Polyculture is the growing of multiple crops or animals in the same place at the same time. You grow crops together in a way that provides a synergism where both crops grow better because of the presence of the other. The Iroquois “Three Sisters” garden represents the quintessential example of polyculture, with each the bean, corn, and squash both giving and getting something from the others.
In our modern times, farmer Joel Salatin, and his Polyface Farm, has been one of the pioneers in commercial polyculture. His cows and chickens share the same fields, with the cow pies providing fly larvae for the chickens to feed on, who in turn scratch through and spread this manure to fertilize the grass the cows feed on.
At 5 Loaves Farm we’ve practiced polyculture in a number of different ways. The mulberries that are ripening this week, and the chickens that live below them provide a great example…
The chickens provide manure that fertilizes the mulberry tree, and the chickens get to feast on the berries that inevitably fall from the tree.
Last year we experimented growing wine cap mushrooms in wood chip mulch underneath our Brussels’ Sprouts. They decompose the wood chips into nitrogen to feed the Brussels’ Sprouts and the resulting big healthy leaves provide the shade needed for the wine caps begin fruiting in late summer. In fact during a historic drought last summer we had written off our experiment as a failure, because of the high moisture levels wine cap mushrooms need to grow. However, growing them in the shade of the Brussels’ Sprouts they were still able to establish themselves and are even expanding and growing into new areas this year!
This year we are now trying to grow Almond Portabellas on the compost underneath our watermelons and muskmelons.
For urban farmers the benefits of polyculture are obvious, in our space limited systems this allows us to not only increase the yield of one crop, but to do so while also growing another crop in the same place.
For urban dwellers, especially in our current polictial climate, polyculture also provides benefits for us as a model of how human communities should coexist and depend on each other to be made stronger and more vibrant. Here on the West Side of Buffalo, people groups speaking 50 or more languages live in the same neighborhood. American educational and financial resources along with infrastructure have helped the hard-working entrepreneurial spirits of refugees and immigrants, that have in turn revitalized our neighborhood’s economy and brought opportunities for innovation and improvements for all in our educational systems (like the charter school on our block that specializes in educating English language learners).
In fact this weekend our neighborhood celebrates with the Taste of Diversity Festival its many cultures that exist, are growing, and even thriving together in this place.
The organic beauty and elegance that grows out of polyculture systems comes from the fact that the natural world and ecosystems that surround us are full of examples of polyculture. Whether a woodland, prairie, or wetland ecosystem, they are made up of numerous overlapping and interconnected polyculture systems. It’s the way all of this was designed to work.
So here at 5 Loaves Farm we want to continue to explore how we can reflect this organic beauty and elegance, and how we can better coexist with both the human and other natural communities that we find ourselves a part of.