Get started with polyculture in your garden

3 Tips to Get Started with Polyculture in Your Garden

Let’s get started with polyculture in your garden! What is polyculture, you ask? Polyculture is a way of growing a mix of different plants in a single garden plot. (As opposed to a monoculture, where every garden plot only has a single plant.) Planting in polyculture is a great way to generate more harvests with less headaches. But there are also some challenges. To help you through the tricky parts, here are 3 tips to get started with polyculture in your garden!

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A polyculture can provide wonderful benefits to your garden. But while relatively simple in theory, it can be complex in practice.

Still, despite the challenges of getting started with polyculture in your garden, the benefits are well worth it. Here are a few:

Benefits of Growing Food in Polyculture

Pests just seem to get confused when they find a polyculture—at least compared to a long row of only 1 type of plant. But the trouble is, just like the pests, gardeners new to growing food in a polyculture can also get confused.

Now where is that broccoli plant?

You and the local cabbage butterfly might both be asking this question! But if you follow these next 3 tips, you can get started with polyculture in your garden without getting overwhelmed or lost in your own garden!

Let’s get started with polyculture. But before you scroll down, make sure to grab your free and easy-to-print cheat-sheet which summarizes the tips found on this post so you can take them out with you in the garden.

Get Started with Polyculture in Your Garden by Planting 3 Vegetables per Garden Bed

Start simple with your polyculture garden

It can be easy to go a little overboard with a polyculture. The plants are so small when they are just starting out! But quickly you can lose your plants in the new jungle. I did that in this small garden I grew while renting, and I still have a bad habit of growing too many plants. Learn from my mistake and stick to a manageable number.

I often go a bit overboard when I’m planting my vegetable garden. The result is a bit of a jungle. This means that pests don’t tend to be a big issue, but I do lose out on some harvests because of it.

Over time I’ve learned to plant a bit less, so there’s less crowding and I can harvest more from my garden.

A simple way to get started with polyculture in your garden without getting overwhelmed is to take a bed where you were growing just 1 type of vegetable and expand that to 3 types.

You could do a row of lettuce, a row of carrots, and a row of broccoli.

As you get more comfortable with growing a polyculture, you can add more plants to your garden bed.

Another way to make this process easier is to follow square foot gardening spacing rules. Instead of planting in rows, you plant your vegetables in groups.

This keeps your vegetables grouped together by type and makes it easy to add other vegetables in groups next to them.

Wild Tip

Try mixing 2 vegetables that need similar spacing in a single group. Perhaps you could alternate lettuce, Swish chard, and basil. This will add more diversity to your polyculture while still keeping it manageable. But don’t worry if this sounds too complex. Start simple and grow from there.

To learn more about growing vegetables using square foot gardening, check out the link above for a quick guide. But if you really want to dive into this method, then check out the great book All New Square Foot Gardening, 3rd Edition by Mel Bartholomew and Square Foot Gardening Foundation.

While this approach won’t provide as many benefits as a more diverse polyculture, (like the type in the Wild Tip above,) you will still see benefits over growing vegetables in a monoculture.

As you get more comfortable and experienced with getting started with polyculture in your garden, you can expand it to increase the benefits to your garden. The next section has a simple way to do this.

Get Started with Polyculture in Your Garden by Adding Flowers

Use flowers to get started with polyculture in your garden

I love nasturtiums, and they make a great addition to a vegetable garden. These great plants add beauty and color to the garden. Plus, they’re edible! They can also distract pests. Aphids went after my nasturtiums last year, but left my other plants alone. Eventually lady bugs showed up and wiped out the aphids

One very easy way to add diversity to your garden and expand your polycultures is to add flowers to your garden.

You could easily replace every 5th vegetable in a group of like vegetables with, say, a marigold. Or you could plant nasturtiums on the edges of your garden beds and let them cascade over the edge.

Plants like sweet alyssum are also great options and go well with Swish chard.

All of these plants will also attract beneficial insects to your garden, which will further help with pest control. Plus, the ones listed above are also edible!

There are many other flowers you could add to your garden. This is a great way to expand your polycultures without turning your garden into a jungle.

Grow Tall Plants on the North Side of Your Garden Bed

Get started with polyculture in your garden by planting tall vegetables on the northside

In my kitchen garden, I put my climbing beans on the north side of their bed to prevent them from shading out the rest of the plants. This works great and lets me get more harvests from the same area.

The final tip is simple, but it’s important to ensure you get the most out of your new polyculture.

Make sure to grow the tallest plants (flowers or vegetables) on the north side of your garden beds. (Or on the south side in the southern hemisphere).

Grow your shortest plants, like lettuce or carrots on the south side of the bed. Then add, say, broccoli or Swish chard in the middle, and then tomatoes or climbing beans on the north side.

This way you can make sure your vegetables don’t shade out their neighbors.

Wild Tip

You can take this concept and get a bit creative. Try mixing in shorter vegetables that do fine in the shade and like it cooler around your taller vegetables. The taller vegetables will shelter the smaller vegetables and help them deal with the heat of summer. Growing spinach under taller vegetables is a great example. Especially if those taller vegetables are slower to develop than your spinach.

Take Your Polyculture to the Next Level

Get started with polyculture in your garden with perennial vegetables

A great way to expand your polycultures over time is to mix in some perennial vegetables. These plants will return year after year and add a foundation to your polyculture mix.

If you follow these 3 tips, you’re well on your way to getting started with a polyculture in your garden. And once you get used to this simple approach to growing food in a polyculture, you can take it to the next level.

Try expanding from 3 to 5 types of vegetables per garden bed. And add more flowers to the mix.

You can also add perennial vegetables to your garden beds. Rhubarb, kosmic kale, and sorrel are all great options, and there are many others depending on your climate.

I’ve written a number of blog posts all about perennial vegetables that can help you get started with these great plants.

You can also check out the great book, Perennial Vegetables: From Artichoke to Zuiki Taro, a Gardener's Guide to Over 100 Delicious, Easy-to-grow Edibles, by Eric Toensmeier.

So are you feeling ready to get started with perennial vegetables in your garden? Great! Switching to this method of growing food can be challenging, but if you follow these 3 tips you will have an abundant vegetable garden with more harvests, less pests, and more soil life before you know it!

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Daron

Daron is a restoration ecologist, a lifelong gardener, and the founder of Wild Homesteading. He manages the restoration program for a local non-profit, and he applies restoration and sustainable gardening techniques on his family’s own wild homestead. He loves sharing the joy of growing food with his two beautiful children. In addition, to running this site Daron manages the restoration program for a local non-profit and is a husband to an amazing wife who makes this site and the homestead possible and daddy to 2 perfect kids.

  • Jay says:

    I will sometimes plant a tall veggie to the south so that I can plant something that want’s a bit of protection from sun or heat in its shadow. For example I’ll leave enough room between the pole beans and the north edge of the bed for some summer lettuce.

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