Applying polyculture concepts to ornamental gardens

Sometimes I think I live in a gap between two worlds, one world that I have to wake up to, be adherent of the rules and live in a place that is dictated by others. A place I sometimes feel the fear of aging and dying before I have figured out what it is I am here to do.

That other world is sweet, fresh and misty, inviting adventure into the unknown, melding ancient wisdom with new discovery; the sunlight turning into moonlight and the spell of eternal life is never broken.

Perhaps in that gap I should repair the forgotten bridge from one side to the other, but truth be told, I don’t want to. 

Finnish artist Riitta Klint

We are still living in a wonderful new world where man thinks himself astonishingly new and “modern.” This is unmistakable proof of the youthfulness of human consciousness, which has not yet grown aware of its historical antecedents.

C.G. Jung, The Essential Jung: Selected Writings

The more help a man has in his garden, the less it belongs to him.

William Davies

We are studying American history in our homeschool this year. I devote two weeks to an in-depth study of Native American cultures. This includes reading many living books about the lifestyle and beliefs of individual tribes, crafts, and listening to traditional music.

One of the common topics regarding the agricultural genius of Native Americans is the “three sisters” and their use of what is now known as “polyculture.” The three sisters refers to growing maize, beans, and squash together in small groups to minimize the human effort involved in tending the crops. The beans would creep up the stalks of the maize, and sprawling squash at the base would eliminate competition from weeds. This technique dated back thousands of years before Europeans arrived in the New World, as a form of technology that spread throughout Latin America.

Polyculture is a form of agriculture where multiple different types of plants are grown in the same space at the same time to mimic the biodiversity of a more natural environment. It is contrasted with monoculture, which is what most people probably associate with agriculture – miles and miles of fields of nothing but corn or wheat. Monoculture is a relatively new development in agriculture. It owes its existence mostly to the invention and mass production of industrial fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides (or what I like to call the poison – fertilize – poison – fertilize cycle). The monoculture mindset has crept into gardening as well, as “gardening” has transitioned to “landscaping,” with an emphasis on chemicals replacing labor and ingenuity.

Last year, I started getting serious about applying polyculture methods to my ornamental gardens. So far, it has been a great success. Every time I shop for new plants, I think about what that plant’s companions will be. This used to be primarily about mixing colors and textures in proximity to each other – purple blooms will be offset by yellow blooms, etc. Now I think a lot about height and spacing.

For example, I plant drifts of impatiens under towering elephant ears. I fill the space under ancient magnolias (where sun-loving St. Augustinegrass refuses to grow) with ferns, bromeliads, and caladiums. I prune the lower limbs from large shrubs to create a space for underplanting. Some of my impatiens have lasted for several years now with this kind of shelter and lopping off the tops when they start to look leggy.

The polyculture approach to gardening goes a long way to preventing weeds from taking over your garden. I use heavy layers of mulch and other organic material to feed the soil and suffocate weeds, but mulching can only go so far, especially in a climate like Florida where everything plants (including weeds) want is plentiful. Really the only thing that suffocates weeds is planting more plants that you love.

The best thing about the polyculture approach, however, is aesthetic.

Before I started taking this approach, I’d say my aesthetic resembled the traditional English garden, which was just a jumble of plants with flattering contrasts. And that’s obviously not a bad approach to gardening in itself.

But now I have genuinely started to make our gardens look like a tropical jungle – not just with contrasting plants, but with layers of growth, like the floor, understory, canopy, and emergent layers of rainforests. The garden isn’t just horizontally appealing, but vertically appealing. It’s the kind of garden where you want to put down a blanket in the middle of the lawn, lie down on your back, and look up. That goes a long way to creating a space of wonder.

4 thoughts on “Applying polyculture concepts to ornamental gardens

  1. I can well imagine the loveliness of your layered polyculture. I have something like that in a vastly different climate, and it’s like a paradise, to play even a small part in that ongoing drama of living, breathing, colorful plants with the insects and birds buzzing and flitting around in it, too. You do a good job of describing, still, I would love to see pictures!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hope that all your new additions are thriving. We have a couple of fig trees too. Great summer fruit. Our landscaper, who is really expert on gardens, wildlife, and native plants, advised us when we got the first fig tree to never allow ripe fruit to sit on it, because if the birds ever discover ripe figs, they will come as early in the day as necessary to beat us to them. We pick them first thing every morning and have some with breakfast. It’s been five years, and we are still getting tothe figs ahead of the birds. Still, we keep the trees under 12 feet tall, so that if it becomes necessary, we can tent them easily.

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