Monday, 25 January 2016

The Polyculture Project - A unique learning opportunity studying the productivity of a polyculture market garden.

Encouraged by high yields and levels of biodiversity that we have been recording in our home gardens , in 2015 we extended our research to look at how we can provide nutritious affordable food whilst enhancing biodiversity in a polyculture market garden. We are delighted to be offering a unique and dynamic learning opportunity for five people to  come and take part in the study in 2019. Would you like to join us?

What are we doing ?

We are undertaking a multi year study of a 1/2 acre (2000 m2) market garden growing herbs, vegetables and perennial fruit and nut polycultures. The study aims to compare our annual polyculture plots with conventional organic plots, record levels of biodiversity in the garden and look at set up and running costs (in terms of finances and time) and outputs in terms of produce and income.

Diversity of high quality biologically produced food from our gardens 

The approach we take to market gardening goes way beyond "organic". We design biological systems that rely on the native ecology to function as opposed to external manufactured inputs, and as a result our gardens service not only our needs but the needs of other organisms too.

For the results from previous years study see here .

Permaculture/Polyculture Market Garden @Balkan Ecology Project 

​​The main questions we are asking during this study are:

  • How can we provide nutritious affordable food whilst enhancing biodiversity?
  • How productive can polycultures be?
  • How much time does it take to establish and manage such a garden?
  • What income can be expected from running such a garden?
  • How bio-diverse can our food producing systems be and how can we measure this?

We are also recording biodiversity levels in the garden focusing specifically on model groups of invertebrates. Among these groups are snails, spiders ,insects - bugs, flies, moths and butterflies.

Some of the resident wildlife from our permaculture market garden. 

Why are we undertaking this study ?

The demand for local, biologically cultivated food appears to be on the increase, as is a general desire to promote and preserve biodiversity. As far as we understand, small scale biologically cultivated polyculture gardens seem a practical, accessible and realistic way of providing food for humans whilst preserving and promoting biological diversity in the environment. With what appears to us to be a high demand and low supply situation, we ask why are there not more of these enterprises around? To explore the issue in more depth we are undertaking a multi-year study looking at the economics of running such a garden, and how productive it can be in terms of yields, income and biodiversity.

Study Goals

  • To develop functional market garden models that are both productive for humans and wildlife
  • To provide a unique and comprehensive learning experience to the participants of the study
  • To take detailed  records of our activity and provide a valuable reference for others
  • To provide a template for further research

Our Polyculture Market Garden - photo by Huma

Why should you take part ?

​This is an excellent opportunity if you are considering starting a garden and/or are interested in ways to provide affordable healthy food whilst increasing biodiversity.

As a participant of this study -

  • You will gain valuable insight into what it takes to actually run a market garden. As well as the practical skills you will develop, we'll dedicate time each week to cover essential theory, including site design and implementation, plant propagation, polyculture management, basic botany, record keeping, harvesting, irrigation, marketing and advertising, and budgeting/financial planning. 
  • Enrollment to the 6 month program entitles you to participate in courses and training events that take place during the program. 
  • You will be contributing to an area of research where little information exists i.e the productivity of polycultures and associated biodiversity dynamics. 
  • This study will be published online and freely available to all for future reference and you will be credited accordingly.
  • You can participate in the exciting new development of a perennial polyculture trial garden on a different plot of land
  • You will be spending time in a truly unique area of the world, working as part of a dynamic team of fellow enthusiasts in an inspiring environment.

2015 team at work in the gardens  

Where will you be?

The project is based in the town of Shipka, Bulgaria on the foothills of the Central Balkan mountain range in the Rose Valley. It's an area of high biodiversity, beautiful countryside and historical sites of global, cultural and scientific significance. The project site is located on an abandoned piece of agricultural land on the western outskirts of the town that we call the Paulownia Garden. See Map for Paulownia Garden Location. 

Shipka Town - home to Balkan Ecology Project 

You'll also be learning from our existing garden, a 10 year old residential property with a highly productive and well established forest garden composed of over 400 species of plants. Our central garden is a good example of small scale intensive ecological design and includes examples of rainwater harvesting, grey water reed beds, wildlife ponds, multiple composting facilities and hosts a small plant nursery. We practice various methods of biological vegetable production including guild planting and crop rotation, and rear pigs, chickens and rabbits from this property.

The Home Garden

What will you be doing?

You'll be working closely as a team producing food from the market garden for yourself, local markets, and food coops and will be recording all aspects of the process including how long it takes to develop, maintain and manage, the associated costs, the fertility requirements, the returns in produce weight and income derived from the sale of the produce.

Specific activities include the following:-

  • Propagating the crops 
  • Trialing new polycultures 
  • Record keeping 
  • Harvesting and preparing produce for market.
  • Managing beneficial habitats and the forest garden.
  • Designing new polycultures

How to take part?

The study will run from April 1st - September 30th. Ideally, you will be able to commit to the project for the full duration of time and in doing so are welcome to join training and courses that we hold during that period. We are also willing to accept applications for shorter periods of time if you feel passionate about joining the project but cannot dedicate 6 months.

We believe the valuable work you will bring to the project is a fair exchange for the educational experience you will receive. We are dedicated to teaching you the skills needed to build and run a great market garden. Activities will be largely determined by what needs doing at any particular time. We generally start at 09.00 and spend around 3-4 hrs a day in the gardens. Weekends are left unscheduled. There will be plenty of free time available.

Rent per month is €150 (including all bills). The house is basic but comfortable in a beautiful location a short walk away from the project site. The house has Wi-Fi internet, a shared kitchen and bathrooms and a garden. It's your responsibility to prepare meals and purchase food. Fruits and vegetables produced from the gardens are available to you from June on wards, and quality products such as eggs, milk, cheese, honey and meat can be purchased from local producers. Estimates of living costs based on the experience of previous participants is between €90 - €120 per month.

Once we have received your registration we will contact you and arrange a Skype meeting to talk through the process and answer any questions that may arise. Following this, if you decide you would like to take part, 50% of the monthly rent for the duration of your stay should be paid to secure your place. Payment can be made via Paypal (processing fees apply ) or bank transfer in £,€ or BGN and is non refundable.

Registration is now open. Register here

Here's what previous years participants said!

​" Being a part of the Polyculture Study was a very special period of my life. I realized how inspiring it is to be in touch with soil and plants, and creatures inhabiting the garden I worked in, and also to be in good touch with the people I worked with"

"It made an impression on me so much so that I'm going back this year to participate from the beginning to see the know-hows of food growing in cooperation with nature." Kata Prodanov

" I am happy to have had this opportunity to support the Study and the wonderful family behind it, and to be supported by them in return." Anna Boncheva

"It's a nice journey that gives you the chance to study in depth in your free time" Plamen Petkov

 The Polyculture Study 2015 team

Live Webinar Coming up this Autumn

It's that time of year to start planning your garden plantings for this coming autumn or the spring. If you would like some guidance and advice on how to choose your plants we'll be running a live webinar this November.  How to Select Fruit and Nut Trees for your Forest Garden/Polyculture Orchard - Webinar - 2nd November 2019 - 18.00 -20.00 UTC. (starting time suitable for US participation).

The session will overview what you need to know when selecting fruit and nut trees for your Forest Garden/Polyculture Orchard and how to plan the layout of the garden. It will be around 2 hours long and will include:

Selecting trees that suit your climate and location
Choosing the right root stock and cultivar
Selecting trees with pollination compatibility

Choosing the right location and spacing for your trees
Buying Fruit and Nut Trees
Planting out and aftercare
Software for Planning Garden layout
Closing Questions and Answers 
Access to design spreadsheets including a Selection Check List and  Pollination Requirements for Common Fruit and Nut Trees

You can register here . The fee is €30 or €40 if you register as a group of three or €100 as a group of 10. If you would like to register as a group please send an email to and we'll take it from there.

Upcoming Courses

If you would like to create a forest garden and gain some practical hands on experience come and 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.

Design and Build - Forest Garden Course  - Regenerative Landscape Design Course

Registration for our April 2020 course is now open with 15% discount on accommodation and food fees when you register as a group (2 or more).

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.

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 :) 

Sunday, 10 January 2016

The Polyculture Market Garden Study - Results from Year 1- 2015

Encouraged from results we have been seeing in our home garden polycultures, last year we decided to scale up our efforts and explore the potential of a polyculture market garden.

We put a calling out for a crew to help us develop the garden and run the study and had a great response. Huge thanks go to Plamen Petkov, Anna Boncheva, Trisha Franke, Petar Csobán, Alina Pekalska, Kristian Deltchev, Alexandra Broda, Hannah Filer, Dobril Vasilev, Katrine Bach Hansen, Kyle De Luca and Katalin Prodanov for contributing their time and energy, and for making year one of our study possible.

The Team on site in March and August 
The aim of the study is to gather data to help us address the following questions;
  • Can we provide clean, nutritious, affordable food whilst enhancing biodiversity?
  • How bio-diverse can our food producing systems be?
  • How productive can polycultures be?
  • How much time do such gardens take to establish and manage?
  • How economically viable are these gardens?
This first year of the study we looked at the time it took to set up the annual garden, and the inputs and outputs of a 257 m2 area of the garden producing tomatoes, basil, beans, and winter & summer squash. We have had good success with this annual polyculture in our home garden and wanted to see how well it scaled up on a new site.  For more info on the cultivation methods we use in our gardens see here.

Results in Summary

During the course of the study, a team of 4 people with little or no horticultural experience established the garden study area, propagated, tended and harvested over 800 plants, producing 358 kg of food with a market value of 1002 BGN. The operating costs for the garden worked out at 644.67 BGN, and the capital costs (one off initial costs) amounting to 939.85 BGN.  The time taken to achieve this was 152 hrs over a 6 month period. Produce output per m2 was around 1.4 kg.

Garden Overview 

Climate: Continental Temperate
Latitude: 42°
Elevation: 565 m
Average Annual Rainfall: 588.5 mm
Co-ordinates: 42.71259, 25.32575

Click here for the Polyculture Market Garden location (labelled as Paulownia Garden on our Project map)

Photos by Huma showing the garden development. The six longer beds in the left hand corner (the Aceaes) of the photo above were the focus of the study. 

Garden area: 256.8 m2
Cultivated beds area: 165.6 m2
Six beds: 27.6 m2 each bed
Paths: 50 cm wide 91.2 m2

Study Area Path and Bed Layout

The beds were named after common vegetable families in order to familiarise the participants with the use of Latin and introduce them to some major plants families. They do not correspond to what was planted in the beds. For the planting schemes of each bed see below.

The Polyculture

Below is a representation of a 6 m strip of the planting scheme within each bed.

The Annual Vegetable and Herb Polyculture used in the beds  

Crop and Cultivar List

Tomato - Solanum lycopersicum 'Black Krim'
Tomato - Solanum lycopersicum 'Tigerealla'
Tomato - Solanum lycopersicum 'Mixed Saved Seed'
Tomato - Solanum lycopersicum 'Rozova Magia'
Tomato - Solanum lycopersicum 'Paulina F1'
Tomato - Solanum lycopersicum 'Citrina'
Basil - Ocimum basilcium 'Sweet Genovese'
Runner Beans - Phaseolus coccineus 'Scarlet Red'
French Beans - Phaseolus vulgaris 'Cobra'
French Beans - Phaseolus vulgaris 'Blue Bean'
Courgette - Cucurbita pepo 'Black Beauty'
Bush Scallop - Cucurbita pepo
Butternut Squash - Cucurbita pepo 'Waltham Butternut'
African Marigold - Tagetes erecta
French Marigold - Tagetes patula
Pot Marigold - Calendula officinalis 


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, marigolds and pot marigolds were planted.

Some hot chili peppers were also unsuccessfully grown within the beds, the small yields of these plants are not considered in these records.

Soil Analysis 

Physical Analysis - See soil test card in main spreadsheet.
The soil health card we used was developed as part of the Good Soil Project and the Good Worm Project, initiatives of Tuckombil Landcare Inc. in partnership with NSW DPI (then NSW Agriculture) and the Natural Heritage Trust. You can download it here.

Mineral Analysis - Soil samples were taken in early spring before fertility inputs and sent to the NAAS of the Ministry of Agriculture and Food.

Soil Microbiology Analysis - Thank you to Vitalia Baranyai and Birgit Albertsmeier who volunteered to study the microbiology of the soil samples from the gardens. See soil microbiology results in the main spreadsheet

Produce Yields

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

Tomato - Solanum lycopersicum : 130.1 kg
Tomato - Solanum lycopersicum : (Blemished with cracks or blotches but suitable for processing) 82.9 kg
Basil - Ocimum basilcium : 4.01 kg
Fresh Runner Beans - Phaseolus coccineus and French Beans - Phaseolus vulgaris : 30 .68kg
Dried Beans - Phaseolus coccineus, P.vulgaris : 1.26 kg
Courgette - Cucurbita pepo : 104.8 kg
Winter Squash - Cucurbita pepo : 4.91 kg 

All produce was weighed directly after harvest and unless otherwise stated, all of the produce recorded was in excellent condition and fit for market. Produce not fit for market was composted or fed to our animals and is not included in these records.

Garden Produce

Inputs and Outputs 

The below table summarises the input and outputs. Use the scroll bar at the bottom of the table to move right. You can find all of the data entries here

Photos from Study 



  Comments on Results and Record Keeping  

  • If you compare our home garden study with the market garden study it's clear that we are achieving much higher yields in significantly less time and costs at home than in the market garden. I suggest a few of the reasons for this are 
-After 10 years of cultivating the home garden beds the soils are in excellent condition and the process is well-versed   
-The irrigation plan for the site was not adequate and crop growth was inhibited by lack of water.
-Our initial fertility input was too low. It would have been more economical to use a composted farm yard manure for the initial input and apply at 10 - 15 L per m2. Worm castings  are excellent for potting on the seedlings and for planting out with.  I also find it invaluable in the bionursery where its provides all round fertility and health to the potted plants but it worked out too expensive to use as an initial fertility input. 
-The initial site preparation was far from ideal. Rotary tilling the site broke up rhizomes into thousands of pieces resulting in the unwelcome growth of a local Mint in the vegetable beds. If we were to repeat the set up process I would certainly take the time and resources to sheet mulch the area the summer before planting it out.   
-The volunteer team had little or no prior experience in the garden. The point is for the team to learn on the job and the results should indeed reflect the time it takes novices to run the garden.      
- Its was also our first time managing this project and we were also learning on the job.
  • This being the first year of the study and working with a group we had some issues with the record keeping. That said, I feel we have not drastically misrepresented the reality of the workload but I have certainly recognized where improvements can be made. A method that we'll be using next year is to record the time it takes 4 people to undertake a certain task over say 10 m of a bed. We'll then divide the time by 10 to establish the time it takes to do each task per m2 and take the average between the 4 as our record. We can account for rests, disturbances and slowing down by adding 15% to the record. This way we have a standardized method that can be replicated easily and we do not take the soul out of the activity with constant attention to a clock. Its also an easy to replicate method. For a breakdown of our records see the management sheet in the main spreadsheet
  • Also included in the records is the establishment and management of a biomass patch dedicated to growing comfrey that we will use for making a liquid feed for the crops. The biomass patch also includes a  nitrogen fixing hedgerow that once established will be used as chop and drop fodder to feed the comfrey patch.
    Comfrey 'Bocking 14' beds planted out in March. The above photo shows the beds well established by October

  • The time for preparing the produce for market was estimated at 2 hrs per week. We had lots of other produce from the forest garden and nursery going to market and we did not separate the time spent on produce just from this garden.  
  • The market value of the produce was estimated based on the average prices we were receiving from local buyers, veggie boxes and Trustika buyer's club in Sofia. We did not actually sell all of the produce from the garden as listed. Some of the produce was consumed by the team, others preserved.
  • Certain tools and equipment we had prior to the study are not included in the capital costs, such as the car, trailer and van and some gardening tools.   
  • Not included in the records were other tasks carried out around the site such as building compost bins, harvesting stakes and support sticks, shaping paths around the garden establishing beneficial habitat such as wildlife ponds, hedgerows/stick piles and compost sites, watching wildlife and general relaxing.  

Improvements for Next Year

Including the full polyculture
This year we focused on establishing the annual beds and recording the production from the Aceaes.   This is only a small portion of the production we see from our gardens. Our polyculture gardens include nursery plants, perennial herbs and vegetables, hay, fruits, nuts, wood, animal fodder, mulch and liquid fertilizer. We're looking to extend the records to include at least some of these products from the gardens.

Control Experiment 
Next season we will make a direct comparison and  grow  the same crops in monoculture blocks at the same time, in the same area. We'll have two beds planted out with the polyculture and two beds with the same crops plants in blocks. The remaining two beds will be for a new guild.
New bed layout for 2016 including the same crops grown in blocks for comparison and  the two northern beds planted out with a new annual vegetable polyculture we'll be trialing.
New Polyculture  
The team designed their own guilds in the experimental beds most of which seemed to work well. Using some of the combinations from their experimental polycultures we'll try a new polyculture next season. Its a very intensive planting scheme and will require heavy compost inputs. We'll see how it goes.

I've started to name the various annual polycultures we grow after the Stoics, this ones called Epictetus.

Biodiversity Study 
Next year my brother Peter Alfrey has agreed to run invertebrate surveys in April - July - Sep. We'll be focusing specifically on model groups of invertebrates. Among these groups are snails, spiders, insects - bugs, flies, moths and butterflies.

Sharing, Feedback and Collaboration 

We have our record keeping spreadsheets on Google Drive. These spreadsheets (here) include all of the data entries and task descriptions. (note there are multiple sheets that can be accessed from the blue tabs running along the top of the sheet). If you would like to keep your own records we'd be happy to give you a copy of the spreadsheet, just drop us an email or leave a comment below with your contact details and we will send it over to you. 

If you have any suggestions and feedback on how you think we could improve the study or you have heard about or practice similar studies on other guild/polycultures we'd love to hear from you.

For more info and links to research check out the PIRN ( Permaculture International Research Network ) and the Permaculture Research Digest.  

Upcoming Courses

If you would like to create a forest garden and gain some practical hands on experience come and join us in the Spring. 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.

Design and Build - Forest Garden Course  - Regenerative Landscape Design Course

Registration for our April 2020 course is now open with 15% discount on accommodation and food fees when you register as a group (2 or more).

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

  • Consider joining us on for one our Courses or Webinars 
  • Comment, like and share our content on social media.

Polyculture - Forest Gardens - Permaculture - Regenerative Design Webinars 

Want to join us for one of our live webinars?  Forthcoming webinars include ;

Polyculture - Forest Gardens - Permaculture - Regenerative Design Webinars 

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 :) 

Saturday, 9 January 2016

A review of last season in photos

Here's a review of last season in photos. Thanks to everyone who was involved, we're looking forward to coming season.