ft) in the Shropshire Hills, yet I have two incredibly pampered trees and yes they do crop. We have sat in the garden drinking gin and tonics with slices of Shropshire lemon! It is madness for the care they receive and the initial cost of the trees and the lemons are astronomically expensive compared to shop bought. In the winter of 2010 at -17ºC (62ºF) outside, they were moved to the spare bedroom but normally a cold greenhouse will suffice and a summer outside. I like a challenge and it is just about possible to crop lemons in the Midlands.

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We also have two olive trees that will never crop here but are really aesthetic foliage plants. 

In summary, grow all the weird and wonderful things that take your fancy, but in time I suspect you may rationalise your experiences and settle on your preferences and successes. I sometimes think certain crops have been staples for decades for good reason while a few supposed wonder crops will come and go as fads. So it is OK to grow, to experiment, to live and learn and yes it’s OK to cull a few things out along the way for your own reasons. After all, nature does the same, systems evolve and change over time, and species come and go.

Crops We Have Grown at Station Road Permaculture Garden

Cherry x 1 variety stella

Apple x 30 plus varieties

Plum x 3 varieties

Pear x 5 varieites

Damson x 1 variety

Quince x 1 variety

Blackberry x 2 varieties

Raspberry x 4 varieties

Strawberry x 10 plus varieties

Blueberry x 3 varieties

Loganberry x 1 variety

Tayberry x 1 variety

Gooseberry x 6 varieties

Cranberry x 1 variety

Worcesterberry x 1 vareity

Redcurrant x 1 variety

Whitecurrant x 1 variety

Blackcurrant x 3 varieties

Pinkcurrant x 1 variety

Bilberry x 1 variety

Goji berry x 1 variety

Apricot x 2 varieties

Fig x 2 varieties

Kiwi fruit x 1 variety

Lemon x 2 varieties

Peach x 2 varieties

Cobnut x 1 variety

Rhubarb x 1 variety

Japanese wineberry x 1 variety

Japanese strawberry x 1 variety

Aronia berry x 1 variety

Josta berry x 1 variety

Medlar  x 1 variety

Olive x 1 variety

Cape gooseberry x 2 varieties

Grapes x 4 varieties

Melons x 3 varieties.

Multiple varieties of all of the below:

Potatoes

Onions

Carrots

Beetroot

Parsnips

Leeks

Broad beans

Runner beans

French beans

Broccoli

Sprouts

Kale cabbage

Tomatoes

Tomatillos

Peppers

Chillies

Aubergines

Pumpkins / squash

Sweet corn

Spinach

Chard

Peas

Oca

Okra

Salad leaves various

Tree spinach

Oriental leaves various

Wade Muggleton lives in the hills of south Shropshire with his partner Rachel and two children. They have developed their garden over the last 13 years. He works part time as a countryside officer, freelance tutor and writes regularly for PM.

Further resources

Watch: A practical beginners guide to fruit tree pruning

Forest gardening - does it really work?

How to Make a Forest Garden

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