An Introduction Into Plant Polyculture
“In a polyculture garden unrelated plants grow next to each other. Think of it as the opposite of a field of corn, the classic example of monoculture. As in an abundant English garden, a polyculture approach means there will be flowers, herbs, ornamental grasses, and vegetables throughout your fruit garden. One polyculture that has stood the test of time is “The Three Sisters”- corn, beans, and squash. These three vegetables were extensively interplanted by native peoples of North America.
In nature all plants live in communities, and all these communities are polycultures. In a polyculture garden you construct an artificial plant community that emulates a natural one. As in nature, plants fulfill many functions while they interact with each other, wildlife, and you. As you plan and tend the fruit garden, be mindful of the interactive and multi-tasking nature of your creation.
“Start by paying attention to what these trees and shrubs do in addition to providing us with fruit. The canopy, with its leaves, flowers, and fruit, makes oxygen, filters and cleans the air, captures sunlight and converts it to food, diffuses raindrops, and provides habitat for micro organisms, insects, bees, and birds. Stems and trunks, in addition to transporting water and nutrients from the roots, and sugar from the leaves, provide support for the plant as well as the other plants around it. Roots take up water and nutrients from the soil, contribute to the healthy soil ecosystem, provide habitat for thousands of soil organisms, and control erosion. These are just a few of the jobs our trees and shrubs take on.
“The practice of polyculture may be the oldest garden and farming technique in the world. It has many names: interplanting, companion planting, creating plant guilds, and agroforestry. These techniques all amount to the same thing, and they all mimic natural plant communities, a distinct advantage in creating a healthy garden ecosystem in your yard. Practitioners of companion planting theorize that specific plants interact favorably with one another. A plant guild is a similar construct, in which the grower groups plants that have positive synergistic effect on one another.
“Exactly which plants grow well together is an ongoing field of study. This is why you will discover wildly differing opinions in books, on the Internet, and in conversations. While these studies continue, we have three pieces of advice: to simplify your life, group plants with the same temperature, soil, light, and water needs together; maximize species diversity by choosing unrelated plants to grow near each other; choose plants that occupy different strata of the root zone. For example, a cherry tree’s roots extend 4 to 5 feet below the surface, while the roots of most perennials occupy a much shallower zone of the soil.”
This insight into polyculture, sometimes called companion planting, is an excerpt from What’s Wrong With My Fruit Garden, written by David Deardorff and Kathryn Wadsworth. You can purchase the book in our online bookstore HERE.