My family… we’re country folk. We know a lot about plants and soil, bugs and birds, and animals. So when my dad said to me this summer that he thought his garden was doing better this year, it was really nothing new. It was surprising, however, because my dad has been really sick this year and unable to do much with the garden, short of getting it planted in the ground. I went over and looked at it. It was covered in ‘weeds.’ Things were growing: vegetables, flowers, herbs. No nice, neat, orderly rows that one would expect in a “typical” garden, but it was working, nonetheless. After a nice visit, my son and I took some vegetables and drove back to suburbia.
A few weeks later, I was reading Janine Benyus’ book, Innovation Inspired by Nature. The first few chapters discuss the land, feeding the world, and growing things; the term “polyculture” came up several times. The definition, according to Oxford Dictionary, is the simultaneous cultivation or exploitation of several crops or kinds of animals. Growing multiple species in a garden plot is actually beneficial. We’ll talk about the why and how later, but…my dad was right!! (And yes, I told him!) He said he had always had an inclination that there might be something to the idea of not weeding a garden, but he did not have anything to tell him why it would work. In the book, Janine talks with The Land Institute and describes in detail how polyculture works: ‘farmers’ are transforming agriculture by using nature the natural way.
What do I mean by “using nature the natural way?” Shouldn’t nature BE natural?! The words are derivatives of each other, after all. We have to consider the impacts that humans have had on the natural world over the years. It has been a long time since we have allowed nature to just ‘be.’ Humans sometimes have a tendency to think that, as a superior species, we know best. We want bigger. We want better. We want it faster. The Industrial Revolution has given us the means to achieve these things, but it has been at the cost of our air, soil, and water health. We grow acres of corn in nice, neat, orderly rows; acres of fields are covered with soybeans; and pastures are filled with one species of grass (hay). Lines and lines of monotonous crops. We don’t see this is nature. When we go hiking in the woods, we see varieties of species growing in what appears to be chaotic disarray—but it is actually a carefully calculated design. We have deviated very far from what nature intended. After billions of successful years, why do humans think we know better?
Agriculture that is led by a polyculture plan is sustainable, easier, and healthier for humans and the environment. Let me make sense of this. Someone who likes cake goes to a bakery that serves only cake; the bakery has cases and cases of baked cakes ready to eat, but they also have a small table in the corner that offers salad greens in a small bowl. The cake-lover will most-likely choose to eat cake. She loves cake, and it’s in abundance. She knows salad is a better choice, and, if it was her only option, she would choose it, but she doesn’t want to walk way over to the corner when all this goodness is right here in front of her! This is how herbivores thinks, (in anthropomorphic terms). A rabbit comes across a cabbage crop on Mr. MacGregor’s farm. This is her ‘cake shop.’ Cabbages everywhere! Of course there are other yummy treats in the woods a few meters away, but why waste time and resources hopping from here to there and everywhere in between to sporadically hope to find her choice food. If Mr. MacGregor used the technique of polyculture, the rabbit would not have a buffet smorgasbord of cabbage. He would have planted a diversity of plants, making it more difficult for the rabbit to find her favorites. While she might find a plant or two, it will be more difficult to take out an entire row of cabbages. It is more likely that the rabbit would move on to Farmer Jones’ garden: a monoculture where she doesn’t have to try very hard to find treats. An added benefit of polyculture is the ability to intersperse species that are unpleasant to problem herbivores. This will lessen the interest in the garden even more.
Insect pests can also be kept in check. Companion planting causes a combination of floral scents that olfactory-relying organisms cannot recognize. Unlike in traditional gardens that give away aromatic cues to what they have available. Camouflage helps plants hide each other in plain sight. Species that grow low to the ground are covered by grasses and other tall companions. Native organisms on native plant species will keep pests down via their presence. This is not to say that pests will never affect farms. However, we are now looking at a lower likelihood that complete infestations occur, and all of this would happen without the use of expensive and dangerous pesticides.
High quality soil and clean water are essential for all life on Earth to be successful and sustainable. Polyculture addresses these issues, as well. Plantings in a polyculture are mimetic of the growing that actually occurs on nature’s timeline. This is critical for success. Plants that need heavy watering will grow during the seasons with most of the rain; plants that require less water will grow during the hotter seasons. Root types will vary, having some that hold water longer than others. They will hold the soil steady, lessening chances for erosion issues. They filter the water and fertilize the soil in different ways. All these things are done at the times of year when nature needs them to be done… one right after another. One species that soaks up the nitrogen will come to the end of its season just as another one that replaces the nitrogen starts to mature. It is a wonderful cycle that reduces the need for chemical “fixers,” like fertilizers, to replenish lost soil nutrients and to keep the water safe.
This all sounds like common sense. It probably seems to some that a blog post should not even be necessary to say all this and that these things should just happen. To you, I would remind you that it takes a long time to change mindsets that have been on one track for centuries. It might seem to some that this theory is bogus because our hungry world needs Big Ag to provide us with heaping bounties of corn. To you, I suggest considering the advantages of teaching polyculture to small, under-developed areas so that the poor may learn to feed themselves healthy food adapted to each specific environment.
For the sake of brevity, I leave you with this quote from The Land Institute. The term used, perennial, refers to crops that return each year without replanting. This quote is also given in the context of polyculture/permaculture, as this is the practice of the Institute. “Compared with annual counterparts, perennial crops tend to have longer growing seasons and deeper rooting depths, and they intercept, retain, and utilize more precipitation. Longer photosynthetic seasons resulting from earlier canopy development and longer green leaf duration increase seasonal light interception efficiencies, an important factor in plant productivity. Greater root mass reduces erosion risks and maintains more soil carbon compared with annual crops. Annual grain crops can lose five times as much water and 35 times as much nitrate as perennial crops. Perennial crops require fewer passes of farm equipment and less fertilizer and herbicide, important attributes in regions most needing agricultural advancement.” (http://www.landinstitute.org/vnews/display.v/SEC/Publications%3E%3EScien…)