If you grow some or even most of your own food, you might think you’re doing your part to live more sustainably. But if you’re not embracing polyculture farming or gardening, you could be missing out on big ways to lower your footprint. Read on to learn more about this dynamic farming method and monoculture vs polyculture.
What Is Polyculture Farming or Gardening?
Polyculture is an agricultural method that aims to mimic nature in its design, planting species that complement each other in the same growing space.
So, when we compare monoculture vs polyculture, polyculture is the opposite of monoculture – in other words, fields with row after row of corn, i.e., most modern industrial farming.
An increasing number of farmers and gardeners are turning to polyculture techniques as they discover how it can eliminate pests and diseases, improve the soil, not to mention increase your yield and the number of things you can grow.
Table of contents
- What Is Polyculture Farming or Gardening?
- The Benefits of Polyculture Farming
- How Can I Start Incorporating Polyculture?
- Examples of Successful Polyculture Farms
- Polyculture Is the Way to Go
How Did Polyculture Start?
Until the advent of modern farming, and even now in many parts of the world, polyculture was and is the dominant farming method. A well-known example is the “three sisters” cultivated by Native Americans, consisting of squash, corn, and beans.
In the three sisters polyculture, the tall corn acts as a support for the beans to grow on, the beans fix nitrogen into the soil to be used by other plants, and the squash creates a ground cover that repels both weeds and pests.
Another example is the 7 layer forest garden, which differentiates plants by their use of vertical space: it includes a canopy layer of trees at the top, followed by dwarf trees below, then shrubs, a layer of herbaceous plants, the “rhizosphere” (i.e., root vegetables), then ground cover plants (think strawberries) and finally vines.
Is Permaculture the Same as Polyculture?
Generally, polyculture refers to a method of agriculture or gardening, whereas permaculture is larger in scope, including more elements of the farm and larger ecosystem such as water and energy sources, buildings and construction, and farm layouts and design.
Since polyculture and permaculture embrace many of the same ideas such as mimicking nature, increasing biodiversity, and reducing the impact on the environment, you’ll often see the terms used interchangeably, especially when referring to gardening or farming techniques.
The Benefits of Polyculture Farming
There are lots of reasons to try polyculture, whether in a small kitchen garden or a large-scale farm operation, but perhaps one of the best reasons to try polyculture farming is that it can greatly increase your yield!
Compared to monoculture gardening, you can fit more plants in the same space by “filling in the gaps.” But there are more benefits beyond a more plentiful bounty:
- Resistance to pests: a common practice in polyculture is to surround some plants with herbs, whose strong smell confuses insects and masks the plant’s scent.
- Better soil quality: as mentioned with the Three Sisters, certain plants like legumes, clover, and lupine replace nutrients that other plants deplete from the soil, so less fertilizer is needed.
- Biodiversity: Polyculture farms aim to increase diversity both to mimic nature as well as to safeguard against low yields; if one crop fails, another one can substitute.
- Suppression of weeds: by utilizing more of the available space and planting cover crops, unwanted weeds that can compete for resources are avoided.
Are There Any Downsides to Polyculture?
Depending on the specific gardening methods you use, polyculture gardening can be more labor-intensive than other forms of gardening.
One method of sowing beds involves mixing and broadcasting seeds, which can result in beds that require ruthless thinning to avoid too much competition. This method also requires detailed knowledge regarding what each plant sprout looks like in order to differentiate them from weeds.
Identifying which seeds you have broadcast is one of my main issues with it. However, when you see the resulting harvest, it’s worth it. I mean, who cares whether it’s zucchini, melon, cucumber, or pumpkin – it’s food and it’s good!
And, while it might be simple for Mother Nature to figure out which plants grow best together, it’s more challenging for mere mortals.
Factoring in combinations of soil acidity, sun requirements, nutrient needs and more for combinations of species could certainly require more complex planning than planting a row of each plant and calling it a day. However, there may be ways to make it easier – see Plant Guilds below.
How Can I Start Incorporating Polyculture?
How you start utilizing these gardening methods depends on the status of your project.
If you’re just starting a new garden or farm, you’ll want to incorporate polyculture or permaculture techniques into the initial design of the farm to maximize the layout for efficiency and convenience, such as where to collect and store water for irrigation.
If you already have an established garden, there are many ways you can begin to convert your current design to incorporate permaculture elements in a more gradual way.
Work With What You Have
Polyculture is all about working with nature instead of against it, so start by identifying the anchor points of your garden: this includes any trees or perennials that won’t be going anywhere. Use these plants as the centerpieces to develop polycultures around.
When planting annuals for the next season, consider companion plants for these species.
Use Plant Guilds
Plant guilds might be my favorite feature of polyculture gardening, thanks to their easy-to-follow framework as well as an opportunity for creativity.
As mentioned above, trying to determine the perfect combination of plants for a polyculture garden can be bewildering. Enter plant guilds. Guilds also utilize companion planting, but it’s done in a specific way that can simplify the process.
Every member of the plant guild should have one or more roles to play, and a proper guild should have at least one of the following:
- Nitrogen fixers: to avoid adding fertilizers, it helps to plant species that fix nitrogen back into the soil.
- Pollinators: flowers or herbs to attract bees.
- Dynamic accumulators: a fancy term for deep-rooted plants or vegetables that can break up deeper soil and allow for better air and water absorption. These include comfrey, one of my absolute favorite accumulators. It also happens to be the perfect companion plant for asparagus, my favorite vegetable!
- Repellers: often strong-smelling herbs that confuse bugs. See some examples of these in “Herbs That Repel Fleas and Flies“.
- Mulchers: usually perennial plants that add a steady supply of compost in the form of dropped leaves. These are perfect for “chop and drop”, an awesome way to add carbon to your soil.
- Suppressors: usually bulb plants that act as an underground barrier to prevent plants like grasses from creeping into your planting zone and competing with other roots for nutrients. Lemongrass is one of my favorites here.
Depending on the kind of design you want, you can often choose plants that fulfill multiple roles: for example, daffodils are excellent suppressors and also attract pollinators, and many bug-repelling herbs work as ground cover.
Guilds are also a wonderful chance to get creative and playful in the garden. Guilds have a lot of flexibility so that you can design them with all kinds of purposes:
Vera Greutink, a polyculture gardener in the Netherlands, shows how a guild (she calls them ‘polycultures’, but the idea is the same) can be designed with a type of cuisine in mind, or even a specific dish. Check out this video of her Italian polyculture featuring 9 different veggies and herbs used in Italian cooking.
Examples of Successful Polyculture Farms
If you’re looking for more inspiration, check out these examples of permaculture and polyculture farms.
Miracle Farms, Quebec, Canada
Stefan Sobkowiak is the owner of Miracle Farms in Quebec, Canada, which features a 5-acre, 22-year old permaculture orchard. The orchard is laid out in a pattern he calls “NAP”, which stands for Nitrogen-fixer, Apple, Plum, after the way the rows are planted.
He has devoted 4 acres of the farm to a u-pick system, which he says saves 40% of the expenses for the orchard. The farm also serves as a classroom, offering permaculture courses for farmers.
Located in Scottland, this human settlement is said to be entirely sustainable. It started in the 1980s and has grown into a full-scale community that aims to reduce its environmental footprint.
The village uses community-supported agriculture to provide organic produce to its citizens, features a “wind park” to harvest energy, and has a waste-water treatment system that uses all manner of living organisms from bacteria to trees to fish to purify the community’s sewage waste.
The Permaculture Institute of El Salvador (IPES)
According to their website, permaculture techniques began to show up in El Salvador in the 1980s, and for years afterward, the Campesinos or peasant farmers began to share information about permaculture.
The institute began in 2002 as a way to support the sharing of knowledge of this kind of farming. In 2008, the Suchitoto farm was started with volunteers and students working the land using permaculture techniques.
Polyculture Is the Way to Go
Whether you’re short on garden space and want to maximize yield, or you run a multi-acre farm and want to reduce your environmental footprint, polyculture farming may just be the way to go.
With a little consideration and planning, you can begin incorporating polyculture techniques and you’ll be on your way to a thriving, sustainable farm or garden.
What do you think, will you grow a polyculture garden? What are your favorite guilds? Share your thoughts below in the comments!