Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Productive Polycultures ? - Polyculture Trials 2014 - Home Garden Records

Over an 8 month period we grew a polyculture on 66.5m2 of land which was cultivated 100% biologically.  From it we harvested 94.68 kg of tomatoes, 6.81 kg of basil, 36.77 kg of beans 10.61 kg of courgette and 12.33 kg of winter squash.  How much time do you think it took to grow this quantity?

The results are in! It's satisfying to have completed the first year study of our annual vegetable and herb polyculture/guild. The results are pleasantly surprising and we're now feeling very encouraged to expand the garden next year.

You can read an introduction to the garden in a previous post here.

Garden Overview   

Climate: Continental Temperate
Latitude: 42°
Elevation: 580m
Average Annual Rainfall: 588.5mm
Co-ordinates:42°42′N 25°23′E

Annual Vegetable and Herb Garden - 66.5m2
Photo taken mid September 2014 by Smilyan Pavlov from  Huma 

Garden Layout 

Garden area: 66.5m2
Cultivated beds area: 36m2
Paths: 30.5m2

Annual Vegetable and Herb Garden.
Path and Bed Layout 

Crop List

66 x Tomato - Solanum lycopersicum
66 x Basil - Ocimum basilcium
36 x Runner Beans - Phaseolus coccineus
36 x French Beans - Phaseolus vulgaris
18 x African Marigold - Tagetes erecta
18 x French Marigold - Tagetes patula
2 x Courgette - Cucurbita pepo
8 x Winter Squash - Cucurbita pepo

The table below shows the floral species composition of each bed including the different cultivars and the dates that the plants were sown or planted.  Beans, courgettes and winter squash were sown. Tomatoes, basil and marigolds were planted.

Other crops such as chilli peppers, parsley, salad chicory and New Zealand spinach were also grown in small quantities throughout the beds to fill in spaces. The yield of these plants, being so small, are not considered in these records. Also not included are the native wild plants that are encouraged to grow around the perimeter of each bed. Many of these plants provide a harvest of salad greens and tea ingredients as well as mulch material within the beds.

Planting Scheme 

Below is a typical representation of the planting scheme within a bed.

Soil Analysis 

Soil samples were taken in early winter and sent to Dr Trendafilov from the Agricultural University Plovdiv.



( mg/100g)

( Р2О5)
( mg/100g)

( mg/100g)


Vegetable Beds-Shipka


Input:Time Spent in Garden  

The total time spent on the garden was 24 hours and 50 minutes, based on one person carrying out all the tasks listed below.  The garden tasks were split into seven main categories. We have the specific activities of each task recorded and would be happy to share our spreadsheets. Send us an email or leave your details below if you would like this information.

Set up/Pack up - 420 minutes
Planting and Sowing - 241 minutes
Weeding - 249 minutes
Tomato care - 420 minutes
Mowing paths -  89 minutes
Summer/ Autumn Mulching - 41 minutes Irrigation - 30 minutes

Input: Fertility

67.2L -  Planting out compost (applied as top dressing to each plant when planted out) 400ml per plant
32.8L - Seedling medium (applied in "nests" made in the straw to facilitate better germination of the seeds) 400ml per nest
120L - Compost - 20L per bed
30L - Ash - 5L per bed
9 Straw Bales - 1.5 bales per bed
33kg Comfrey (fresh cut weight) - 5.5kg per bed

Output: The Harvest 

The total produce from each of the main crops in the polyculture were as follows. 

TomatoSolanum lycopersicum : 94.68kg
BasilOcimum basilcium : 6.81kg
Fresh Runner Beans - Phaseolus coccineus and French Beans - Phaseolus vulgaris : 34.47kg
Dried Runner Beans - Phaseolus coccineus and French Beans - Phaseolus vulgaris : 2.3kg
CourgetteCucurbita pepo : 10.61kg
Winter SquashCucurbita pepo :12.33kg 

The crops were weighed directly after harvest. Only produce of marketable quality was recorded.


Table showing recorded Input and Outputs throughout the season April 2014 - November 2014


  • Records do not include the gathering of materials, compost, tools, plants etc, and assumes that everything is on site ready to go. Harvesting was not recorded although we do intend to record this next season.
  • We grow our own plants from seed, make our own composts and sowing mediums, grow our own summer and autumn mulch, save seeds from tomatoes, basil, marigolds and beans. The support materials (stakes and bean poles) needed for the garden are harvested from a nearby alder coppice. Therefore we have not included this cost in our records. 
  • This year we experienced above average quantities of rainfall regularly dispersed throughout the growing season. This lead to reduced time spent on irrigation.We irrigated during the "dry season" (mid July - mid September ) once as opposed to a normal year where we would irrigate approximately once a week during this same period.
  • The moist conditions resulting from high rainfall created below optimal conditions for tomato growth and provided  ideal conditions for tomato disease to proliferate. Many local tomato growers lost their entire crops without a harvest. Furthermore, early season temperatures were far from ideal resulting in slow fruiting of the tomato crop. Records from previous years show first tomato's harvest around  Mid June as opposed to this year 22nd July. The above mentioned disease also resulted in the early demise of the plants with the last harvest of poor quality fruits (not included in the total) recorded on the 26th September in contrast to mid October in previous years.
  • The garden usually includes chickens in mobile pens however we did not use the chicken tractors within the garden this year. The reason for this was due to the uncertainty of obtaining a valid measurement of the fertility inputs of the chickens.  Furthermore, we wanted to make the design as easy to replicate as possible.
  • We have lots of beneficial habitat and high biodiversity designed into the surrounding garden area that serves to attract pest predators and pollinators, repels pests and provides fertility to the garden as a whole. It would be very interesting to set up a control study on another site nearby without the high levels of biodiversity and designed habitat to see how the harvests compare.      

Improvements for Future Studies 

Biodiversity Study 
We would like to add a measurement of biodiversity to the records and chart how this changes from year to year. Specifically, we would like to look at soil microbiology and invertebrate diversity.

We could begin a measure of soil microbiology by sending samples to a lab. This will be quite expensive and we do not have the finances available for this at the moment.

For the invertebrate study we could practice similar methods as the "Plants for Bugs" experiment carried out by the expert team at RHS Wisley, wherein  invertebrate samples are taken on five occasions throughout the year. The samples are gathered using pitfall and baited refuge traps for ground fauna, and direct observation of flying insect visitors and those settled on the plants. We are currently seeking collaboration with entomologists that could assist us with this part of the study.

Recording  Harvest Time
Next season we will record the time it takes to harvest the produce. We estimate this to be around the same amount of time it takes to establish, plant and maintain the garden, i.e 25 hrs. The time it takes to harvest in such a system will be longer than within a monoculture due to the increased distance between plants and the natural way that they are allowed to grow. For example, the beans tend to tangle making it time consuming to locate the pods without damaging shoot growth.

Soil Samples
Soil samples were taken in early winter after the ash was added to the beds. This was a mistake and this year we have our samples before ash and other fertlisers have been applied.

Sharing, Feedback and Collaboration 

We have our record keeping spreadsheets on Google Docs. These spreadsheets include the details of work undergone in each labour "Input" category, the dates and weights of each harvest, and  materials and tools used . We would be happy to share these - just drop us an email or leave a comment below with your contact details. We would also be happy to hear your suggestions and feedback on how you think we could improve the record keeping for the future and hear about similar results from other guild/polycultures you may have heard about or established yourself. Lastly, if you feel you have something to contribute to our study, we would be happy to receive your assistance.    

If you appreciate the work we are doing you can show your support in several ways.

  • Comment, like and share our content on social media.

Upcoming Courses

Our next course is scheduled for October so if you would like to create a forest garden and gain some practical hands on experience do join us this Autumn. We'll be covering site surveying, landscape design software, installing access, beds, irrigation channels, planting tree, shrub, herb and ground layers and wildlife ponds. All in 3 days! And plenty of follow up material to take away with you to digest slowly.

Registration for our October course is now open with 15% discount on accommodation and food fees when you register as a group (2 or more).

Polyculture/Regenerative Landscape Design Webinars 

This season we are running live interactive sessions hosted on Zoom on a range of topics. You can register for a  webinar here.

Would you like to be involved in the project? We are currently offering 1 - 6 month positions on our polyculture study.

Permaculture and Regenerative Design Internships 

We offer a diversity of plants and seeds for permaculture and forest gardens including a range of fruit and nut cultivars. We Deliver all over Europe from Nov - March.

We also offer a range of products all year round from our Online Store 

Give a happy plant a happy home :) 

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Wood Ash: Natural Fertliser for the Ecological Garden/Farm

As winter approaches we are again lighting fires in our household that provide us with a weekly supply of wood ash which, as this post will describe, can make an excellent additive within the ecological garden/farm.    

Wood Ash: Potassium Fertiliser 

Ash from wood fires, such as bonfires or wood burning stoves, provide a natural source of potassium (K) and other trace elements. Potassium is a major plant nutrient associated with flowering and fruiting. The levels of potassium in ash will vary depending on the age of the wood that was burnt; young wood from pruning will have higher potassium content than older, thicker branches.

Wood Ash: Raising  pH

Soil pH is the measure of the acidity (sourness) or alkalinity (sweetness) of a soil. A simple numerical scale is used to express pH. The scale goes from 0.0 to 14.0, with 0.0 being most acidic, and 14.0 being most alkaline. The value, 7.0 is neutral - i.e., neither acid or alkaline.

Applying wood ash to your soil will raise the pH, reducing the acidity of soils. The majority of vegetables grow best in soils with a pH of 6.5, so testing the level before adding the ash is recommended so as not to raise the pH too much (greater than pH 7.0). However, where club root is present, wood ash can be used to raise the pH to as much as 7.5 to inhibit this disease and still provide good conditions for plant growth.
Intensive vegetable production tends to push soils to the acidic side of the scale, so the addition of ash can help to keep pH at optimal levels whilst providing essential nutrients to your plants.

Most fruits perform best in slightly acidic soil so be aware of the current soil pH and optimal pH of your fruits before applying ash. High pH can be detrimental to acid loving fruits such as blueberries and cranberries. Below is a list of optimal pH ranges for some common fruits and vegetables.  

Table showing optimal pH range for Fruits and Vegetables 

When to use wood ash

If applying wood ash directly to soils, do this in the winter and rake or dig it in lightly to allow the compounds in the ash (which could scorch plants) to react with the moist soil and be rendered harmless before spring sowing or planting.

You can use wood ash in your compost piles at anytime of the year, applying a sprinkling on top of every 15 cm of material. Heavier use risks the presence of high levels of alkalinity and soluble salts which could damage both plants and the soil.

Wood ash can also be used to reduce the acidity in a worm farm. Worms dislike acidic conditions and prefer neutral pH (7). They will stop breeding and start to migrate from the farm if acidic conditions persist. How much ash you use is determined by the size of your worm farm  and the current pH. Having a pH reader and experimenting with quantities of ash is a good way to maintain optimal conditions in the worm farm.  

How to use wood ash

Wood ash can be spread directly on soil in the vegetable garden in late winter at a rate of 50-70 g per sq m; Fork in, rake over or add to chicken tractors and the chickens will work it into the soil for you. It may be useful to sieve the ash before use to remove debris.

Where wood ash is applied frequently to the vegetable plots, it is worthwhile to use a pH test kit to monitor changes in pH and prevent levels rising over pH 7.5
Never leave wood ash in the rain, as the potassium (a useful plant nutrient for flowers and fruit) is in a soluble form and is easily leached out
Apply wood ash in small amounts to the compost heap where, once mixed in, it will blend readily with other materials. As a general guide, you should not be able to identify it after mixing it into the compost.

Things to consider 

  • Avoid using too much wood ash as an excess in alkalinity can be detrimental to some plants.
  • Avoid using ash from treated timber as they may contain potentially harmful residues.
  • Avoid using wood ash on areas where potatoes are to be grown the following spring, as the alkaline conditions can encourage potato scab
  • Ash from coal or anthracite has little or no nutritional benefit and is potentially harmful to soil, plants and consumers of edible produce. 
  • Ash from lump wood charcoal can be used as recommended for wood ashes.