Polyculture


Here at SurviveLA we are experimenting with something called polyculture in the the garden. We read about it first in the worthy permaculture guide, Gaia’s Garden, by Toby Hemenway.

Polyculture is the practice of planting a community of interrelated, interdependent plants, mimicking in your garden (in our case a raised vegetable bed) the complex relationships that are found between plants in nature.

In the case of food crops, a polyculture tries to set up conditions where you can eat almost continually out of a garden bed filled with different varieties of plants maturing at different times. The faster growing plants protect the tender ones from the sun. The thickness of the planting virtually eliminates weeds, and also functions as a living mulch, keeping the soil moist and cool beneath a carpet of green. These beds look quite different than the tidy rows of carrots and cabbages one sees … well, one does not see vegetable gardens anywhere if one lives in LA. One remembers them from illustrations in Peter Rabbit.

Okay, you want specifics? Here is an example of a professional polyculture bed out of Gaia’s Garden, one which creates salads, cabbages, and beans. It is written for people who live places with cold winters (as are most gardening books, alas). So Angelinos wanting to follow his plan can start this earlier, perhaps in March. The SurviveLA polyculture that will be described after was started in October.

Polyculture from Gaia’s Garden, attributed to Ianto Evan:

After the last frost cover your garden bed evenly with a light broadcasting of the following seeds. Don’t mix them before broadcasting because they will fall differently according to their weight., and so separate out in the throwing. Spread one type of seed at a time, aiming for an even distribution of each type of seed all over the bed. Sow: radish, dill, parsnip, calendula and many types of lettuces, late and early harvesting types to extend the length of your season. Cover the seeds with 1/4 inch of soil.

Meanwhile, start cabbages from seeds in containers, early and late maturing varieties.

4 weeks after sowing you can pull some of the first radishes, because they grow fast. As you eat those, put the cabbage seedlings in the holes.

6 weeks after sowing you can eat the lettuce. First as a baby lettuce mix, later in its more mature leafing form. Pull out entire plants to make space, so things don’t get too crowded.

Continue this way until the soil warms up. As you eliminate lettuce plants, begin to put bush beans in their place. The dill and calendula will start coming into their own, and the early cabbages. The beans will be ready by midsummer, and the parsnips and the rest of the cabbages will follow in the fall.

So you see, the secret is in choosing plants with staggered harvesting times, so they don’t come in all at once, overwhelming you and competing with each other for space, and also in choosing plants that are not all from the same families, so they don’t compete for the same nutrients. The beans in the polyculture above help replenish the nitrogen in the soil that the other plants drain out. Very clever. With little effort compared to normal gardening, you will be harvesting veggies from one plot all year long.

SurviveLA’s Impetuous Salad Bed

Now the SurviveLA bed is not so well organized, because we don’t know as much as these permaculture folks, but it has been very successful so far, meaning no pests, no weeds, low watering, and tons of salad.

This bed was started in October, as soon as the weather had decidedly shifted toward the cool. In LA, it makes sense to grow tender salad greens and the like in the winter, when the the sun is low, the climate is gentle, and our only rains fall. Lettuce loves that kind of thing, and hates hot sun. If you plant lettuce in LA in the summer you are in for a world of sorrow.

As above, we broadcast the following seeds evenly over our 4′ x 8′ foot raised garden bed. It is set up with fancy new drip emitters for lazy watering. In the past, we’ve watered this bed with the more casual but quite functional soaker hose. Both are preferable to standing around with a garden hose, and the plants like it a lot better too. FYI, plants prefer occasional deep soakings to brief daily showers. However, while the seeds were sprouting and delicate we did water from above with a hose set on gentle sprinkle.

Not knowing all of the habits of these plants, many of which are from growitalian.com, we just threw them all in to see what would happen. When the coldest nights are over in a couple of months we will plants some beans, as above, for nitrogen fixing. For now, these things are growing in a riotous mix:

Green chicory
Red chicory
Radishes
Carrots
Wild fennel (non-bulbing variety)
Common cress
Arugula
Lettuce mix (various types in one package)
Rapa da Foglia (leaf turnip)
Green onions

We’ve been eating all of it in its infant form, except the radishes, which have markedly hairy leaves that you don’t want in your salad. Just lately the leafy plants have become easily distinguishable from one another, and are taking on their full flavor. To keep up with the thinning which is necessary at this stage SurviveLA must eat at least one salad a day. But it is no hardship to eat greens so fresh and tender–once you grow your own salad, you will feel cheated each time you have to eat salad from a bag.

In the photo you will see how tight the planting is in the bed. It is perhaps a tad too tight. We are eating as fast as we can, pulling whole plants for the most part, shooting for the ideal of giving each remaining lettuce and chicory a space about the diameter of a cereal bowl for itself.

When the lettuces are full grown, you can harvest leaves off the individual plants instead of harvesting the whole plant, thus just five or six mature lettuce plants can provide salad for two people a few times a week, leaving lots more room for other plants. Beans will come in the spring, and also some yet to be decided crops which we can expect will do well in the heat of early summer.

Free Permaculture Class

Today SurviveLA passes on an announcement for a free permaculture class taking place tomorrow – hope to see some of you there:

The next Free Introduction to Permaculture Class

Place: Audubon Center at Debs Park (http://www.audubon-ca.org/debs_park.htm)
4700 North Griffin Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90031
(323) 221-2255

Date: Sat Dec. 2nd 2006

Time: 10:00 AM – 4:00 PM

We are living on a planet in crisis; often individuals feel powerless to effect change but Permaculture offers positive solutions to the problems facing the world; using ecology as the basis for designing integrated systems of food production, housing, technology and community development, you can learn to create a self-sustaining environment, on a farm or in your urban backyard or apartment.

The Permaculture Design Course is for anyone interested in gaining skills and perspective for sustainable living and productivity. A Permaculture Design Course is a way to share
accumulated information with others.

This Introduction to Permaculture Class is an outline of the science and art of Permaculture. It will define the term and its history, its founders, the curriculum of the design course certificate, its ethics and foundations. It will describe the benefits and show some of the most
important work undertaken by permaculture designers.

For More Information contact:
David Kahn 323 667 1330 or [email protected]

www.sustainablehabitats.org

Beads and Roman Sandals Won’t Be Seen

I wouldn’t wear a tie-dyed tee shirt unless it was dyed with the urine of Phil Collins and the blood of Jerry Garcia.” – Kurt Cobain

After installing the new herb spiral in the backyard a certain member of the SurviveLA compound, commenting on the design, remarked facetiously, “Welcome home brother.” For those not in the know, that particular phrase is the greeting at any event sponsored by the Rainbow Family of Light, a group of hippies that have met each year in a different state for the annual “Rainbow Gathering” ever since 1972.

Now the topic of hippies is controversial around the SurviveLA compound, but first things first — we ain’t hippies. In fact at every hippie thing we’ve been to, including the Rainbow Gathering in Arizona in 1998 (along with art critic and thoughtstylist Doug Harvey), we always hear the word “narc” whispered behind our backs probably due to our short hair and white-bread appearance. But, the fact is we love hippies despite the lentil-filled coolers, naked yoga, dream catchers and tie-dye. We’re all trying to make the world a better place, after all.

It’s curious though, that when you grow your own vegetables and don’t buy into some of the other crap our ever-present consumer culture demands of us somehow you automatically get labeled a hippie. While sadly the original hippie movement went astray, we “dig” the new and more pragmatic kind of hippie stuff happening over at Arthur Magazine. Besides, in the end, we’re all untied against the “Man”.

Somehow this long winded rant leads us back to the creation of the herb spiral which replaced an overgrown patch of lavender. Built with concrete salvaged from some recent demolition work the spiral also has a set of bamboo poles in the center to grow pole beans in the winter and tomatoes in the summer. The concrete spiral functions as a path to pick the herbs which include thyme, sage, chives, garic chives, tarragon, and chamomile. Our design is a modification of the permacultural herb spiral which is essentially a mound. In the permaculture version the water hungry plants are placed at the bottom of the mound and the dry plants at the top, the idea being that the water collects towards the bottom of the mound shaped spiral. We didn’t do the mound thing out of laziness and a lack of materials, and because the herbs we planted don’t require much water anyways.

As for the spiral shape itself, we’d like to think that it’s our little tribute to Robert Smithson, more than Jerry Garcia.

Moringa!


Photo by Harvey McDaniel

One of the big inspirations for starting our front yard urban farming efforts at the SurviveLA compound is a Philippino neighbor of ours who has turned his entire front yard and even the parkway into an edible garden featuring fruits and vegetables from his native land, most of which we have never seen before. This morning, while walking the dog, I found him cutting hundreds of long seed pods off of a small attractive tree. He didn’t know the English name of the tree, but he told me that he likes to slice the seed pods and cook them with chicken.

Thanks the the “internets” I was able to figure out that the tree is the “Moringa oleifera”, a truly miraculous tree that, in addition to producing edible seed pods, is also used by indigenous people for regulating blood pressure, dealing with joint pain and treating inflammation. The seed pods can be pressed to produce a high quality cooking oil. The leaves are also edible and the plant is drought tolerant and will grow in poor soil. Native to the southern foothills of the Himalayas, the Moringa tree is cultivated in many parts of Asia as well as Mexico and Africa.

Here’s what Wikipedia says:

The immature green pods, called “drumsticks” are probably the most valued and widely used part of the tree. They are commonly consumed in India, and are generally prepared in a similar fashion to green beans and have a slight asparagus taste. The seeds are sometimes removed from more mature pods and eaten like peas or roasted like nuts. The flowers are edible when cooked, and are said to taste like mushrooms. The roots are shredded and used as a condiment in the same way as horseradish, however it contains the alkaloid spirochin, a potentially fatal nerve paralyzing agent, so such practices should be strongly discouraged.

The leaves are highly nutritious, being a significant source of beta-carotene, Vitamin C, protein, iron and potassium. The leaves are cooked and used as spinach. In addition to being used fresh as a substitute for spinach, its leaves are commonly dried and crushed into a powder, and used in soups and sauces.

The seeds may be crushed and used as a flocculant to purify water. The Moringa seeds yield 38–40% edible oil (called Ben oil, from the high concentration of behenic acid contained in the oil) that can be used in cooking, cosmetics, and lubrication. The refined oil is clear, odorless, and resists rancidity at least as well as any other botanical oil. The seed cake remaining after oil extraction may be used as a fertilizer.

The bark, sap, roots, leaves, seeds, oil and flowers are used in traditional medicine in several countries. In Jamaica, the sap is used for a blue dye.

The flowers are also cooked and relished as a delicacy in West Bengal and Bangladesh, especially during early spring. There it is called Sojne ful and is usually cooked with green peas and potato.

Some organizations are promoting this miracle plant as a way to deal with malnutrition, since its ability to tolerate drought while still producing edible leaves makes it highly desirable.

We like plants like this that have multiple purposes, since in addition to food and medicine the attractive Moringa tree also provides shade. The goal that we have set for the new SurviveLA landscaping is that every plant must have multiple uses with priority given to stuff that is edible. We suspect there may be a Moringa Tree in our future.