Free Planting

Natural by design

In a part extract from her Climate Change Garden book, Kim Stoddart explains why mixed planting offers a far more resilient alternative to block planted veg patch produce…

What a year it’s been so far. As well as a pandemic lockdown to contend with, we’ve experienced a multifarious succession of weather extremes as the impact of climate change really starts to roll on in. As well as causing stress and confusion to plants and gardeners alike, with our changing climate comes a greater risk of pest and disease overall. Therefore the more robust and naturally resilient we can make our precious outside spaces the better position we will be in to weather the storm ahead…

Change is in the air

Thankfully amidst all the doom and gloom, nature holds so many of the answers we need and the more we can mirror natural systems the better it will be overall. Many traditional grow your own practices are high maintenance and vulnerable to the elements. Based as they are around a set of (let’s face it) rather exacting dos and donts’ when it comes to the cultivation of home grown fruit and vegetables. 

A lot of this comes down to this ingrained desire for uniformity – be it straight lines and blocks and blocks of produce that you see when you travel to any allotment around the UK. We’re programmed to keep our veg growing very neat and tidy, to keep nature very much in its place and under control. 

Yet block planting of produce requires a rethink

Yes, in an organic system a process of crop rotation is recommended in order to ensure that the soil isn’t drained of vital nutrients at the end of each season. In this way, varieties of crop are grown in an ordered succession, brassicas following legumes, following potatoes and so forth to ensure order and overall soil health and fertility. It’s a good system that works well. 

Yet, it doesn’t have to be this way all… 

In reality, if you plant different types of vegetable and even fruit, all mixed in together, with variety in your raised bed then the soil doesn’t get depleted in the same way it would with mono block planting. Instead, because you have lighter crops like lettuces growing alongside a hungrier tomato plant, with a few Mediterranean herbs like basil and parsley, a pea plant, a few cabbages and lots of nasturtium, carrots, a few onions and maybe some radishes, there is a biodiversity that enables you to bypass the crop rotation system entirely. 

The key is just to ensure that there is sufficient space between hungrier plants, and balance in the varieties which are planted together. So not too much of one type in a particular area, to ensure the soil retains fertility and pest build doesn’t become an issue in the balance of planting you have laid out. In fact, this more free-spirited method of growing can also help to keep pest numbers in check. If you consider that it’s often recommended to companion plant calendula or onions around carrots to help prevent carrot fly attack, just imagine this principle just on a much larger scale. It’s essentially harder for a particular pest problem to get out of control when there isn’t such a block of plants for them to get excited about. Instead, they have to hunt harder to find their desired produce amongst others, and this provides another tick therefore in the resilience stakes. Especially when you consider that with our changing climate we are going to have to deal with, wider and potentially more problematic challenges regarding creatures that want to reap havoc with our crops. 

How I came to free plant  

For years following the exacting process of crop rotation used to make my head whirl, especially when I moved from a small Brighton back yard to a smallholding with a half acre garden in West Wales.I had pages of planting records which recorded what had been grown and where and I found the process time consuming and rather restriction in the extreme. Also, planting so much of one type of fruit or vegetable all together seemed to me almost like an open invitation for pests and disease to move on in. When my block planted polytunnel of tomatoes suffered from blight, and I watch helplessly as the airborne fungus moved from leaf to leaf and plant to plant in a matter of days, wiping out my entire crop, I realised enough was enough.

I’ve been mixed planting now for almost nine years now and I can tell you I would never go back. This method of mix and match produce, more akin to a cottage garden or medieval peasant style of polyculture has so much going for it increasingly.

It’s very easy to employ this more naturalistic method of growing and you’ll undoubtedly find that once you start, you are unlikely to look back. You can also start small and then build up over time as your confidence in letting go of lines and blocks builds. Also if one crop fails then it’s not so noticeable to others(mixed in with other produce in a bed) a fact that seems to go down especially well with the allotment holders that come on my day courses. 

How to get mix and match planting 

1 – Choose a bed, area, or even a pot in which to begin. You might want to start small until you get into the swing of things. 

2 -. Just allow sufficient space (at least 3ft) between produce of the same family and use layers to create diversity in your space. For example this could be a tomato plant and a cucumber, some peas or broad beans, a couple of brassica and some roots like carrot or beetroot. 

3. Use lettuce, rocket, calendula, nasturtium or herbs such as parsley or basil as light-on-the-soil ground cover in-between. 

4. This is your space and you have the freedom to work with colours, plants and produce in a way that works for you and nature alike. 

This article first appeared in the spring issue of Permaculture magazine.

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