Saturday 16 October 2021

A Butterfly Polyculture and Planting a Productive Hedge - Week 19 - ESC Project - The Polyculture Project

As part of our ESC project we are maintaining and developing community spaces. The centre of our town, Shipka, was fairly recently developed to include a main plaza with a stage where numerous events take place throughout the year, particularly in the summer months.  Surrounding this area is a green space with several beautiful mature deciduous and evergreen trees, such as Horse chestnut - Aesculus hippocastanum, Linden - Tillia sp-  and Fir - Abies sp. Recent renovations to the park have included making pathways, planting more trees and installing new play equipment for children. It has a relaxed yet formal feel to it. We had an idea to design a polyculture for the park that will attract a range of butterflies, add a splash of colour to the area and appeal to children.

Type of Polyculture: Perennial - Amenity
Main Function: To attract butterflies in the central community garden near a child's playground
Secondary Function: To be aesthetically pleasing

The plants we selected were; Buddleia davidii - Butterfly bushPhlomis russeliana - Turkish Sage, Lavandula angastafolia - LavenderOriganum vulgare - Oregano and Echinacea purpurea - Echinacea. In a small design exercise, one of the ESC team, Ruxandra, was to illustrate the design and consider the following criteria when thinking about plant selection and placement:
  • The main function  - to attract butterflies throughout the summer months, so we're looking for overlapping and extended bloom times to maximize the butterflies' visits to the polyculture.
  • Hardy to zone 6 or lower
  • Drought tolerant
  • Low maintenance
  • Predominantly sun-loving plants
The ESC crew have played an active role in supporting the community by weeding and watering the existing plants in this area, a task that is usually carried out weekly by the local mayor's team. By planting polycultures in an area of the town that is regularly irrigated, we ensure that the young plants will receive the care they need to establish over the coming season, and except for a prune once a year to keep the desired shape, can be pretty much left to thrive and grow into an attractive feature in the central park/community space. 

Ruxandra chose to place the Oregano on the northerly aspect, as it can tolerate more shade than the other plants.

 The mayor loved the design and illustration and we'll be planting out the polyculture in the coming weeks. Here's a short overview of each of the plants featured in the Butterfly Paradise polyculture.

Buddleia davidii - Butterfly bush 

Overview: Buddleia is a deciduous shrub growing to 3m by 2m at a fast rate. Hardy to zone 4. It's often found on embankments or rocky riversides. It prefers full sun, can tolerate drought and blooms from July - October. Plants flower mainly on the current year's growth so a hard pruning in spring will encourage better flowering. Butterflies are highly attracted to the blooms, especially Fritillaries.

Phlomis russeliana Jeruselum/Turkish Sage 

Overview: Turkish Sage is a  is an evergreen shrub growing to 1.3m by 1.5m at a medium rate. It is hardy to zone 5. Often found on dry, rocky terrain or hillsides, it prefers full sun, can tolerate drought and blooms from May - September. It's possible to deadhead the flowers and create another cycle of growth and therefore extend the blooming time. It makes a great ground cover plant as it's leaves form quite a dense cover. 

Lavandula angastafolia - Lavender

Overview:  Lavender is an evergreen shrub growing to 1.2m by 1m at a slow rate. It is suitable down to zone 5 and is often found on rocky hillsides. It prefers full sun, can tolerate drought and blooms from June - August. It's known for attracting wildlife and grows very well in our region, which is one of the world's top producers of Lavender oil. In the below photo  Lavender forms part of this polyculture in the home garden along with Vitis vinifera cv. - White Grape, Zanthoxylum simulans - Szechuan pepper and Cytisus scoparius - Broom.

Echinacea purpurea - Echinacea, Coneflower

Overview: Echinacea is a perennial growing to 1.2m by 0.5m at a medium rate. Hardy to zone 4. It is often found on dry fields or wasteland. It prefers full sun, can tolerate drought and blooms from July - August.  The blooms start off fairly flat in shape, but once pollinated they form more of a cone shape shape as the seeds within develop. Butterfly wise, Painted Ladies and Swallowtails are among the frequent visitors to the flowers.

Origanum vulgare - Oregano

Overview: Oregano is a perennial growing to 0.6 m by 0.8m at a medium rate. It is hardy to zone 4 and is often found on dry grassy areas. It prefers full sun, but can tolerate some shade. It's able to handle drought and blooms from July - October.  The blooms are small, delicate and purple and attract incredible interest to butterflies, particularly the Common Blue.

A second polyculture we've been working on this week is on a small plot that we're developing into a forest garden at the crew house. Last week we sheet mulched an area for a boundary hedge and this week we planted it out. 

Type of Polyculture: Perennial - Infrastructure
Main Function: To provide a screen/boundary/privacy in the summer months
Secondary Function: To produce some edible fruits

The plants we selected were; Elaeagnus umbellata - Autumn Olive, Cornus mas - Cornelian Cherry and Chaenomeles speciosa - Japanese Quince. Our main considerations for this polyculture were:
  • The main function - to provide a screen throughout the summer months. We wanted plants that hedge well and can grow to 1.8m in height to provide privacy
  • Hardy to zone 6 or lower
  • Production of some edible fruits 
  • Drought tolerant species 
  • Sun loving
  • Tolerant of pruning
Here's a short overview of the plants featured in this polyculture.

Elaeagnus umbellata - Autumn Olive

Overview: A large deciduous shrub growing 4.5m high and 4.5m wide and hardy to zone 3.
Tolerates part shade and is very drought tolerant. Branches are often thorny with leaves that are bright green and silvery beneath. Yellowish white, fragrant flowers, are produced in May-June, followed by rounded silvery brown (ripening red) fruits in Sep-Oct that are edible. Nitrogen fixing. This plant is considered weedy in the U.S.

Chaenomeles speciosa - Japanese Quince

Overview:  A thorny deciduous or semi-evergreen shrub usually growing to about 2m tall and generally exhibiting a rounded outline, but can be variable in form.  Hardy to zone 4. The plants establish a very dense crown with a tangled jumble of branches which are either spiny or with spurs. The flowers come before the leaves and are usually red, but may be white or pink. The fruit is fragrant and looks similar to a small apple although some cultivars have much larger pearish shaped fruits. 

Cornus mas - Cornelian Cherry

Overview: Growing at a slow - medium rate, C.mas is a small tree or deciduous shrub growing up to 5 m in height and 5m in width. Hardy to zone 4.  A early flowering plant that slowly grows to form dense hedging that provides habitat, and often deep within the hedge, some fruit which birds enjoy. Plants grown from seeds make particularly great hedging plants. 

Cornus mas in late winter/early spring. It produces one of the first flowers to appear in the garden in late February

The Benefits of Propagating from Seed: When we first started growing shrubs from seed it was pleasantly surprising to see  how quickly they establish. In our experience with growing Cornus mas and some nitrogen fixing shrubs, seeds germinating in the spring can establish well and be ready to plant out in the autumn of the same year (subject to species hardiness and, of course, the weather conditions in a given year). The following spring after autumn planting, we practice formative pruning to encourage the shrubs to become denser and by the third summer after sowing, we've recorded growth of up 80cm high and 60cm wide (specifically for Elaeagnus angustifolia).  The growth we have witnessed is from our own stock have, in some instances, outperformed established 6 year old plants we have growing in the garden, purchased from a commercial nursery.

When propagating from seed you have the advantage of selecting the strongest seedlings.  Another significant reward is that you are promoting genetic diversity within your populations, something you are not likely to find in the majority of cloned nursery stock.

Cornus mas grown from seed planted into the hedge

It's important to think about spacing when planting a hedge. As we plan for each plant to spread in width to around 1m, we planted our shrubs 1m apart from each other, to allow for 50cm growth either side from the centre of the plant.

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Ruxandra and Hekim parting the sheet mulch layers

Ru planting a Japanese Quince

Established Cornus mas and Chaenomeles speciosa shrubs, blending well together in the home garden

The ESC team were given a tasty local cultivar of Strawberry by a local elderly resident who they have been helping, and these were planted into the bed as a ground layer. We will hopefully harvest some fruit from them until the shrub hedge matures and shades them out which generally reduces fruit production, but they should create a decent ground cover for the hedge. We will also be planting some Alliums bulbs or possibly some annual garlic into the bed to take advantage of the current light levels.

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