|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!