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Mix it up with polyculture gardening

“What vegetable gardener wouldn’t like to grow more food in less time and for less money? That’s exactly what permaculture offers.”

— Christopher Shein, “The Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Permaculture,” 2013

The term permaculture was first used by Australian farmer and professor Bill Mollison, who defined it in “Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual” (1988) as “the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems.”

Since then, the permaculture movement has been taking root among farmers and gardeners who are dedicated to growing crops and ornamental plants using sustainable, organic practices.

A fundamental aspect of permaculture is the practice of polyculture — growing different kinds of complementary plants together. Although polyculture has been practiced for millennia, industrial farmers in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world have practiced monoculture methods over the last several decades in order to increase crop yields. However, environmental and health problems stemming from monocultures have been uncovered, which has recently led to polyculture methods regaining some popularity.

Practicing polyculture in our home gardens is a way we can support the principles of permaculture and sustainable agriculture, albeit on a small scale.

Ashland gardener Regina Boykins has used polyculture methods for several years in her gardens and landscape. What began as an experiment to lessen the use of pesticides has become an enduring way of gardening for Boykins, because just as Shein noted, she has seen firsthand how polyculture gardening provides her with abundant food with less effort by allowing nature to do much of the work for her.

Boykins grows her crops in two 4-by-8-foot raised beds and assorted pots, as well as in a garden next to her store, Spirit of Shakti, on A Street in Ashland. In each garden, she plants compatible vegetables, herbs and flowers together rather than in separate rows. For example, in one bed she mixes cauliflower, sweet alyssum and marigolds; in another bed, she grows hot peppers, mountain mint, marigolds and basil.

Other successful combinations include melons or squash, basil, marigolds and zinnias, and thyme, borage, chives and strawberries. Boykins also recommends interspersing garlic and chives among other garden plants, because their pungent aroma effectively repels many insect pests. She even plants garlic or chives around her roses to prevent black spot. Basil is another especially good companion plant because of its pungent aroma (try Thai basil, purple basil and ‘Siam Queen’ around tomatoes and peppers) and because it’s a prolific bloomer.

In fact, it’s a good idea to plant with an eye toward having something blooming as close to year-round as possible. Early bloomers such as petunias, sweet alyssum and thyme attract hungry pollinators.

“My garden is full of bees and predator insects like ladybugs, lacewings, hover flies and parasitic wasps,” Boykins said.

Here are a few additional tips from Regina for polyculture gardening:

Use cages to grow cucumbers and squash vertically and plant bush beans around them. Inoculated beans (seeds coated with rhizobacteria) will fix nitrogen in the soil and make it available to plants.

Give plants enough room to mature. Space companion plants 8-12 inches apart.

Use manure compost as mulch around the plants (avoid plant stems).

Don’t rule out using herbs as companion plants even though you don’t use the herbs themselves. Summer savory for example, isn’t commonly used but makes a great companion plant because of its pungent aroma and long bloom period.

Check lists for garden plants that don’t grow well together, such as parsley and garlic or chives. “The Garden Guide for the Rogue Valley” (2017, p. 71) provides a useful list of companion plants and those that are incompatible.

There is a lot we still don’t know about why certain plants interact beneficially with others, so try different combinations of plants and observe the effects.

“You’ll be amazed how healthy the plants are — polyculture gardening works,” Boykins said.

To learn more about polyculture gardening, don’t miss Boykins’ class, “Polyculture: Companion Planting for Healthier Gardens” from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, Jan. 19, at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, 569 Hanley Road in Central Point. Classes are $10 if preregistered and prepaid, or $15 at the door. To register, call 541-776-7371.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/.