Polyculture and Landrace

Summary of a summer with a landrace focus using polyculture in a residential ½ acre, zone 7

Some random thoughts:

Embracing Disease and Death
This season I really changed my approach to the garden, seeing shriveled up tomato stalks and dying vining plants as a good thing - let them eliminate themselves from my garden if they don’t like it here. It’s a 180* change in viewpoint. I remember several years ago hearing Joseph talk about this viewpoint in a podcast and I found it very freeing and more in keeping with my own instinct to respect and follow nature. One of my favorite things about permaculture is its focus on observation. I make a living as an artist (everyone will tell you it’s impossible) and like the idea of putting convention aside and actually copying what nature does so easily. Here in Woods Hole where I spent many summers, there was a scientist who famously said, “Study nature, not books.” and this is my theme for landrace experiments as well. Although now it might be, “…not the Internet”. Throw the seeds out and see what develops. As a child we visited the New Alchemy Institute nearby in Hatchville where scientists/gardeners used early permaculture principles to do things like clean large polluted tanks of water by using the right combinations of fish and plants. It’s an educated organization of natural processes.

Seed Sharing Benefit
It’s a real benefit to have lots of free/shared/saved seeds when experimenting with developing landrace crops and I think that this is one of the most beneficial things we can do as a group that will help many of us to experiment and learn about regenerative farming. I hope we can have more localized factions branch out of this (maybe we can all donate to specific pet projects that we all have). I planted excessive amounts of seeds (too) early and kept resowing throughout the summer. Normally I would try to help my $4 seed packets along to make sure they all produce but all the extra sowing self-selects out the ones that are less eager to grow. It’s a freeing way to garden: letting plants do their thing.

I would say that half of my seeds probably didn’t germinate because I did direct sowing wherever I could. Everybody always says that the direct sowing of many crops will lead to quicker and healthier crops and I tried it this summer but it just doesn’t work as well for me. I have a grow room and two greenhouses and with all the organic matter and weeds that I grow into out in my jungle that attract bugs, little sprouts just struggle. I’m actually proud of that, the fact that my garden is teeming with wildlife. Plus there’s too much going on at once for me to remember where I just sowed and where I need to keep up with watering. It’s easier to find a plant that needs some moisture than a patch of soil where I planted a few days ago.

My polyculture style of growing isn’t as good for landrace breeding because, by spreading out the same species in different micro-climates and each hidden amongst other crops, disease and insect pressures are reduced and it’s hard to establish controls. This method is a good way of finding where each plant wants to grow, not testing the limits within a group. Did this plant do better because it is a better plant or is it just in more ideal conditions? It’s just more complex but it’s a lot of fun. I was able to grow a bunch of hot weather crops together in poor sandy soil by overseeding and watering heavily in the beginning until a canopy was developed (thanks to all the free seeds I received in the mail). It thrived through the summer, surprisingly, and will end up as organic material, as a green mulch, after I harvest.

Planting Species in Batches
In the places where I did rows of tomatoes close together and left most of the diseased leaves, I could see quite clearly which individual plants were hardier. I planted pole beans all along my tomato trellis and mostly they unfairly overtook the tomatoes. I know it was a mistake to do this but I felt reckless (it’s what happens when landrace people go amuck). I suppose I could select for the pole beans that didn’t take too much away from the tomatoes and then I would have better use of that soil because I would be selecting for plants that intercrop well (which is an important goal in my small plot). My problem was trying to do two things at once and I lost out on my primary thing: getting big tasty tomatoes. If I do it again I’ll look for more of a bush style but it seems that my beans mostly revert to pole style. Next summer: plant more in groupings by species. Same with my three sisters growing, the beans quickly overtook the corn and strangled the tassels. The problem is that my season is so short that if I start my beans a lot later they won’t produce as well. I’ll still get a harvest out of those beds but they could be improved. I’ve seen it done better more in a large clump of corn, surrounded by a ring of squash and beans (that were probably started later).

Since I’m always seeding under more established crops I tend to water lightly every day (for germination of seedlings) and count on rains to do deep waterings for the other plants. This is just an issue with polyculture.

Numbers of Crops and Ripe Seeds
I planted the exactly right amount of cucumbers for a family of four on a half acre. We had fresh cukes every day and by the end of the summer (when we’re no longer craving them) had plenty for pickling and a handful left to balloon up for seeds. Other crops are harder: I can never grow enough peas: they don’t make it into the kitchen (or to the rest of my family - sorry, but I can’t help it). Have to buy seeds every year. And on a half acre (growing jungle style) I can only grow so many winter squash but luckily they’re harvested when their seeds are ripe. Peppers do better later in the season and we end up eating many of them before they turn color just because we need them, and, since they’re shorter, tend to be suppressed by large plants and do better near the end of the summer anyway. So, next summer: give them an earlier forced start and dedicated sun area throughout the summer to get more to the seed stage. And…grow more peppers.

I’ll put specific crop results at those pages when I get a chance.


Very cool! Look forward to updates! I really empathize with jungle style growing in a small space. Milpas are like this, often communal too which adds another nice diversity element.


Great stuff. Love the idea of mixing it all up. We grow similarly. We aim for at least five different botanical families in a mix though with bought seeds we do have some poor germination at times. Hopefully that will change over time as we save more and more of our own seeds.

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Direct sowing with store bought seeds is always hit and miss. Much of what gets sold is low quality, dead on arrival or barely alive. On top of that the quantities to work with are necessarily low most of the time. I often germinate in pots and do transplants for the first generation when I question seed quality and dont have much to throw around. Once I have decent quantities of my own seed it is usually much more vigorous and reliable, but if I do sow during a bad season I can simply resow when the weather improves.

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