Introduction to Polycultures

For those of you who are unfamiliar with this term, let me explain. A large farm field of corn or wheat or soybeans is considered a monoculture. Per the Wikipedia definition:
Monoculture is the agricultural practice of producing or growing a single crop or plant species over a wide area and for a large number of consecutive years. It is widely used in modern industrial agriculture and its implementation has allowed for large harvests from minimal labour. Monocultures can lead to the quicker spread of diseases, where a uniform crop is susceptible to a pathogen. ‘Crop monoculture’ is the practice of growing the same crop year after year.

The alternative to monoculture is polyculture. Again per the Wikipedia definition (and this one is really good!):
Polyculture is agriculture using multiple crops in the same space, in imitation of the diversity of natural ecosystems, and avoiding large stands of single crops, or monoculture. It includes multi-cropping, intercropping, companion planting, beneficial weeds, and alley cropping.

Polyculture, though it often requires more labor, has several advantages over monoculture:

  • The diversity of crops avoids the susceptibility of monocultures to disease. For example, a study in China reported in Nature showed that planting several varieties of rice in the same field increased yields by 89%, largely because of a dramatic (94%) decrease in the incidence of disease, which made pesticides redundant.
  • The greater variety of crops provides habitat for more species, increasing local biodiversity. This is one example of reconciliation ecology, or accommodating biodiversity within human landscapes. It is also a function of a biological pest control program.

Polyculture is one of the principles of permaculture.

I want to start putting together some lists of plants that are proven to work well in a polyculture… not just theoretically, but actually, for-real, been done. Polycultures are also known as Guilds. I think I consider Guilds to be large polycultures, but they really are the same thing. As I come across more examples, I will share them. I will start with these ones today…

Proven Permaculture Polyculture Plantings: Part 1

1. Sunchoke, Hog Peanut

  • Sunchokes (Helianthus tuberosus) have edible tubers, emerge early, grow fast, reach 8 feet (2.4 meters), used as a trellis for vining plants
  • Hog Peanuts (Amphicarpaea bracteata) have edible seeds and “roots” which are really seeds that develop underground (see photo above), are shade-loving, climb up and sprawl out (smothering weeds), and fix nitrogen
  • Notes: Hog Peanuts can grow fast and can overwhelm shorter plants which make it a great groundcover. Sunchokes grow tall enough to avoid being overgrown by Hog Peanut. Sunchokes need to be harvested by digging. While the Hog Peanuts are sometimes not worth the trouble of harvesting because they are so small, if we are digging for the Sunchokes, then it is worthwhile to grab the Hog Peanuts as well.

2. Pawpaw Tree, Ramps, Hog Peanut

  • Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is a small tree with delicous fruit.
  • Ramps (Allium tricoccum) a.k.a. Wild Leeks, are early Spring vegetables and grows well in the shade
  • Hog Peanuts (Amphicarpaea bracteata) have edible seeds and “roots” which are really seeds that develop underground, are shade-loving, climb up and sprawl out (smothering weeds), and fix nitrogen
  • Notes: Ramps will grow well under Pawpaws, and will die back just when Hog Peanuts are getting large. If you do want to go through the trouble of harvesting the Hog Peanuts, there are no other actively growing plants in that layer during harvest time. The fruiting Pawpaw will benefit from the nitrogen produced by the Hog Peanut.

3. Jostaberry, Hog peanut

  • Jostaberry (Ribes × nidigrolaria) complex-cross in the Ribes genus, involving three original species, the Black Currant R. nigrum, the Coastal Black Gooseberry R. divaricatum, and the European Gooseberry R. uva-crispa. This is a fruiting shrub with fruit larger than a currant, smaller than a gooseberry. They taste like gooseberries but have no thorns! They grow 5-6 feet tall.
  • Hog Peanuts (Amphicarpaea bracteata) have edible seeds and “roots” which are really seeds that develop underground, are shade-loving, climb up and sprawl out (smothering weeds), and fix nitrogen
  • Notes: The Hog Peanut will suppress weed growth under the Jostaberry, and the Jostaberry is tall enough not to be overgrown by the Hog Peanut. The fruiting Jostaberry will benefit from the nitrogen produced by the Hog Peanut.

4. Red Alder, Chinese Yam, Birdsfoot Trefoil, Elephant Garlic, Kurrat Leeks, Ramps, Camas

  • Red Alder (Alnus rubra) These large trees fix nitrogen and are great support structures for climbing, fruiting plants, they attract beneficial insects, and they grow fast.
  • Chinese Yam (Dioscorea opposita) Vine with large edible tubers – high production. Can also produce smaller aerial tubers. Can climb to over 12 feet (4 meters).
  • Birdsfoot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) Herbaceous perennial that fixes nitrogen, can be used for animal fodder, and attract beneficial insects. 1 foot (30 cm) tall.
  • Elephant Garlic (Allium ampeloprasum var. ampeloprasum) Not really a garlic but a variety of Leek. Large, mild tasting bulbs.
  • Kurrat (Egyptian) Leeks (Allium ampeloprasum) An onion species that is used like a leek.
  • Ramps (Allium tricoccum) a.k.a. Wild Leeks, are early Spring vegetables and grows well in the shade
  • Camas (Camassia quamash) has edible bulbs and has flowers that attract beneficial insects.
  • Notes: The Red Alder takes some time to grow as a living trellis for the Chinese Yam. For a few years before the Alder creates significant shade, the Birdsfoot Trefoil will make a good groundcover that puts nitrogen into the ground. The Elephant Garlic, Kurrat Leeks, and Birdsfoot Trefoil require full sun to grow well, so these are perfect initial plantings until the Alder grows. The Chinese Yams can take a few years to develop large underground tubers, but will produce aerial tubers right away, so there will be a small crop as the main crop is developing. As the Alder begins to produce heavy shade, the garlic and leeks will slow down production and the Ramps and Camas, which were already being harvested, will take over more since they are able to grow in the shade. As the Birdsfoot Trefoil dies back, the nitrogen production will continue with the ever growing Alder.

5. Beach Plum, Green and Gold, Dwarf Coreopsis, Ramps, Camas

  • Beach Plum (Prunus maritima) This fruiting shrub can grow to over 12 feet (4 meters) and produces small, delicious plums.
  • Green and Gold (Chrysogonum virginianum) This is a beautiful groundcover that attracts beneficial insects and can grown in partial shade.
  • Dwarf Coreopsis (Coreopsis auriculata nana) This is another beautiful groundcover that attracts beneficial insects.
  • Ramps (Allium tricoccum) a.k.a. Wild Leeks, are early Spring vegetables and grows well in the shade
  • Camas (Camassia quamash) has edible bulbs and has flowers that attract beneficial insects.
  • Notes: This is just a beautiful polyculture with flowering plum and groundcover, edible Spring vegetables, and edible Camas bulbs.

6. Comfrey, Mint

  • Comfrey (Symphytum officianale) This classic plant almost does it all: dynamic accumulator, attracts beneficial insects, groundcover, and forage plant for animals
  • Mint (Mentha species) Amazing flavor, attracts beneficial insects, aromatic pest confusor, groundcover, and dynamic accumulator
  • Notes: This is a classic combination for use as a tall groundcover under trees and large shrubs. The Comfrey will block out most weeds and can be used as a living mulch. The Mint will snake its way in and around the Comfrey to assist goundcover duties while providing its own additional benefits.

Source for these Polycultures: Permaculture Activist Magazine February 2013, Eric Toensmeier (award winning author of Perennial Vegetables and co-author of Edible Forest Gardens)

Subscribe to TCPermaculture.com and receive updates whenever a new article is posted!

Photo Reference:

  • http://apiosinstitute.org/sites/default/files/resize/hog%20peanut-500×375.jpg