I’ve spent some time planting up another bed to extend the Grain/vegetable polyculture experiment. It’s only about a days work in total, but has been spread over four. Having harvested maincrop potatoes on Saturday, re-shaped the bed, and then added compost on Sunday, today I planted out another batch of Rye.
The planting is late. I wanted to grow another batch of rye, as the first batch started to go to seed, as reported in an Polyculture Progress. I also had to delay planting until the bed was empty. The planting of this bed was also a conscious decision to expand the scope, and scale of the experiment.
I had been looking at the beds already planted,and enjoy seeing them full of plants. Bare soil isn’t natural, and my normal practice is to cover my empty beds with compost, add a layer of straw, and then leave it until it’s time to plant into the bed. Theoretically, the soil life will have kept, and even enhanced the soil structure, but in practice, that’s only true for the top six inches or so. Keeping a covering of plants, particularly grains and Broad (Fava) beans, will allow the plant roots to maintain an open structure to the soil, and continue to feed the soil microbes. Another advantage is a reduction in compost use, and therefore hard work. The bed above would normally get eight wheelbarrow loads of compost. It is one of twelve in this growing space. That’s almost 100 barrow loads of compost, which is 200 loads to the compost heap, and 100 out of it. That’s a lot of work. Knowing that this bed was having plants in all Winter, and that those plants were carbon rich (Rye and Broad Beans), and also Nitrogen fixing (Broad Beans and clover), meant that I only used 2 loads of compost this time, and should not have to add anything more for as long as the polyculture continues.
This is another picture of the same bed. The rye is planted out 60cm/2 feet apart in three rows down the length of the bed. The spacings across the bed are very slightly narrower, to allow for a bed width of 5 feet. There are about 50 plants in the bed. I have sown wild white clover (Trifolium repens), Persian Clover (Trifolium resupinatum), and chicory into the bed. The timing is late for all of these, but I’m hoping to get some growth before the weather turns cold. Whilst the White clover is part of the conventional Bonfils method, the others are not. I wanted to add the persian clover, as I thought that it would be faster growing than the white, and might leave less bare soil over Winter. The white will eventually come to dominate. It’s a creeping perennial,whereas the persian is an annual. The chicory is there to open up the subsoil, and to accumulate minerals. All are also good bee plants, and edible. Another example of the permaculture principle ‘every element should perform more than one function’.
The next stage is to add the broad beans, but the placement of them is making me have to think. An explanation of the method is probably needed at this point.
If you look at the picture above, I want you to imagine those seedlings next June. They will be four feet or more in height, with lots of stems, and have a ground cover of clover and chicory. After solstice, the next batch of grain will be sown in the gaps, before the existing plants are harvested.
Are you with me so far? The obvious way to do that is midway between them diagonally, like the middle dot on the ‘five’ face of a dice. However, that would only give me two new rows along the length of the bed, instead of three. If I place the new seedlings midway between the old plants along the existing rows, the spacing is tighter, until the old plants are harvested, but I get three rows of grain again.To continue the dice analogy, the ‘four’ face becomes the ‘six’ face.
I need to decide now, as the next stage of my experiment is to add the Broad beans, which are soaking now, and will be planted soon. A little early, but I want to see if an earlier planting will give stronger plants than an October/November sowing. As the beans will be planted in the gaps, I don’t want to put them in a space that will be needed for next years’ grain seedlings, nor where I plan to add sweetcorn. It wouldn’t be too serious to plant too many beans, and then remove the surplus, but it’s extra work.
Next time that I explain it, I’m going to have to draw a picture, in stages, to show what I intend to do.
I’m going to close the post with a few more pictures.
The picture above is of the same seedling pictured as a close up in my last post Polyculture progression. The increase in growth of it, and that of the groundcover, is clear. This is part of the reason for the mid-Summer sowing. It allows much more growth before Winter slows growth down, giving more leaf to photosynthesise once the temperature rises, and daylength increases, in Spring. This should lead to increased growth, and yields. The wider spacing reduces root competition from neighbouring plants, but I’ve yet to discover whether the addition of beans, and then corn, into the polyculture, will increase that competition, and therefore reduce yields. There are plants, particularly trees whose roots will avoid the roots of other plants of the same species, but will happily share space with those of a different species. That’s what I’m hoping will happen here.
This is the same seedling from ground level.You can see how bulky it is becoming, with lots of tillers, but the brown staining on the leaves is rust, a result of letting the seedlings get to dry.
The next important stage of the polyculture is the sowing of the beans. At the moment I am soaking the seeds, and then growing them on in large rootrainers, but as the scale of this expands, I’m probably going to have to soak and germinate the beans, but then plant them out directly.
If there’s anybody reading this who is trying a similar experiment, or who wants to try it for themselves, get in touch.
All of the best