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Well the original polyculture is progressing nicely, although the initial seeding of chicory was a bit dense, and will need thinning out. In my mid September Update, I tried to explain how the beans were interplanted with the grains, but here are a few pictures, which I hope will clarify my system for you.

Grain and bean polyculture BonfilsThe picture is taken looking across a five foot bed, and shows five rows of plants, and groundcover. Row one is rye/bean/rye/bean. Row two is bean/bean/bean/bean/bean. The rows then alternate.

The picture below is a variation, which instead of a row of five beans across the bed, has two clusters of  four beans, one each side of the centre of the row.

grain bean polyculture bonfils

alternative layout.

The benefit of this layout is that the beans could remain, or be cut back, when the second year’s grain and corn are planted. With the first layout, all of the beans are replaced by the new plants.

I’ve also been thinking about my other beds, and how they are managed. Normally, the beds which have no crops in, get a covering of compost, about 2 inches (5 cm) thick, and are topped off with straw. The beds with overwintering/late harvesting crops, are left with just a thin dressing of compost. On my heavy clay soil, neither is really good enough. Despite what you may read, without sufficient organic matter in the soil, a clay soil will compact again. the process is gradual, but it becomes harder, and harder for some plant roots to penetrate. The Winter mulch does keep the top few inches friable, but under that, the beds become compacted. Many of the Winter crops in the beds, such as onions, garlic, leeks, etc. are quite shallow rooted, so do not keep the soil open to any great depth. So I’m taking a more polycultural approach to Winter plantings, and care.

The picture below shows one of the beds, taken last month, after harvesting maincrop potatoes.

Potatoes harvested from raised bed

Maincrop potatoes

Just to show off, I’ve added another of the same crop.

Potatoes harvested from raised bed

Spuds again

This bed will now be used for overwintered onions, and garlic, but as previously discussed, neither plant has an extensive root system to keep open the soil structure, or to improve it. So first I leveled the bed, and widened it to a full five feet. Next I added a couple of wheelbarrow loads of compost, followed by aerating the bed with a fork. I used the fork like a broadfork/u bar/gelinette, just rocking it back and forward to allow some of the compost to sink into the cracks made. After levelling the bed I set out a long row of Broad (fava) beans down the centre of the bed, and then planted echinacea acoss the beds. The reason for the echinacea is two fold. firstly, I wanted to get the plants out of pots, and into the ground. As they are seed grown hybrids, I have no idea what the flowers will be like. This gives me a chance to see the flowers next year, and keep the ones that I like. The second reason is an experiment. I’ve read lots about how compounds in plants have a similar effect in people. What I’m interested in here is the opposite. Does the fact that Echinacea stimulates the immune system in people, mean that it will do the same for plants in close proximity? We have a disease problem with some of our onions, a fungus that stops them from storing well, and it will be interesting to see if there is any difference between the rows of onions next to the echinacea, and the ones further away. The echinacea will also give me some late bee forage, with possibly the same effect for the bees.

onion bean echinacea polyculture on raised bed

Setting out

The picture above shows the setting out. 4 bean plants along the center of the row, and then a row of echinacea planted across the bed. the flowers in the foreground are Echinacea purpurea ‘magnum’, and are seed grown. You might notice the difference in the bed profile, it is now more flat, and wider, and I’ve also added more straw to the paths.

Onion Bean Echinacea polyculture

Onion Bean Echinacea polyculture

The picture above shows the beans planted about 12 inches apart. To this I have added onions, planted two rows across the bed, between each row of beans. The bottom section of the bed has about 400 onions in, and the top section will have garlic planted out tomorrow, at the same spacing. The picture below shows more of the bed.

Onion Bean Echinacea polyculture

With this polyculture, the priority are the onions and garlic. If the beans appear to be creating too much shade, they will be cut back hard. This will create mulch, and make some of the roots drop, including the nodules which contain the Nitrogen fixing bacteria, thus feeding the other plants. If the onions appear to cope well with the beans, the beans will be allowed to flower, and set seed. I had thought to add chicory and Wild white clover to this bed, but it’s late for the clover, and I think that the chicory may compete with the onions. it would have made a better ground cover though. i may sow the White Clover in the Spring.

In contrast, I have also planted up a bed with beans as the primary crop. I have added some more echinacea, and have sown chicory in rows between the beans. These beans are for seed/eating, and will be allowed to reach full size. The planting scheme is a row of Echinacea, two rows of beans, and then echinacea again, all planted across the bed, with chicory sown between every row.

Bean Echinacea and chicory polyculture in raised bed

Bean Echinacea and chicory polyculture in raised bed

The chicory is there primarily for it’s deep roots, to help open up the clay, and keep it open. It should be easy to control, as it doesn’t cope well with cutting too low to the ground, making it easy to kill with a hoe, or blade. The leaves will also help to cover the ground in the large gaps between the bean plants. If I leave it in situ, to flower, the flowers are an intense blue. As the bed already has quite a bit of compost, it should be possible to plant corn, and/or squash into it after the last frost date. I think that this is the way to start a bed for the grain/bean/corn polyculture. The bed can be started off after a late crop is taken out, by planting the beans and chicory. In Spring, the chicory can be hoed back, and the clover seed sown. Early June I can plant out corn seedlings, raised in modules. This would be followed in late June/early July by the initial grain planting. Harvesting of beans and corn in late Summer, followed by another planting of beans in early Autumn. The cycle to continue until I am ready to move into conventional vegetables for two years, and then back to this cycle, probably four years polyculture, two years vegetables (potaoes, onions, and roots).

If you have any questions about what I’m trying here, feel free to ask in a comment.

All of the best