Although it may sound like a new form of sustainable cultivation, polyculture (and all that it entails), has been around for thousands of years. This is a traditionally tested method for growing several plant species together on the same piece of land.
All About Polyculture
Not only does this method make much more of available resources, it joins people and the environment together by using mutually beneficial cultivation methods. With this system, there’s less waste, less soil damage, and fewer problems with pests and diseases.
Best of all, there’s less cause to use serious chemical controls, which is shown to damage wildlife biodiversity and ecosystems, not to mention our own health and wellbeing.
It has taken a while, but we’re now acutely aware of the environmental damage our daily lives have on the world around us. As a nation, many of us are choosing to step away from high-yield, high-emission and inorganic cultivation practices. We’re choosing sustainable, organic options when it comes to how our food is sown, grown and harvested.
After all, we are what we eat, right?
Polyculture farming techniques were common practice throughout much of the world up until the 1950s. In fact, this mixed planting technique is still widely used throughout South America, Eastern Asia, Africa, and regions of the Himalayas. Furthermore, it’s estimated that currently, 15 – 20% of the world’s agriculture still relies on these traditional polyculture growing systems.
Today I’m going to take a closer look at polyculture as a whole, including prevalent soil management and growing techniques. Furthermore, I’ll talk about sustainability, advantages and disadvantages of adopting these ecologically friendly, sustainable farming methods.
Monoculture, or single-species farming techniques, have become popular in the last 70 or so years. This method of arable crop farming really came into play in the 1950’s when chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers were first developed. These allowed farmers to create much higher yields whilst reducing man hours.
At this time, we had little knowledge on the damage this would cause to the natural world around us.
Of course, over the years, farm machinery has advanced to stage where most tractors and cultivating machines now have GPS as standard. This allows farmers to employ every square foot of land in the quest for higher crop yields, and inevitably, higher profits.
Unfortunately, this all too often comes at a high price, such as over-cultivation, wildlife destruction, and the continued use of chemical controls.
This isn’t just something that you “do”. There are many different ways to create an environment that ties everything together in natural, harmonious relationships. Fortunately, it’s easy to incorporate some of these eco-friendly methods into your own garden.
This is a multiple-cropping practice where you grow two or more crops together on a single piece of land. Research shows that intercropping produces greater yields than single-crop farming, on less acreage. These methods not only optimize resources, but also sequence natural ecological processes that don’t occur in single crop growing, or monoculture, as we know it.
A great example of intercropping—also known as companion planting—has been successful for several thousands of years throughout Latin America and Africa. This is the “Three Sisters” regime, using maize, beans and squash.
The maize (corn) provides growing structures for the beans. In turn, the beans add nitrogen to the soil, (which in turn feeds all the crops). Finally, the squash offers ground cover, preventing weed growth. All in all, a mutually beneficial system with little maintenance.
I’ve listed a whole host of companion plants below that rely on this same system. Each species helps its companion to grow into a healthy, happy and productive plant.
|Main Crop||Companion Crop||Results|
|Cabbage, Cauliflower & Kale||Nasturtium||Cabbage white butterflies will target companion|
|Mint||Helps deter flea beetles that damage leaves|
|Carrot||Any Onions, Leeks,||Scent helps deter carrot root fly & onion fly|
|Mint||Scent helps deter carrot fly|
|Broad Beans||Summer savory||Helps repel blackfly, a common broad bean pest|
|French/Runner Beans||Nasturtium||Aphids will target companion plant|
|Sweet Peas||Attracts pollinating insects to Runner bean flowers|
|Courgette||English Marigolds||Attract pollinating insects to courgette flowers|
|Tomatoes||Chives and Mint||Scent will deter aphids and other pests|
|French Marigold||Scent deters whitefly|
|Basil||Improves crop flavour and deters aphids|
|Roses||Mint, Chives & Thyme||Scent deters aphids and blackfly|
Benefits of Intercropping
- Crops planted together yield more varied and nutrient-rich contents
- Less land is needed, resulting in better efficiency of natural resources
- Plants growing near other plant species often have a greater immunity against bacteria
- Different sizes and shapes of plant roots make use of all the soil and give structure
- Increased soil fertility
- Improved fruit pollination
- Creates plant communities that have mutual benefits to each other
- An organic way to protect your crops against pests & diseases
Main Crop and Second Crop
This intercropping method is especially useful when your main crop is nutrient hungry. The second crop is grown to enhance the main crop’s conditions by adding nutrients to the soil, rather than for harvest. A good example of this is Wheat (1st crop) and Beans (2nd crop).
A cover crop is generally an off-season crop that’s grown over the winter months. This puts goodness and nutrients back into the land while it’s resting. It’s an eco-friendly system that manages soil health and fertility, as well as soil erosion.
It’s also water conservation, weed prevention and pest and disease problems. This method of growing promotes natural biodiversity while greatly enhancing wildlife. In short, cover cropping creates an ecosystem on agricultural land.
The Benefits of Cover Cropping
- Protects bare ground over the winter months and reduces surface weeds
- Soils are covered for longer ,resulting in better soil water retention and lower evaporation levels
- Decreases the need for tillage, conserving valuable soil nutrients and microbes
- Many cover crops—such as green manures—add nutrients to the soil
- Deep and fibrous root systems help to break up heavy soils
- Digging in cover crops helps to rebuild the soil’s organic matter and stop soil erosion
Examples of Cover Crops
- Grazing rye is one of the top cover crops with a high ability to hold onto soil nitrogen
- Mustard is a fast-growing foliage crop, which will boost soil’s organic content when dug in
- Legumes of all types, especially winter field beans and peas, add nitrogen to the soil
- Clover and wetch are commonly used legume cover crops grown for their nutrient-rich, organic properties
- Buckwheat aids in weed suppression, enriches the soil, and attracts beneficial insects
- Phacelia keeps weeds at bay and improves soil structure ,while its flowers attract bees and hoverflies
Perennial plant polycultures are also known as permacultures. These ethical growing methods attract wildlife and nectar-seeking insects, while increasing soil fertility. They also decrease erosion, and help water conservation. Best of all, they prove to be environmentally friendly cultivation methods for creating sustainable ways of living.
Permaculture contains a set of twelve principles. These have the goal of meeting the needs of both the planet and its people, sustainably, in the long term.
A good example of permaculture growing is seen in Colombia’s most renowned coffee farms. In these places, the coffee plants are grown in the shade of the tree forest canopy. This imitates a natural ecosystem that provides nutrient-rich soils, moisture, humidity and wildlife. In essence, giving just the right conditions for successful plant growth and a perfect coffee bean harvest.
Crop Rotation System
Every gardener worth their weight knows how to plan and set up a vegetable crop rotation system. It generally runs on a three- or four-year cycle, and is a great way to ensure your crops and soils remain healthy year after year.
The most important thing to remember with a crop rotation programme is to avoid growing the same crop in the same place for two years running. As a result, it allows exhaustive feeders to move around the soil, and to replenish the soil’s goodness in-between.
I have added a programme below that explains this and its concept.
This is similar to how most hobby gardeners grow their pride veggies, in which different plants are grown in alternating rows. In contrast, this method doesn’t exactly mix these two crops together, but still provides the same ecological benefits, such as nutrient cycling and oil erosion prevention.
A nutrient cycle is the movement and exchange of organic and inorganic matter, back into the production of living matter. In short, it’s like ecological recycling, and fundamental to every ecosystem.
This farming method provides by-products (and waste) from an aquatic species as food and fertilizers for another. A good example of Integrated aquaculture is fish farming. Farmers combine fed aquaculture—such as fish and shrimp—with inorganic extractive (seaweed), and organic extractive (shellfish).
This results in a perfectly balanced system that removes pollutants from soil and water, whilst providing sustainable financial stability and better environmental management practices.
All of these practices are types of polyculture. They all build environmentally friendly and sustainable methods of growing, feeding and caring for our crops, whilst we look after the world around us and each other.
- Promotes food security due to the diverse range of crops grown
- Reduces waste products and recycles them
- Ensures the maximum utilization of all resources
- Eliminates the use of chemical controls and further problems associated with chemical use
- Grows healthier plants, less susceptible to diseases
- Creates self-sufficient, sustainable environments
- Enhances natural eco-systems and nutrient cycling
- Increases soil fertility, structure, moisture, soil microbes, and nutrients
- Uses less agricultural machinery, so less costs to farmers
- Uses less fossil fuels
- Fewer weeds—more ground is covered for longer periods
- Better organic weed management
- Fewer pests—polycultures mimic naturally diverse ecosystems resulting in lower pest issues
- Better organic pest management, often through their own natural enemies
- Healthier humans eating healthier foods with fewer nitrates
There are obviously some disadvantages to polyculture, otherwise all farms would be following the same eco-friendly methods. For me, the advantages far outweigh the negatives. That said, I don’t make a living from my land, plus I like to know what I’m eating and where it’s come from.
I have listed some of the disadvantages below, so you can make up your own mind.
Disadvantages of Polyculture
- Multi-crop growing requires a wider knowledge of many different plant groups and their individual needs
- Practices can take a lot of time to plan properly
- Far more difficult to plant, grow, and harvest more than one crop on a large scale
- Many more man-hours are needed compared to monoculture farming
- Different species have different nutritional needs, which could make feeding complicated
- Crop yields are generally lower
- Companion planting is scientific and has to be thoroughly researched: not all plants grow compatibly together, and this research can be expensive
- Possible food availability issues
Now that you have all of the facts, you can integrate some of these methods into your gardens. You may need to take a little more time planning, but remember: you reap what you sow.