Saturday, February 11, 2012

Soldier Rows in the Garden, Poly- versus Mono-

Monticello Garden Photo by Southern Foodways Alliance 

Maybe the only place where "mono" should be preferred over "poly" probably is in marriage and committed relationships. "Mono" certainly has no place on my dinner table because it isn't a balanced meal... and it should not have a place in agriculture, because rampant monocultures have done our ecology so much harm.  

"The United States has a topsoil problem. About 75 percent of it is gone, primarily because the large, single-crop farms that dominate American agriculture rely on chemicals and synthetic fertilizers to produce their harvests, depleting natural soil systems in the process." Source)

Even my little experiment last summer of mixing vegetables in among the flowers and shrubs produced better than my previous soldier-rows of each kind of vegetable. But why do we carry that monoculture concept over into our home vegetable gardens, and plant our veggies, all of a kind in neat, tidy little rows??

I find myself guilty of picturing "vegetable gardens" as neat, tidy and weed-free rectangular-shaped gardens, all laid out in nice little rows. It's really hard to ignore our mental pictures of how we have believed things should be... Mental imprints from childhood to adulthood are hard to eradicate because we simply don't think about them anymore... they just pop up, fully-formed. Say "vegetable garden" and our automatic mental picture is usually tidy little soldier rows.

One of the things I like about Edible Food Forest Gardening is that there are no soldier-rows. You may have squash or bean plants interspersed with comfrey, under the umbrella of a fruit or nut tree and all of it surrounded by a circle of garlic or leeks. It works because each plant contributes something to the whole... that is, each plant gives something to the benefit of all the other plants. They depend on each other to not just survive, but to thrive!

The comfrey (dynamic accumulator) brings up deep minerals that the roots of the squash never reach deeply enough to tap into... and the comfrey also provides almost perpetual mulch if you cut and drop the leaves several times over a growing season. The bean plants are nitrogen fixers, and the squash leaves provide some shade for some close-by strawberry plants or salad greens... and the salad greens or strawberry plants act as a ground cover for the tree roots, keeping most weeds out. The encircling ring of garlic, chives, leeks or even jonquils, are protectors and keep voles from tunneling into the food supply, and can help deter rabbits from chomping on the goodies inside the ring. The ring of alliums also tend to keep grass from encroaching.

My first trial "circle" (aka Guild) of planting in this fashion was last year around a young apple tree... although not a circle, just an area around the tree. I had green beans, tomatoes, artichokes, strawberries, comfrey, several flowering herbs and nasturiums (pollinator attractors) interplanted around the 6 foot tall apple seedling, an area much larger than the current apple canopy. By this spring, the strawberries should have multiplied, the comfrey and herbs will come back, and the tree may have grown another foot or so. I didn't have a surrounding ring of alliums because I got started on it so late, but hope to remedy that this year.

I have much to learn about perennial polyculture, and growing my garden in this fashion... things like what each plant brings to the party... but eventually I should have a garden that mostly takes care of itself... weed-free, self-fertilizing, a beneficial wildlife and pollinator haven... and pest-resistant.  

Seems a lot more sensible than all the work of planting, fertilizing, and weeding lots of soldier-rows!


  1. I bought "Gaias Garden" after reading about it here. I'm looking forward to trying some this year. My house is surrounded by corn fields...four years in a row. Yes they spread tons of cow manure, but even more chemicals. Crop dusters one a month. It is worse than mono crops, we are now doing whole mono regions. We use to have more sugar beets, beans, peas, onions, etc. Now it is 90% corn or wheat.

    1. I hate to hear of fields like that. Is the corn GMO, and will pollen drift affect your gardening?

      Glad you got the book!

  2. Just thought I would to let you know that I have been reading your fine blog for a few weeks now and am really enjoying the content.:)

  3. HOHOHO, Well girl you know what you speak. I got that nice long double row of peas planted, and even, germinating already. Right against the edge of my raised bed. Where the trellis is.

    Last year was an excellent example of neo hodge podge where mama even sneaked a few plants I never knew about into that poor overused raised bed. Imagine my surprise in the fall after eating carrots, beets, onions, summer squash, winter squash, cucumbers, tomatoes and okra to be cleaning out all the "debris" and find a big beautiful eggplant hidden away. And leeks are still growing.

    All this in a bed that looked like the squash owned it entirely

    Yup! The dainty straight lines just don't cut it.


  4. Winston, I suspect more home vegetable gardeners will come to realize interplanting brings good results, even if it's by a lucky accident!

    Now I just need to learn to do it better by design.

  5. Darius,

    And I forgot to mention the six strawberry plants mama planted. Underneath all the brush and stuff that covered the bed those six plants set runners from Hades and started new plants filling the entire bed.

    I ended up having to build a new raised bed just to be sure mama gets enough strawberries this year, LOL.

    You can bet I'm gonna keep my clippers handy this season.


    1. Well, I hope my few spread this year! Don't forget to save a few runners for replacement plants... most strawberries have diminishing returns as they age,


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