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Mixed vegetable gardening -- a 'cottager' perspective

Bangladeshi Allotment
Today I planted out 45 seedlings. Greens, root crops and Leeks. 
When you go to plant you gotta think about where you will plant the plants, right?
Since I'm upping  the number of plants in my garden beds and seriously chasing a harvest increase, I got anxious that maybe my habits were a handicap. 
Other gardens of my acquaintance are formatted by blocks and rows of sameness vegetation. These may not be true 'monoculture' but my take on 'polyculture' kind of makes me a mix-em-up radical. You could say that my garden beds are  heterogeneous mixes of plants seemingly thrown together.
And it's true -- if I see a vacancy -- like a parking space -- I'll plant/park a seedling or seed there. 
I'm not stupid -- I don't plant the same thing there year in year out -- but a regular and set regime of rotating crops isn't in my CV. I may change the plant grown in one spot, but that's about the extent of my sequencing.
A bad habit? 
So far so good. 
This habit of mine began a few decades back when my parents moved to Rosebud Victoria in cooee of Heronswood and Diggers Seeds and thereon both my parents and I have been cottage garden aficionados as Diggers were cottager obsessed. I'd get all my seeds there and a lot of my inspiration.
Later the Permaculture bug kicked in -- and while Permaculture isn't a monocultural system, it's polycultural design is ruled by the 'food forest' concept and reliant on perennials.
Over the years I've found food foresting has hairs on it and it's been a task to wean myself from some Permaculture precepts I'd adopted. 
I'm not really  great perennial sort of guy. My stomach is ruled by annuals.
But there I was looking at the soil at my feet, seedlings in hand...and I had sudden doubts. Maybe squeezing in this and that where I can fit it in isn't the best gardening option?
I was thinking that maybe I should redesign the whole shebang...
After investing in some research I feel much better because I won an affirmation :
In a conventional vegetable garden, each type is planted in rows or patches. Usually similar species are grouped together, such as brassicas, beans and peas and so on. Plants of the same or similar species compete for the same nutrients, and are an attractive habitat for pests of that plant. Usually, the patches are rotated every year to prevent the build-up of pests and diseases and so as not to deplete the soil of nutrients.
By contrast, in mixed cropping a large number of different vegetables are grown together in the same space. A well-chosen combination can result in less competition for nutrients, and other beneficial relationships between the different plants mean that plants are healthier.
Indeed a little brochure from UK Permaculture on Mixed Veg Gardening is a gem and is worth downloading. It's free.
Mixed vegetable gardening is an example of a  polyculture . The word means
growing lots of different types of plants together. The growing mix in a polyculture can include vegetables, herbs, flowers and even fruit. People have used this approach all over the world for hundreds of years, often with great success. Examples include the English Cottage Garden, Caribbean kitchen gardens or the allotments of Bangladeshi communities in London.
Of course gardening in a medley is a headache. Finding plants isn't always easy. It's more time consuming to garden. The only logic is your own eccentricities...and maybe a bit of companion planting. You have to think about finished growth height and competitors in the neighbourhood after the same nutrients and moisture. You have to think about the underneath business too -- what the veg roots will get up to and where. 
A bit of a mess really if your were a formalist.
In my mix --hidden among all that veg and green -- are my terracotta pot irrigators, so the more jungle there is, the harder it is to find, reach and refill these pots.
Nonetheless, you're relating big time almost to every plant.You're monitoring growth and habit in close proximity to the dirt. 
But if you want to lazy garden...forget it. Compared to the 'food forest' concept and  block or row  planting, mixed vegetable gardening demands at lot of attention....but there are some great advantages:
  • Better use of space - a lot of food is produced and many types of vegetables can be grown in the same space over a longer time.
  • Fewer pests and diseases - the different colours, shapes, textures and scents of the leaves confuse pests, and diseases can't spread as easily from one plant to the next.
  • Less weeding - there is no space and no light on the ground, so weeds can't germinate.
  • Less need for watering - greater soil coverage means less evaporation.

So despite the frustrations it's an effective way to deploy dirt.
In my mix  the trees I grow are pawpaws and sweetleaf (Katuk) as they are both short lived and so easily governed. I also have many frangipanis strategically planted as a source for controlled Summer shade (and Winter light since they're deciduous here). The frangipanis will hopefully also serve as climbing frames....but for the rest, I guess I'm still learning, especially as my soil has only recently become a workable loam.
But for now, let;s just say that my moment of doubt is over and I remain a (sub-tropical) cottager at heart..

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Comment by Dave Riley on July 22, 2014 at 22:17

Thats' not my garden in the image. The caption is correct:Bangladeshi Allotment. (located in London).Latest pics of my own after a session of extensive digging is here.

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Comment by Susan Cook on July 22, 2014 at 21:21

Love the pic of your garden, Dave and your gardening style.  I like to plant wherever there is a space in an existing bed too - and having a real mix of different things. 

Comment by Tracy Arnold on July 22, 2014 at 17:54

I started out vegetable gardening with the intention of creating the perfect 'rotation' system.  Pffft. lasted one season.  Now I just plant whatever wherever.  Obviously some common sense is involved. But so far so good...   I'll post some pics when I get around to it. 

Comment by Dave Riley on July 10, 2014 at 23:27

Young turnips are delicious but the turnip rules as pickle.

Then there is the passionate quest to grow something you love to eat but can't quite get the garden to come along. For me that's long red sweet peppers -- like Cubanelle (or red Italian fryers).

But yes -- you have to experiment. There's nothing so addictive as a seed catalogue, or the seedling array at the local markets.

In researching this topic I came upon a useful BBC TV series, The Edible Garden-- which is very good despite Alys Flowler's pretensions. She clearly differentiates the landscaping options. I'm caught up in 'kitchen garden'/pottager mode and the gardens I was exposed to  while renting in various inner city Melbourne locales with their  very Greek and Italian dense-veg backyards. 

But, you know, you need a method in your head -- a logic -- a way of looking at your back yard nature in sync with the amount of effort you are willing to outlay. In my case I've spent so much energy just making 'a' garden these last fews years that I'm now dealing with the shock of type options.

With annuals the journey offers all these different destinations...and here,compared to down south, you so often don't have to be season dependent. So aside rom the chill factor and such you don't have to be limited to what you can plant.

I find the problem with novel plants is predicting their space requirements. I've been growing Pepino and only after shifting the plant three times have I found it a comfortable home. The frustration is that while I could grow something in a past garden so well -- here I am years later in a different setting, struggling to replicate the success. 

It impacts on your self esteem. :)

You also get to channel 'family'. My grandfather's garden was a tiered up the side of a hill with stepped beds formatted by cement borders and stepping stones as paths. He had 5 kids and forced them to play in the street! 

I dig into the sand here and realise that I grew up on a similar sand belt -- albeit with older soils -- so I don't have to fret about drainage. My father didn't.

I've also been thinking that all this Permie  stuff ruled by  'design'  -- zones and such --undermines the delights  of flexibility. All I want is a 'kitchen' garden. It can be  distractive so that you can miss the core focus.

There's not a thing wrong with these 'other' gardens I mentioned -- ethnic or family -- so why pretend you need to re-invent the wheel? The issue is one of inputs. and that's initially a mono- vs poly-cultural issue of sorts.

Comment by Elaine de Saxe on July 10, 2014 at 23:25

Have you tried the red papaya home-grown and fully ripe? I love Paw Paw really and didn't like the red ones I bought but the home-grown really ripe ones are *sensational* and so different to the yellow ones.

Comment by Andrew Cumberland on July 10, 2014 at 22:14

I sit firmly on the fence (ouch, that hurts!).  I grow what I like to eat.  However, a small proportion of my garden goes into "testing."   My recent turnip planting is exactly that - not sure I really like them?  What I think both of you are missing is:  how to control the proportion you partner takes over with plants you don't eat!  (or what you can use them for that is edible).  I used My Rozie's passionfruits for liquor.  I need help with the damn paw paw though.  I hate that stuff. 

Comment by Elaine de Saxe on July 10, 2014 at 20:16

Total agreement, Dave! I've planted all sorts of plants over the years and often because it's something new to me and if I don't grow it, I'll never know about it. There's been a bucket of failures yet some have continued to be planted because they are foods we like and cannot or don't buy.

With only a suburban block to play with, planting lots of potentially large trees is not a real option. Yet we do have some trees as in citrus, figs, bananas, pawpaw and some newies not yet in the ground.

There does need to be some trials though and restraint - not that I'm a shining example of restraint when it comes to intriguing plants ;-)

But if you don't give it a go, how will you ever know?

Comment by Dave Riley on July 10, 2014 at 16:49

Well ... I reckon that the key thing --lost in the forest of trees -- is what do you want to eat --and not what you 'could' grow? Just because something is edible(and perennial?) -- it doesn't follow that you have to grow it.

I think the case against annuals is overstated and exaggerated whereas the argument against monoculture is spot on. When I looked at the options for perennials in my space a lot of the pros did't add up in terms of my preferred menu.

A Macadamia nut tree? But who wants to wait all those years to then spend so much energy cracking those nuts? A exotic fruit orchard -- why bother? I only eat a few preferred fruits--bananas, pawpaw , figs and annual scramblers on the ground...

I think you gotta start with the menu...and then implant that in your gardening preferences.

 A garden has to be ruled by your favorite cook book...

Comment by Susan on July 10, 2014 at 14:36

I'd love to see more photo's of your garden Dave.  I must admit that I usually am a bit of "food foresty" sort of person - then summer hits and the mess and the watering regime gets the better of me and it gets out of control or dead depending on how much rain is around. However, since converting to the wicking beds, I am trying to be much more organised as their purpose for me was to, as you put it, be a "lazy" gardener.  I'm hoping I can be more self sufficient and have regular plantings so that there won't be months between harvests because I forgot/had no space for/too busy to keep up with succession planting.  Great to hear that you can grow so successfully.

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