|It is commonly known that daylily flowers (Hemerocallis) are edible. Well, their young spring shoots too. Moreover, they give an abundant and reliable crop each year. Here, the daylily cultivar "Corryton Pink".|
What is polyculture and why use this method?
Polyculture is a way of designing gardens, garden beds, vegetable patches or even orchards with as much vegetal diversity as possible. In those spaces, if a good number of plants are edible, many others are not. It is because they are there to do other tasks that are equally important. It has been proven that because it imitates nature, this method builds very resilient ecological systems. Therefore, this idea of implementing as much diversity as possible is one of the basic principles in permaculture.
The residential sector also has its monoculture: lawn. In fact, it is the most important irrigated culture in United-States. In this country, the total surface occupied by lawn is three times greater than the total surface devoted to corn.
|Here's the young bed|
where I trialed my
Take note that the term "polyculture" may also refer to a very specific method of gardening where we spread at random a mixture of many different vegetable seeds on the same garden bed.
We choose vegetables that can be sown early in spring but won't mature all at the same time (radishes, beets, carrots, mustards and different types of lettuce, for instance). While the young shoots make their appearance and develop, we harvest some in the spots that are too crowded and we eat them as greens or baby vegetables. We leave the others in place to continue their growth. We repeat this harvest as long as it is needed, until the distance between the remaining plants is sufficient to let them grow fully.
In opposition to the traditional method, the operation of thinning the rows is not done all at once at the very beginning of the plants' growth, but in succession, only as needed. Furthermore, the young plants that are removed are viewed as an edible crop instead of being discarded as waste. Finally, because the types of plants are varied, they can occupy the space without hindering each other. For example, while a carrot grows underground, its slender leaves find their place in a nook between two lettuces that are spreading over the surface of the ground.
While we proceed with this ponctual harvesting, it is interesting to create a few clearings just big enough to put in it a young transplant of a bigger vegetable that will grow much more slowly: a brocoli or a cabbage are good candidates for this.
Lettuces and turnips were interesting while the rest was somerwhat disapointing, probably because the space where the trials happened just didn't receive enough sun. The carrots and beets stayed small and I'd rather not mention about the radishes. Actually, I haven't yet found the spot in my garden where root vegetables have managed to do well.
In fact, rare are the gardeners that cultivate only one or two plant species. And the reflex to physically separate our plants is weening. From my stepmom's confession, no one would have mixed annual vegetables with ornementals in the 1940's. Yet, this strategy is particularly useful in our city gardens, because of their small size and unusual conditions. It as become common to see, in a city garden, a rhubarb plant neighbouring a rose plant or tomatoes snuggled between a shed and a spirea hedge.
|Between sidewalk and house, perrenials are queens, but still share the space and sun with fruits and vegetables. The brown patch of soil in the center of the picture is one of those discreet spaces I keep for annual vegetables.|
|Snow peas are easy to grow on a very|
small surface, because they can climb
vertically on a physical support such
as a pole or a trellis.
Actually, those annual vegetables we so prize are generally more fragile and finicky than many a perennial ornemental. Their capacity to adapt to different conditions are more limited (if you want a good crop, that is). It is however normal: most of these plants come from sunny and warm countries. Moreover, we do ask more out of them than just growing well and looking pretty. To reach what we want out of them, they went through a tough selection throughout the centuries and have become domesticated.
In my opinion, heirloom varieties have more to offer to the gardener than the recent hybrids that saturate the market. These hybrids have been selected more for their abilities to produce well and be resistent to certain disease in monoculture situation. They need constant irrigation, fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides.
Leave them to themselves however, and they are less able to thrive in a natural environment (one that has, for example, other species of plants to compete with or that is subjected to the occasionnal dry spell). Some farmers recognized for their work to advance the fields of ecological agriculture and polyculture - like the famous austrian farmer Sepp Holzer - have realized that these vegetable hybrids lose quality in taste and even in nutritional value what they apparently have gained in productivity.
|Tomato "Sub-Arctic", from Solana.|
It is easy to grow in containers and it produces
early in the season (45-50 days). It doesn't need
hot weather to bear well. Even more, the fruits
are delicious. It is however a determined variety
meaning it will produce all its fruits at the same
time (over a period of 2-3 weeks, then the plant
will stop producing and eventually die).
On the other hand, many hybrids are sterile or produce babies that aren't like their parents. In vegetables, it's generally not something we favor when we want to gather our own seeds for the next year's sowing. On the other side, some hybrids do have interesting qualities that aren't available in older cultivars, like the tomato "Sub-Arctic", presented on the picture above.
|"Anna Russe" tomato is an|
heirloom and the fruit is
heart-shaped. This variety
is particularly delicious,
especially when the fruits
are very mature. The plant is
indeterminate, which means
you will have a huge sprawling
plant that gives fruits throughout
the season. Another one we
found at Solana.
Of course, these plants choice of selection also stem from marketing considerations. Nurseries rather prefer selling annuals instead of perennials since it means a reliable repeat of customers year after year.
|The "Pantano Romanesco" tomato is|
often ribbed and dented. But she
gives meaty fruits that are very good
fresh or in sauce. Again, from Solana.
And this often lead to a wasteful attitude that the client himself is rarely even aware himself: the farmer can't sell these defects for human consumption (an important amount of the initial harvest, by the way, sometimes as much as half of it) whether they be ribbed potatoes that are hard to peel or carrots that aren't perfectly straight.
The point is, when we make a vegetable garden, we can expect some to have defects: siamese tomatoes, crooked carrots or too small carrots, imperfect skin or irregular color, especially since the seed merchant whose aim is us, gardeners, tend to favor varieties whose first qualities aren't appearance, but taste and originality, for instance.
In older times, farmers and gardeners who were producing their own seed stocks weren't spared from these vicissitudes. But with perseverance, they managed to select, year in year out, varieties of vegetables that were very well adapted to their specific local clime.
As gardeners, we too can explore the vast array of choices offered by seed merchants to find fruits and vegetables that do well where we live. Those varieties not only live better in gardens that are appropriate to their needs but they may also deliver better for our needs and taste too.