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Polyculture Pros and Cons

Matt Baker


Joined: Dec 19, 2011
Posts: 38
I'm really itching to put polyculture and hugelkultur techniques into practice in a SPIN farm business (i.e. farming in suburban yards). But when I tell people I'm going to do 'polyculture' for a market garden business I get worried looks. I know there are so many benefits, known and unknown, about growing food in a polyculture but I worry about the labour efficiency of harvesting when, so it seems, planting stuff in monoculture rows and blocks wins out. Any thoughts on the pros and cons of polyculture vs. organic/monoculture practices in the context of an urban market garden enterprise where income/sq. ft. is the key to profitability?

I'll list off a few things I've thought about.

Polyculture Pros:
- Faster sowing
- Less pest loss
- Better flavour and nutrition
- Fertility grown on site
- Better pollination
- Improved yields

Polyculture Cons
- Slower harvest
- Difficult to calculate income and predict results
- Seed loss/hight up-front seed costs

Organic-Monocrop Pros
- Predictable income
- Established and reproducible techniques/results
- Fast harvest

Organic-Monocrop Cons
- Increases loss of carbon and nitrogen due to tillage
- Increased amounts of compost required

Kelowna, BC
Zone 5
Ken Peavey
steward

Joined: Dec 21, 2009
Posts: 2057
Location: FL
    
  43
I'm pretty much sold on polyculture. All I see are pros. If there are cons, I don't consider them to be significant. Be forwarned: It is not in my power to offer an unbiased opinion.

In an urban market garden, there are 3 key aspects
-curb appeal
-giving the customer what he wants
-high production per unit area

The analogy I like to use is to compare an artisan bakery to the bread section at Walmart. You are bringing the idea of all natural gardening to them city dwellers. This isnt row crops, and the people will respond well to a scenic, attractive, colorful and aromatic environment. Flowers and aromatic herbs enhance the place. Hanging baskets add beauty, as well as a marketable product. Keep the place neat and tidy-clear, smooth paths, unmistakable borders to the growing areas. Salad greens do very well in this environment. They add color, texture, and diversity which is ideal for appearance.

Getting the customer what he wants is what polyculture is all about. Customers want to stop in and get their salads, dinner vegetables, snacks, sandwiches and ingredients all in one stop. They want everything, all the time. The solution is continuous planting of a wide selection of crops. Some of these, a few of those, a bunch of them. Planting areas for a particular crop need to be small. For more of the same crop, you'll put more in next week, and again the week after that. The practical advantages of this solution is the eyes are filled with an array of shapes, colors and sizes of everything under the sun. This set up also presents opportunity when a customer sees something interesting or irresistable smack dab in the middle of the cucumbers.

Hugelkulture suits the urban environment in raising the ground up. This reduces traffic across the beds, and puts the plants at an ideal height.

Production per unit area demands attention. Consider raising transplants off to the side in a more efficient manner. You can get the seeds going in a fraction of the space required in the beds. This also means the water demand is a fraction of what it would be in the beds. 1000 plants in small containers on a few shelves takes a fraction of the water and time as they would when planted across a prepared bed. When a space has been cleared by customers picking it, or by your own harvesting, you have more plants ready to go right back in that spot. All you'll need to do is add some compost, the plants, and a bit of mulch. Transplanting keeps the production area moving ahead full tilt, with plants at optimum spacing. With polyculture and transplants at the ready, there is always something that can go into an empty space, and every change keep up the visual display. These potted plants, ready to go, also serve as another product for sale.

This sort of operation is perfectly suited for customer interaction. If they had the ability to pick their own produce, they can get it as fresh as possible, exactly what they want, and enjoy the adventure of the pleasant surroundings. Can't get that at walmart. If much of the harvest labor was removed, along with it goes processing/washing/packing/moving/putting away the product. There will be some customers who would prefer not to get their hands dirty. Your harvesting can then serve areas that need to be renewed-put that stuff on the market table, at a higher price of course.

Best wishes in your endeavor. Keep us posted.

Seed the Mind, Harvest Ideas.
http://farmwhisperer.com
Jordan Lowery
volunteer

Joined: Sep 26, 2009
Posts: 1527
Location: zone 7
    
  11
I've been starting to sell polyculture food. Harvesting is only a downside at first when you or someone OS only had monoculture harvesting experience. Once you or your polyculture harvesters know the plot by heart goIng in to "find" a harvest of strawberries is effortless because you know where they are. Along the way you can harvest other things that are done.

The thing that hooks people is flavor. I've been harvesting peaches lately(15 herbs and veggies growing working the trees rootzone) and almost everyone said they were the best they have ever had. And right now EVERYONE is selling peaches. So there is a lot to compare to.

So in the end it's no harder it just takes a transition period to move into polyculture systems. I help the owners of the land I farm on and their monocrop/blockcropped garden is sooooooooo much more work. I easily spend 5x the work just helping them vs working on My plot. It can be done and we it just takes practice.


The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings. - Masanobu Fukuoka
Brenda Groth
volunteer

Joined: Feb 01, 2009
Posts: 4432
Location: North Central Michigan
    
    4
a couple of difficulties I have found in my polycultures..

recognizing the plant that is growing..esp when a lot of plants look very much the same..like cole type crops..

keeping hubby from pulling things thinking they are all weeds..as well as visitors..


Brenda

Bloom where you are planted.
http://restfultrailsfoodforestgarden.blogspot.com/
Tyler Ludens
pollinator

Joined: Jun 25, 2010
Posts: 5320
Location: Central Texas USA Latitude 30 Zone 8
    
  20
Here's some folks making a polyculture community "supermarket" garden: http://permaculturenews.org/2011/11/17/fresh-worlds-wildest-supermarket/


Idle dreamer

Paulo Bessa
pollinator

Joined: Jun 15, 2012
Posts: 330
Location: Portugal (zone 9) and Iceland (zone 5)
    
    5
If you plant rows of A and rows of B and rows of C; then organization is easy. Also easy if you make a circular guild.

But if you start planting more randomly, with less attention to patterns, then the garden becomes more confusing (like a wild forest) and harvest is more difficult.

But those tend to be more fertile, self-sustainable and healthier, just like a forest, especially if planting is dense and habitat is varied (clearings here and there and lots of edges). Much less water needs. But dense planting also attracts slugs.







Our projects:
in Portugal, sheltered terraces facing eastwards, high water table, uphill original forest of pines, oaks and chestnuts. 2000m2
in Iceland: converted flat lawn, compacted poor soil, cold, windy, humid climate, cold, short summer. 50m2
Benjamin Burchall


Joined: Sep 11, 2011
Posts: 181
Location: Atlanta, GA
Matt,

Ask yourself why you need to tell people you will be doing polyculture. I don't think it is necessary to tell people that. It may only serve to hinder you. I would simply get my farm going and produce food. If you do that, you'll be demonstrating what you do. People will be more convinced by what they see than what you tell them. If you are producing delicious healthy edibles, they won't care if they are polyculture or monocropped except for the few who are already sold on polyculture. Go for it!
Isaac Hill
volunteer

Joined: Feb 28, 2011
Posts: 343
Location: Beaver County, Pennsylvania (~ zone 6)
    
    2
Benjamin Burchall wrote:Matt,

Ask yourself why you need to tell people you will be doing polyculture. I don't think it is necessary to tell people that. It may only serve to hinder you. I would simply get my farm going and produce food. If you do that, you'll be demonstrating what you do. People will be more convinced by what they see than what you tell them. If you are producing delicious healthy edibles, they won't care if they are polyculture or monocropped except for the few who are already sold on polyculture. Go for it!


At the same time, putting that word out there puts it in the mind of your customers. Now you have an opportunity to educate them! Don't we want people to know why polycultures are better?


"To oppose something is to maintain it" -- Ursula LeGuin
Thelma McGowan


Joined: Jul 03, 2011
Posts: 170
Location: western Washington, Snohomish county--zone 8b
    
    2
Check out some ofpauls videos with "Skeeter". He grows with a polyculture style and he is very successful with several crop sights in Tonasket Wa.
He has a great balanced approach to growing for a commercial selling crop.

There are no experts, Just people with more experience.
Benjamin Burchall


Joined: Sep 11, 2011
Posts: 181
Location: Atlanta, GA
At the same time, putting that word out there puts it in the mind of your customers. Now you have an opportunity to educate them! Don't we want people to know why polycultures are better?



The proof of the likely results of running a market garden business and giving potential customers information that only makes them doubt you is in the original post:

"But when I tell people I'm going to do 'polyculture' for a market garden business I get worried looks."

Why suggest to someone looking for business advice that they should do the very thing that is already being a source of friction? You don't want friction in business. You want customers to easily do business with you. Isn't the better way to grow the food, market it, then show/tell them the techniques you are using? For most customers, knowing their food is grown without chemicals is enough. Telling them more when you have nothing to show just makes them look at you sideways...unless you're only marketing to people who are already sold on polyculture or you just like constantly "educating" and trying to overcome misunderstanding, objections, and confusion. I wouldn't think that's a good use of time for a business, but your mileage may vary.
Matt Baker


Joined: Dec 19, 2011
Posts: 38
Wow. What a great response. Thanks everyone for the advice and encouragement.

To clarify, the people giving me 'worried looks' upon announcing my intention to deploy polyculture are farmers with conventional organic experience. I do respect their worry because I haven't done polyculture in a commercial farming context and thus don't have the confidence to say, "well actually I've done it and it's awesome, so I must respectfully disagree."

I don't think many people outside the permaculture world know what polyculture means so I think I will follow Benjamin's advice and grow vegetables in polyculture and let people's taste buds sell the product. Then when customers and other farmers ask me my secret, I'll say the magic word - 'polyculture'. I hope to demonstrate the advantages of polycultures over mono crop and interplanting to both farmers and customers. Hopefully I will be able to carve out a niche for this higher quality produce and charge accordingly. A big part of the SPIN farming business model is selling to restaurants so I think polyculture has a definite advantage there. Who knows, maybe in a few years polyculture will become a household word meaning the best produce money can buy.

Jordan: I share your opinion about the need to transition from monoculture harvesting techniques to polyculture. I'm sure there are many efficient ways to harvest polyculture systems as this has been the most widely practiced method until the plough was invented. We just need to rediscover and adapt those traditional food system practises to contemporary situations.

Of course if I, and we, are too successful in promoting polyculture, then everyone will do it and it won't be as valuable - but I think that's a good thing! Hopefully by that time I'll be rich and retired on my permaculture homestead/oasis.

Joshua Finch


Joined: Apr 23, 2012
Posts: 46
Location: Helsinki, Finland
I've found the same as Jordan- if you spend time in a system you know exactly where something is growing. While I don't have anything to back this up beyond speculation, I believe that humans are very adept at this type of "foraging within a territory" since we spent quite a long time doing it for survival. People are always surprised that I can "find anything out there." And I don't even know a half of a percent of what folks who have been practicing permaculture and foraging for years do.

And I guess that is part of their problem- they see a polyculture as something scary, when in fact it is quite exciting and invites you to explore. A polyculture inherently lends itself to thinking about complex relationships and I believe is a wonderful way to keep our brains sharp.

I agree with the others- do it! And your loyal customers will eventually know where everything is; including where the best growing conditions are for each plant, so they get the tastiest ones!
Benjamin Burchall


Joined: Sep 11, 2011
Posts: 181
Location: Atlanta, GA
Matt,

I hope you come back to this thread and tell us your progress. I'd like to know how it goes for you. Luck luck!
Jordan Lowery
volunteer

Joined: Sep 26, 2009
Posts: 1527
Location: zone 7
    
  11
I can back up your speculation joshua, I have a friend he was pretty bad at the whole gardening thing. Managing raised beds or rows. One day I showed him an intensive polyculture system( 30 crop species in a 15x40ft area). To him it was sort of a nightmare to go in there and harvest, nothing was in individual beds or rows. Plants growing on top of plants on top of plants. Other than that he loved the concept.

As time went by he stopped looking at it in the same way. Rather than learning and remembering where he planted things, he started to learn to look and identify individual plants and the niches they occupy. Instead of looking for a bed of this he started to search for plant specific features. At this point when he's here I can say go get some hot peppers and in no time he can have a whole basket, along with a few other things he finds along the way that need to be harvested.

Over time I've been able to narrow it down even further. And can tell you which vegetable or herb is better and where that specific plant is.

It takes time to learn but so does anything, people love harvesting more in a polyculture system over monoculture also, nothing like walking into wildflowers and herbs and veggies and trees to go gather basil, or squash, or carrots. Instead of "go pick this 300 yard long row of onions." in full sun, sterile everything around you.
Marianne West


Joined: Jan 05, 2012
Posts: 91
Location: Lemon Grove, CA
    
    1
i hope it gets easier with time. Right now, half of the time I forget what I put where and am not familiar yet with a lot of the plants I am growing. so, for me, mixed results.... It looks cool to have everything kinda growing all over the place and at least the chickens find lots of things to eat. maybe memory training would help


http://www.yogaforallpeople.com/
Paul Cereghino
volunteer

Joined: Jan 11, 2010
Posts: 839
Location: South Puget Sound, Salish Sea, Cascadia, North America
    
  12
I am doing more polyculture myself, and see three potential challenges...

1) whey you use a factory model, you plug one widget in when the other widget comes out. So if you are doing broadcast polyculture, cycling new crops in might require you to switch to transplants, and at some point have a big soil disturbance to reset the cycle. Soil disturbance can be vary useful if you are dealing with rhizomatous weeds.
2) The other limitation might be harvest planning, in that when you control composition, you know what you are going to have for market--you have a known quantity and composition of product to sell. With polyculture, you might not get this level of control, and have too much of one thing and not enough of another to meet demand... particularly in the CSA model. Ever got a CSA box with too much of something you don't really like that much? This might also suggest a hybrid model, where you are mixing 2-4 crops based on knowledge of what kind of yield you want.
3) Finally, if you are dealing with disease issues, controlling rotation might become very valuable... While I have been told that polyculture solves all disease problems... I also know people have been rotating and fallowing fields for a LONG time.

I think these are all design hurdles, not game changers. Check out Eliot Coleman's thoughts on the 'hidden farm' in his 4 season harvest book... niches in time and space where he can squeeze another crop out of the same area. So there are lots of variations on polyculture... from a 10 species broadcast, to transplanted intercropping.


Paul Cereghino- Stewardship Institute
Maritime Temperate Coniferous Rainforest - Mild Wet Winter, Dry Summer
Matt Baker


Joined: Dec 19, 2011
Posts: 38
Paul: My thoughts on your design hurdles.

1) Factory Model: Polyculture does not lend itself mechanical planting or harvesting. It seems more of an artisanal form of farming. There are people out there using mechanical methods like Helen Atthowe but she seems to be doing more what I would call intercropping or companion planting, i.e. planting two or three things together in adjacent rows. She has had good results but this does not really capture the full power of polyculture in my opinion.

2) Harvest Planning: This is the biggest design hurdle in my mind and one of the major reasons many people choose to mono-crop or interplant in rows. For my first season I won't be doing CSA boxes or supplying restaurants because I won't know how much supply I can promise. It will take a few years to predict accurate yields from a polyculture. For example if I have about 1000 spinach seeds broadcast among 20,000 other seeds I won't really know how many pounds of spinach I can harvest in 6 weeks. Maybe it will be better or worse than average. I'll have to take notes and figure it out.

3) Disease: I agree that the method of crop rotation and fallowing works and is time tested. And I think that the principle of crop rotation and fallowing can be incorporated into a polyculture model. For example, in polyculture there are many plants which are not market crops, like flowers and nutrient accumulators. So some areas of your soil will be fallow, i.e. not mined, each year and allowed to regenerate. Then, in the case of annuals in a temperate zone, after winter most of the plants will be dead and the soil can be broadcast seeded again. The random seeding of the ground will allow those plants to self-select where they grow. Maybe the broccoli you sowed last year won't like its old spot and will instead grow great where a bean plant was. I could see altering the seed mix year to year to imitate crop rotation techniques would be a good idea. The way I'm planning my seed mix I have at least 6 different plant families in each mix and several species of each family.

I admire Elliot Coleman a lot. From what I have read he seems to be migrating to interplanting from monoculture. I would like to see him do some polyculture. I think that a polyculture of polycultures is the way to go. I see so much untapped potential from the beneficial plant interactions that polycultures allow.

Tyler Ludens
pollinator

Joined: Jun 25, 2010
Posts: 5320
Location: Central Texas USA Latitude 30 Zone 8
    
  20
I'm trying a different model for polyculture this cool season. Previously I had been planting a mixture of several crops in one bed, but repeatedly had problems with fast-growing plants like Turnips overwhelming slower-growing crops like Carrots. So this time I'm planting in very small blocks of each crop, about 4 square feet of each kind, making sure no closely-related plants are next to each other (Kale not next to Collards, for instance).
John Wright


Joined: Jul 15, 2012
Posts: 17
I'm sold on the polyculture . . my customers love the taste and the soil is weed free and improving
note: I just sowed my cover crop right into the mulch and now they are coming up as the summer crops are nearing their end. peas, crimson clover, purple top turnip, groundhog radish
I posted something earlier this summer that might be helpful: )

http://www.permies.com/t/16080/permaculture/Vegetable-polycultures#141440
Tokunbo Popoola


Joined: Mar 19, 2013
Posts: 152
Location: Sacramento, CA
    
    1
i think the two forms could be mixed to form something wonderful. if you were say a farm to table. or even a CSA if you mixed it up with zones and a little creative you could clean up
James Colbert


Joined: Jan 02, 2012
Posts: 231
    
    6
Matt Baker wrote:I'm really itching to put polyculture and hugelkultur techniques into practice in a SPIN farm business (i.e. farming in suburban yards). But when I tell people I'm going to do 'polyculture' for a market garden business I get worried looks. I know there are so many benefits, known and unknown, about growing food in a polyculture but I worry about the labour efficiency of harvesting when, so it seems, planting stuff in monoculture rows and blocks wins out. Any thoughts on the pros and cons of polyculture vs. organic/monoculture practices in the context of an urban market garden enterprise where income/sq. ft. is the key to profitability?

I'll list off a few things I've thought about.

Polyculture Pros:
- Faster sowing
- Less pest loss
- Better flavour and nutrition
- Fertility grown on site
- Better pollination
- Improved yields

Polyculture Cons
- Slower harvest
- Difficult to calculate income and predict results
- Seed loss/hight up-front seed costs

Organic-Monocrop Pros
- Predictable income
- Established and reproducible techniques/results
- Fast harvest

Organic-Monocrop Cons
- Increases loss of carbon and nitrogen due to tillage
- Increased amounts of compost required


With respect I think a couple of your pro/con arguments are flawed. You are correct about a slower harvest, but seed losses need not be high if you plant in clumps or as companion plants. The first year can be a hybrid between bed (not row) cultivation and pure poly-culture. Save seeds from this grow and you will have plenty the following year. Also most seed companies provide bulk quantities of seed usually at a huge discount. Finally I would think that poly-culture is far more stable in terms of income. With a monoculture you do not have predictable results. You could have a poor crop year or everyone else can have a great one in which case the value of your crop goes down. Or the Federal government could stop providing you with tax breaks and subsidies.
Julia Winter
volunteer

Joined: Aug 31, 2012
Posts: 716
Location: Moved from south central WI to Portland, OR
    
  72
I've had some inadvertent polyculture, because I've been unable to spend time in my garden (getting ready to move). My strawberries have suffered from sharing their space with dandelions and other plants.

This had me wondering--what sort of polyculture works for strawberries?


Ask me about food.
John Sen


Joined: Oct 15, 2013
Posts: 1
Poly culture pros are many which overcome their cons. As we know that poly culture is a part of Permaculture, in which agriculture in the same space of different crops are done which are helpful to maintain ecological balance and helps to avoid excess use of monoculture. Their advantages are it helps to increase biodiversity and provides habitat to more species which makes soil fertile. Moreover it avoids the susceptibility of monoculture to diseases. Only cons I am able to point out are slower harvest which is not big one as compare to its advantages. It’s quite acceptable as poly culture allows the different crops to grow naturally without any use of chemical fertilizers which makes soil acidic and reduce its natural fertility
Peter Ellis


Joined: Apr 04, 2013
Posts: 405
Location: Central New Jersey
    
    6
Brenda Groth wrote:a couple of difficulties I have found in my polycultures..

recognizing the plant that is growing..esp when a lot of plants look very much the same..like cole type crops..

keeping hubby from pulling things thinking they are all weeds..as well as visitors..


My wife and I are looking at exactly this issue with polyculture. We are simply not yet familiar enough with plants to be able to identify what is what with adequate confidence. This past year she planted an herb garden, with a variety of herbs distributed more or less randomly.... and then we found that we could not identify many of the things coming up in the space (oops!)

So, for us, for the time being, our version of polyculture is going to be much more structured A given stretch of a bed may have multiple kinds of plants, but they will either be segregated so we know this area should be thyme and that should be basil, etc, or very, very distinctive and easy to tell from one another, such as tomatoes and bush beans and carrots

And whenever I watch someone Sepp or Geoff in their videos, my big question is "how do you harvest with any efficiency?". It seems to me that part of the process is pretty much never addressed, and it should be obvious that it is a critical question.

 
 
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