Learn to Create a Polyculture Market Garden

Permaculture magazine
Tuesday, 26th January 2016

The Balkan Ecology Project in Bulgaria are offering five people the opportunity to join their polyculture market garden research study.

For those who haven't seen, the Balkan Ecology Project have been measuring their polyculture successes over the last few years.

They have even shared their figures so that others may learn from their designs and yields.

Now they are offering five people the opportunity to take part in this year's research project, looking at how they can provide nutritious affordable food whilst enhancing biodiversity in polyculture market gardens.

The Project

The Balkan Ecology Project will be undertaking a multi-year study of a 1/2 acre (2,000m2) market garden. They will be growing herbs, vegetables and perennial fruit and nut polycultures. The study will compare levels of biodiversity, running costs, outputs, yields and incomes between an annual polyculture plot and a conventional organic plot.

Paul Alfrey, founder of the Balkan Ecology Project, explains, "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."

The main focus points of the study are:

  • How can we provide nutritious affordable food whilst enhancing biodiversity?
  • How productive can polycultures be?
  • How much time does it take to establish and manage such a garden?
  • What income can be expected from running such a garden?
  • How bio-diverse can our food producing systems be and how can we measure this?
This year the Balkan Ecology Project will start to record biodiversity levels in the garden focusing specifically on model groups of invertebrates. Among these groups are snails, spiders, insects - bugs, flies, moths and butterflies. There will also will be an entomological surveys during April, July and September.​

Why are we undertaking this study ?

"The demand for local, biologically cultivated food appears to be on the increase, as is a general desire to promote and preserve biodiversity. As far as we understand, small scale biologically cultivated polyculture gardens seem a practical, accessible and realistic way of providing food for humans whilst preserving and promoting biological diversity in the environment. With what appears to us to be a high demand and low supply situation, we ask why are there not more of these enterprises around? To explore the issue in more depth we are undertaking a multi-year study looking at the economics of running such a garden, and how productive it can be in terms of yields, income and biodiversity."

What to expect from the study

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.

- 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 cover 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 six 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.

How to take part

The study will run from March 19th - September 20th 2016. Ideally, volunteers will be able to commit to the project for the full duration of time and in doing so are welcome to join training and courses that we hold during that period. Applications for shorter periods of time may also be accpeted, if yvolunteers feel passionate about joining the project but cannot dedicate six months.

The Balkan Ecology Project believe the valuable work volunteers will bring to the project is a fair exchange for the educational experience they will receive. Volunteers will be taught all the skills necessary to build and run a successful market garden. Activities will be largely determined by what needs doing at any particular time.

The project do not receive funding and operate on limited finances so ask that volunteers pay for their own living expenses. Rent per month is €100 (including all bills). The house is basic but comfortable in a beautiful location a short walk away from the project site. The house has Wi-Fi internet, a shared kitchen and bathrooms and a garden. It's the volunteer's responsibility to prepare meals and purchase food. Fruits and vegetables produced from the gardens are available from June onwards, and quality products such as eggs, milk, cheese, honey and meat can be purchased from local producers. Estimates of living costs based on the experience of previous participants is between €90 - €120 per month. 

Interested in this opportunity? To find out more information and to get in touch to register, visit: http://balkanecologyproject.blogspot.bg/2016/01/a-unique-learning-opportunity-studying.html

Further resources

The results from the 2014 polyculture study

Last year's results

Learn to grow perennials in a polyculture: Edible Perennial Gardening