What is Polyculture?

Crown Bees is teaming with Paul Wheaton, founder of Permies.com, to introduce our readers to the gardening and farming methods known as permaculture. The first in their series of guest blog posts teaches us about polyculture.

What is a Polyculture?

Polycultures are self-organizing, multi-organism plant communities.  All plant-eating animals, like chickens and people, are designed to eat plants from a polyculture… they eat plants, not from rows and rows of the same thing (like in monocultures), but from a mix of a dozen or more species.

Polyculture of lettuce, beets, cilantro, chickweed, sunflowers

What connects the plant community of a polyculture? Mycelium is the vegetative part of a fungus, and many mycelia form an underground network of fine white filaments that feed on organic material. These networks are what give rise to mushrooms, the fruiting body of the fungal network that spread the spores to new territories. Think of these networks like the roots AND leaves of a plant. They do all of the work.

Every plant has a unique set of nutrient needs and every plant exudes an excess of nutrients that it mysteriously has superpowers to find or build. The mycelium in the soil has no leaves and depends on developing a bartering relationship with plants to get sugar. The mycelium offers nutrients and the sugar water from a carrot is loaded with nutrients that the carrot has in excess. The sugar water from an oak tree is loaded with something completely different. Through the mycelium network, the carrot gets a bit of the oak excess and the oak gets a bit of the carrot excess. Because the oak’s roots cover a bigger territory, it gets far more diversity than the carrot. And the oak ends up inadvertently sharing some of that with the carrot.

We have barely scratched the surface of what we know about human nutrition. And we have studied human nutrition ten thousand times more than chicken nutrition. Human nutrition is based on humans eating from a polyculture and eating the meat of animals that consumed from a polyculture. Rather than pretending that we know all there is to know and growing things in a harshly organized fashion, I suggest that, instead, we grow things in a diverse polyculture of 50 or more species. I suspect that by doing this, the vegetation will become far richer in nutrients (both known and currently unknown) than if we attempt to infuse the soil with known nutrients.

So, basically, a polyculture is a mixture of plants all exuding their “unique goodness” and trading it with other plants via fungal networks. These mixtures can form guilds, which are plant groupings with similar habitat and nutritional needs. A guild can act to boost soil fertility, conserve water, diversify food yield, create habitat, and reduce root competition.

Michael “Skeeter” Pilarski talks about his food forest garden, a polyculture with beneficial weeds in this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ESyCbN7Psps

Image Source: Tyler Lundens. Polyculture of lettuce, beets, cilantro, chickweed, sunflowers