Thursday, 17 October 2013

Annual Vegetable and Herb Guild/Polyculture : Zeno and Introduction and Overview

For the last 9 years we have been experimenting with growing annual vegetables and herbs in polycultures. Over the years I have stuck with what works, discarded what has not, and now have what appears to me to be a good model of productive ecological design. Productive in that it provides us with a harvest from early spring until early winter, ecological in that it provides habitat and food for many other organisms too.

Garden produce   
This post is an introduction and overview to our Annual Herb and Vegetable Guild/Polyculture that we call Zeno. If you would like to find out how much food we have harvested from this polyculture and how much time it took to grow this food you can read the results of our polyculture study here 

Introduction to our Annual Vegetable and Herb Guilds

Our Annual Vegetable and Herb Guilds are situated in six raised beds each 1m x 6m and approx 30cm high with 50 cm paths between the beds. Surrounding the beds are  a diversity of  perennial plants including herbs, shrubs and trees with some small ponds and various micro habitats such as rock piles, old tree stumps and stick plies. These Six beds are dedicated to annual herb and vegetable production and are the most intensively cultivated areas in the garden providing us with the majority of our annual vegetables.

The Annual Vegetable and Herb beds, early morning in mid spring.


The 1m x 6m bed dimensions enable access to the soil and plants without ever having to tread on the beds. The beds are laid out on contour, lengthwise running east to west. This provides the plants within the beds with the maximum amount of sunlight and determines that rainfall will collect on the northern side of the bed and permeate into the soil slowly rather than draining away. This layout also enables us to flood irrigate the beds.


We are fortunate to have access to water channeled from a nearby mountain stream. When needed, we can divert the water into the garden where it flows along the paths between the beds. We raise the water level to 15-20cm  in any particular bed by simply placing a barrier (sack filled with sawdust) at the end of a bed. The water is absorbed into the soil and can travel vertically via Capillary Action.

Paths/irrigation channels in the garden


In the early Spring when the temperature starts to rise we place a 1m x 3m  bottomless chicken coop, with 8 hens inside, onto one half of a bed. The chickens will stay there for 3 or 4 days and each day we throw them in kitchen scraps, grain, straw and a few shovels of compost. The chickens will relentlessly scratch among the soil and mulch picking off the eggs of slugs and larvae, pupae of various arthropods. This helps to keep pest populations down. They also forage for seeds in the soil and thereby reduce the emergence of undesirable plants in the bed. The chicken's scratching  mixes up the organic matter we throw in daily and the birds contribute a ready supply of droppings as they go.

Chickens at work

After 3 or 4 days we move the chickens onto the next half of the bed and the process repeats. The area the chickens have just moved from is forked over, soaked well (or we wait for a rain) and then mulched with a few buckets full of compost and a 20cm layer of Straw mulch (approx 3/4 of a bale). The mulch provides a good habitat for Toads and Lizards (in the spring, summer and autumn) which are well positioned to pick off any slugs that venture in for the young seedlings.

Common Toad clearing out the slugs before the plants go in

 Once mulched the stakes for tomatoes and beans are put into position. Large reliable germinating seeds such as Beans and squash are sown directly into the beds by pulling back the mulch and sowing into the soil. The other plants (see below) are reared in pots and planted into the beds when approx 15cm tall and when the weather is suitable. Any "weed" plants that grow  around the edge of the beds are cut back before they set seed and used as additional mulch  throughout the year.  "Weeds" that grow within the bed are treated the same way. Note that the "weeds" are not uprooted only cut to ground level. The roots are allowed to decay in the ground or left to regrow until they are again ready to "chop and drop".

Around July the vegetable and herb plants are all well established with little room for "weed" plants to establish. The attention the beds require after July is mainly irrigating and harvesting until October. When the last of the harvest is out of the beds the stakes are removed and the chickens are brought in for another 3 or 4 days to pick through the vegetation. None of the plant material is removed from the bed, what the chickens leave behind is cut into small pieces and applied to the surface as an overwinter mulch.    

Plant Selection

The plant selection differs slightly from bed to bed, all feature Tomatoes, Beans, Basil and Squash.  Below is a representation of one planting scheme that shall be the focus of discussion here

Representation of Annual Vegetable and Herb Guild 

 This guild consists of  11 Tomato plants (a different cultivar is usually planted in each bed) on the edge of the raised bed for easy picking and to be in close proximity to the water when we irrigate. the tomatoes are tied to round wood Hazel and Alder stakes approx 1.5m high and 6cm diamater. The stakes provide perches for a number of bird species such as Red Back Shrike and Spotted Flycatcher that can be observed feeding from insects in flight around the beds as well as grubs and slugs on the bed surface and vegetation. The stakes also serve as snail traps. Snails will retreat up trees after a nights feeding in search for a shady nook to shelter from the coming sun. The snails climb the stakes expecting to find the shade and are easy to spot and remove in the morning.

Snail, just before becoming chicken food
In between the tomatoes are planted 11 Basil - Sweet Genovese which are reported to have a happy relationship with tomatoes in the garden as well as the kitchen.
Beans are grown up wigwams forming large clumps of vegetation dripping with beans and flowers that tend to clamber onto the surrounding plants by mid summer. The beans can potentially supply their own nitrogen via an association with Rhizobium bacteria that inhabit the soil. These bacteria extract nitrogen from the atmosphere and deliver some of this nitrogen to the roots of the bean. In exchange the bean provides the bacteria with sugars produced via photosynthesis. At the end of the season the nitrogen taken from the atmosphere by the bacteria and fixed into the tissue of the bean plants is added to the soil when the remains of the plants decompose in situ.

Polyculture crops 

Tagetes erecta/petula -Marigolds are sown throughout the bed, they repel and confuse pests that are attracted to plants by smell and they attract hover flies, the larvae of which feed on aphids. They also provide a beautiful sunset orange to the vegetable beds and the flowers can be used in teas and salads.
Centaurea cyanus - Cornflower was trialed in the guild for the first time this year. The Cornflower attracts Bombus spp. (Bumble Bees) which also pollinate tomatoes and squash, the flowers can  also be used in salads and for tea, specifically an ingredient of Early Grey tea.

Bombus spp. Bumble Bees- Tomato Pollinators
Crawling along the ground and between the plants are the Squash. The broad leaves from these plants shade the roots of the other plants and prohibit the emergence of "weeds".

The plants growing around the edge of the bed are self seeded native plants, around 15 different species. Many of these plants are edible some can fix nitrogen and others accumulate minerals from the subsoil. They also serve as soil stabilizers, provide a buffer between the tender young plants and the slugs and snails, provide habitat and forage for beneficial insects and provide a source of mulch and rabbit food.  We simply chop and drop these plants before they produce seed.


 The 6 beds together will provide us with fresh tomatoes from Mid July - Early October as well as 30 Jars ( approx. 30kgs) of preserved chopped tomatoes and 6 Jars of sun dried tomatoes.
Basil is also abundant and available fresh from Late April-October, we dry a jar or two and make a few jars of Pesto.

Fresh Beans are available from May-October and we managed to harvest around 4 KG of dry beans this year as well as plenty of fodder for the rabbits and seeds saved for next year. Each bed will provide at least two large Squash.

 The self seeded native plants often consist of edible salad crops during the spring and autumn such as Chenopodium album, Malva neglecta , Chichorium intybus  and Plantago major.


It is possible to grow a succession of crops in the beds. The cold winters in Bulgaria restrict winter crops that can be grown, however, garlic planted in the Autumn can be harvested young (similar to spring onions) in April.

Garlic in Late Feb, planted in November.

The chickens, obviously, can not be used if you intend to have a yearly succession of  produce within the guild and the quantity of compost added to the beds would need be higher to support the increased production.

If you would like to find out how much food we can harvest from this polyculture and how much time it takes to grow this food you can read the results of an Input/Output study here.

If you have enjoyed this post and appreciate the work that we are doing please consider donating to our Polyculture Project and help us expand and excel our research into permaculture and regenerative practices.

We offer a range of plants and seeds for permaculture and forest gardens from our plant nursery including a new range of fruit and nut cultivars well suited to natural gardens. Delivery to all over Europe available from Nov - March 

Want to learn how to create regenerative landscapes?  Join us this summer for our Regenerative Landscape Design Course.

 Balkan Ecology Project Bio-Nursery 

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Research Database For Organic/Agroeco Growing

The Organic Eprints archive is a tool to further develop research in organic agriculture. The main objectives are to facilitate the communication of research papers and proposals, to improve the dissemination and impact of research findings, and to document the research effort.

The first research paper I came across  looked at the potential and limits of pesticide free apple growing by a self-regulating orchard set-up. You can read the full paper here  in case you are interested, but you will have to wait until 2016 to find out the results.

Great to know this kind of research is going on.


Interested in Ecological methods of growing food? Check out our Upcoming Courses and Events

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Planting Out Guide

Planting out Guide  

Autumn is a great time to plant out. The adequate rainfall and, consequently soil moisture levels at this time of year are perfect for the newly establishing plant roots.  Although it may be cold above ground, the warmer soil temperatures make it possible for plant root growth to continue for longer and settle in before the spring growth bonanza.

 Here's a step by step guide to planting out including a few things to consider before and after planting.

A few things to consider before planting 

  • The best time to plant is when the soil is moist after a rain. If the soil is very wet, treading can cause compaction so avoid working on very wet soils particularly if you have clay.
  • In choosing the position for your plant bear in mind the light, fertility, water, temperature, space and community needs of the organism.
  • Consider the maximum size of the plant and how it will relate to the surroundings of the position you have chosen.
  • For plants that require cross pollination  or are  dioecious you will need to consider the pollination needs and make sure you have a pollinator in the vicinity.  
  • If you are planting bare rooted plants ensure that the roots are not exposed to direct sunlight for too long and that they do not dry out.
  • Soak your plant roots well before planting. I have had no problems leaving the bare rooted plants submerged in water for up to 12 hrs. Cover so that sunlight cannot harm the roots when in the water.    

     Planting instructions

      • Dig your hole sufficiently big to allow some space around the root ball or roots i.e do not cram the plant into a small hole. Twice the diameter of your pot is adequate.  
      • When digging, separate the top soil and sub soil layers. This is best achieved by placing two boards or tarps next to your hole. Dig the top soil out and pile it on one board/tarp, now dig the subsoil out and pile it on the second board/tarp.
        • Make sure the bottom and sides of your hole are not compacted from digging. If there are any smeared surfaces, scrap them loose with a fork. This ensures easier access into the soil for the establishing roots as well as providing good drainage and air spaces.    
        • Water the empty hole well and allow time for the water to drain away. If your plant is in a container then rough up the sides of the root ball. The purpose of this is to ensure the fine roots make good contact with the soil when you infill the planting hole.
        • Due to the fast draining sandy loam I normally work with I plant a little lower than ground level to provide a dish for water to collect in. If you have poor draining soil (heavy clay)  in an area of high rainfall and/or a  high water table then you should consider planting higher then ground level.
        • If your planting site has a history of intensive application of fungicides you should re-establish the Mycorrhizal community.  Mycorrhizas are symbiotic relationships between fungi and plant roots (the term means literally 'fungus root'). They are very common on crop plants as well as in wild plant communities, and in several cases they have been shown to be important or even essential for plant performance. The fungus obtains at least some of its sugars from the plant, while the plant benefits from the efficient uptake of mineral nutrients (or water) by the fungal hyphae. You can reestablish the Mycorrhizal community  by simply adding half a spade full of soil from a  healthy soil ecosystem nearby which should contain many of the beneficial fungal organisms. Mix the healthy soil with your pile of top soil.   
        Picture shows how the plant can draw upon a much larger pool of soil resources with the assistance of  mycorrhizal fungi 
          • Back fill the hole with the sub soil first, pack the soil in firmly around the roots or root ball and then add the top soil, again tampering the soil firmly to ensure good contact is made between soil and roots. The idea behind keeping the soil layers in order is to create minimum disturbance to the existing soil ecology. It may just look like plain earth but there are a myriad of organisms at work in there.       
          • You can remove surrounding vegetation to approx 50cm radius of the plant stem so you end up with a circle of bare earth approx 1m diameter with your plant in the centre.  If your plant is small then you can make this area smaller.       
              • Imagine which way the water would flow across the land surrounding your plant and pile up the organic matter you have scrapped away from the surface along with any left over soil  to create a barrier that will  block the water from moving away from the plant. You want to keep the water around the plant where it can drain into the soil slowly and soak through to the roots below ground. It may be that on flat ground you need a barrier surrounding the plant creating a dish in which the water fills. If you have a low water table,  lots of rain in your area and poor draining clay soil then this is not advisable.   

                • Water the plant again applying more water then you think you will need and watch to see how well the water stays around the plant root zone. If you see the water escaping make some amendments to your barrier. 
                • Once the plant is watered apply mature compost, approx 2-3 cm deep, covering  the bare earth and  place wet card board sheets or old clothing or cloth over the compost. If more than one piece of cardboard is needed overlap the cardboard so there are no gaps. This layer  provides a barrier to prevent weed seeds in the soil from germinating and will decompose to add extra fertility to the soil. You can also use proprietary organic mulch mats, i've heard they last a few seasons.  
                • Cover the cardboard/cloth/mulch with a further 3cm of well matured compost and then cover this with a 10cm layer of straw mulch (or other seedless mulch).   
                  • If trees are planted too deep or too much mulch is placed around the base of the tree, the constant moisture against the bark will create a condition called collar rot. Once the protective bark has rotted away, insects, micro organisms and fungi can easily enter the tree and begin to damage the plant. Make sure that the soil and mulch layers are not in direct contact with the bark around the base of the stem (the collar).  Be sure to clear away the mulch and compost from that area so that you end up with a visible gap of at least 5 cm between stem and soil. You should check this every so often as the mulch usually makes its way back around the collar.
                  Collar Rot in a Apple Tree from -

                    Aftercare considerations   

                      • If planted in Autumn it is likely that your new plants will not need watering until the mid spring. Keep an eye on your plant and water if you see/feel the soil below the mulch is dry. Its important to keep the plant from drying out in the first few years so plan time to monitor. 90% of all problems with newly-planted trees are because the steward didn't water them.
                      • If planting a tree whip, according to some reports and contrary to popular belief, staking is not necessary.  It is claimed to be counter productive and discourages a young tree from forming strong and secure anchor roots. Large container trees will however need staking. 
                      • Tree barriers are recommended to prevent herbivores committing planticide and according to the manufactures have many other purported benefits ;) I have never used these so cannot comment.     
                      • Check your plant from time to time and make sure the mulch has not made its way back around the stem collar. Keep the area weed free for a few years by topping up the cardboard and if you have planted a tree with high nutrient demands apply extra compost the following autumn. 
                        • Finally, enjoy your plant.       

                        Our Bio-Nursery offers an excellent range of plants for the permaculture/ecological garden.