Polyculture plot update

TheGardenShareCollective300pix1This is my first post for the Garden Share Collective, the brain child of ‘fourth generation farmer’ Liz at Strayed from the Table, in Australia. Each month, participating bloggers from around the world post updates about what is going on in their veg plots, and share tips and troubles. The focus is on growing great food in a sustainable, organic way. Do check it out, there are many wonderful blogs taking part.

At the moment, my veg garden is a horrendous riot of weeds and/or mud, having been heartily neglected over the winter. The winter has been so mild and wet that weeds have continued to grow, so there’s lots to be done. This picture shows a patch I’ve cleared already.

Here's one I dug earlier

Here’s one I dug earlier

And here’s one I haven’t done yet (aaagh!)

Grass invasion

Grass invasion

Last Autumn, I covered one really weedy area with a ‘mulch’ of cardboard to help keep the weeds down. It was only one layer thick, with no other mulch on top, so it has rotted away in places. Even so, the ground underneath is much less weedy than the patch that was left bare, and the weeds that remain look weak and straggly.

Under the cardboard

Under the cardboard

While I’m getting the ground ready, I’ve been having fun planning what I’m going to grow this year. I’m going to have another go at a polytculture patch – although maybe with a bit more order than the ‘riot of everything’ approach I tried for the last two years, with mixed success. I’ve found that growing squash and sweetcorn together worked really well (a modified version of the ‘three sisters‘ – I left out the beans.) The jungly squash leaves (I grew Red Kuri, which has a fantastic, nutty flavour) really did shade out the weeds around the sweetcorn. The other area was a large mixed bed – no rows – crammed with veg and flowers.

Last year in the veg garden – the polyculture jungle

This bed was much less successful. I grew a mix of French and dwarf beans, chard, courgettes, lettuces, garlic, onions, carrots, potatoes and perpetual spinach, with a random assortment of flowers that I happened to have to hand. The courgettes did well – but the beans and carrots struggled, and it was also much more weedy than I had hoped. I think I planted out too big an area, with too few paths – making it hard to ‘get in’ to tend to things, and the weeds ran riot. A tip I’ve since gleaned from UK Veg Gardeners is to have lots of young plants ready to pop in to fill gaps as they appear, to help keep a polyculture patch ‘full’ and so help to keep the weeds at bay. I’ll try that this year – and will also think more about access and paths.

So… what did I learn from a couple of years of polyculture growing?

  • Sweetcorn and squash can do really well together in the UK, and the squash shades out most weeds.
  • You need to keep areas ‘reachable’, or have good paths/stepping stones.
  • Succession is key to getting lots of food and keeping the weeds down – that is, planting ‘fast’ crops like radish, rocket etc to cover the ground while slower things are coming along. And too much is better than too little – things can always be picked early or moved if they are getting too crowded.
  • Mulch is my friend – I need to use LOTS more mulch, both to feed plants and to help keep weeds down.
  • Polyculture beds are a bit tricky with little kids! They like to pick and explore – and without clear rows, it was pretty hard for them to see which bits not to trample on. But they enjoyed being out there, which is the main thing!

So, much to think about for this year. That’s one of my favourite bits about growing veg – every year, I get to have another go, hopefully knowing just a little bit more than I did last year.

As this is a Garden Share Collective post, we’re asked to list what we’re harvesting, and what jobs we’ll do in the coming month.

Harvesting now – not a lot! But even after much neglect last year, there are still a few leeks, a couple of chard and perpetual spinach plants that still have edible leaves on (nice wilted in omelettes), and herbs such as thyme, rosemary, sage and parsley.

Rainbow Chard, still going strong after the winter

Rainbow Chard, still going strong after the winter

Perpetual spinach - living up to its name, March 2014

Perpetual spinach – living up to its name

Alpine Strawberry

Alpine Strawberry

Stella Cherry buds

Stella Cherry buds

My jobs for March –

  • Dig, baby, dig!
  • Sow seeds – starting with sweet peas and chillis on the windowsills, and broad beans in pots in a sheltered spot outdoors.
  • Plant out more willow ‘setts’, to grow into windbreaks, garden canes and logs for the woodburner.

So there you have it! Plenty to be getting on with – now I just need it to stop raining for a bit…Happy growing to you all.

18 responses to “Polyculture plot update

  1. I love your tips on Polyculture, I would like to have a Alys Fowler-esqe back garden, sadly it doesn’t seem to happen! However we have always had good success with growing sweetcorn and squash together.

    • Ah, I think Alys might have turned and fled – it was more ‘law-of-the-jungle leafy mayhem’ than anything more picturesque. I’m still in the early stages of trying things out. I think much more perennial veg may be the way to go – tho I’m scratching my head slightly over how to combine these with the annuals I want to grow…

  2. Hi! Im growing the 3 sisters garden. Ditto no beans but I have sunflowers instead. Love this combo, but Akl is humid so the pumpkin below end up with powdery mildew. Mulch is a favourite of mine as is over planting 🙂 Great to see you on a The a Garden Share.

  3. The Garden Share Collective has already done something positive for me, in that I have discovered a load of interesting blogs that I have previously been unaware of – yours included! I’m looking forward to be sharing gardening gossip with you here as well as on UKVG.

    • Thanks so much for visiting! I’m a bit nervous about joining up with the Garden Share Collective as there are many wonderful (and experienced) growers blogging there…but I’ve learned lots from the trials and tribulations of others (including on the very friendly UKVG), so I figured it was OK to write about things even if they don’t work out quite as planned! I have been really envious of all the NZ and Australian gardens, though – filled with bananas and mangoes, while I have…chard!

  4. Its amazing how a good thick layer of cardboard can keep the weeds down. We use it then add a layer of compost on top again with some mulch and then just plant into that in our raised beds. Easy and Lazy at the same time. Keep up the digging, look forward to see how you have progressed next month.

    • Thanks very much for visiting, and for hosting the Garden Share. Good to hear from an experienced farmer/grower who uses cardboard mulch – “easy and lazy” sounds great to me….!

  5. Interesting to read about your polyculture experiences – it’s one of those ideas that sounds simple but, from what you say, probably needs a lot of planning and a good bit of trial and error to get right. I’ll be following your garden share collective posts over the year to see how you get on!

    • Thank you for visiting, Sarah. There’s a wonderful blog called Anni’s Perennial Veggies which has a lot of info on polyculture and perennial veg. I think growing in polycultures is not complicated, exactly – it just needs slightly different methods and ways of approaching things compared with the methods I’m used to. I’ve found it interesting to experiment, anyway!

    • Thank you Lucy – and a big thank you for hosting Tree Following, it’s such an unusual idea! I’m looking forward to seeing what other trees (and blogs) are up to…

  6. I am probably one of the least experienced gardeners out there!! I’d never had a garden at all till we moved to NZ, so we can be each others company. I loved reading about the polyculture. I am one of those folk that has everything in neat rows! I think thats just lack of experience maybe? Or I am completely OCD :: !

    • Nothing wrong with neat rows! I think both ways work well…I just have a young family and not much time for weeding, so I’m interested in trying other ways of growing that may be a little bit more forgiving if I don’t get round to weeding as often as I should! Mulching and growing things all mixed together seem to help, for me – but certainly not necessary….neat rows can look lovely!

  7. Pingback: Garden Share Collective: March 2014·

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