By Sherry Ackerman
Polyculture in gardening is a design model that utilizes multiple crops in the same space, in imitation of the diversity of natural ecosystems and avoiding large stands of single crops, or monoculture. It encourages biological diversity or “biodiversity,” which simply means the diversity, or variety, of plants and animals and other living things in a particular area or region.
Biodiversity is important because everything that lives in an ecosystem is part of the web of life, including humans.
Gardening techniques that build a polycultural design model include multi-cropping, intercropping, companion planting, beneficial weeds, and alley cropping.
Multicropping is the practice of growing two or more crops in the same space during a single growing season. It can take the form of double-cropping, in which a second crop is planted after the first has been harvested, or relay cropping, in which the second crop is started amidst the first crop before it has been harvested.
My peas are relay cropped with winter squash. The winter squash are already germinated and sticking up at the base of the peas. Once the peas are harvested and the vines removed, the squash have squatter’s rights to that piece of garden real estate.
Intercropping is the practice of growing two or more crops in proximity. It is particularly important, when using intercropping techniques, not to have crops competing with each other for physical space, nutrients, water or sunlight.
Examples of intercropping strategies are planting a deep-rooted crop with a shallow-rooted crop or planting a tall crop with a shorter crop that requires partial shade.
I intercropped my orach, which grows quite tall, with carrots this year. The carrots are growing deep into the soil, while the orach is stretching up toward the sun.
Many plants have natural substances in their roots, flowers and leaves that can alternately repel and/or attract insects depending on your needs. Thus, using companion planting throughout the garden is an important part of integrated pest management.
By using companion planting, many gardeners find that they can discourage harmful pests without losing the beneficial allies. A good example of this type of design element is companion planting tomatoes and cabbage. Tomatoes are repellent to diamondback moth larvae, which are caterpillars that chew large holes in cabbage leaves.
A beneficial weed is any non-domesticated place that nonetheless has a companion plant effect. A good example is white clover that adds nitrogen to the soil through the process of nitrogen fixation, making the nitrogen plant-available. Purslane, as well, is an excellent companion plant for tomatoes, peppers and corn (not to mention being an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids when eaten in salads or smoothies).
Alley cropping is a simple technique that restores nitrogen to the top layer of soil so that gardeners can use the same piece of land year after year to grow their vegetables. It is essentially a method of planting in which rows of a crop are sown between rows of nitrogen-fixing plants. I alley crop fava beans, which are extraordinary nitrogen fixers, with brasicas (cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower), plants requiring immense amounts of nitrogen to mature.
In a nutshell, polycultural approaches to gardening are based on mixed cropping. Some of the advantages of this type of model include less pest loss, improved plant fertility, better pollination, reduced land and water use, and improved yields. It is a good model for productive, eco-friendly and sustainable gardens.

By Sherry Ackerman Polyculture in gardening is a design model that utilizes multiple crops in the same space, in imitation of the diversity of natural ecosystems and avoiding large stands of single crops, or monoculture. It encourages biological diversity or “biodiversity,” which simply means the diversity, or variety, of plants and animals and other living things in a particular area or region. Biodiversity is important because everything that lives in an ecosystem is part of the web of life, including humans. Gardening techniques that build a polycultural design model include multi-cropping, intercropping, companion planting, beneficial weeds, and alley cropping. Multicropping is the practice of growing two or more crops in the same space during a single growing season. It can take the form of double-cropping, in which a second crop is planted after the first has been harvested, or relay cropping, in which the second crop is started amidst the first crop before it has been harvested. My peas are relay cropped with winter squash. The winter squash are already germinated and sticking up at the base of the peas. Once the peas are harvested and the vines removed, the squash have squatter’s rights to that piece of garden real estate. Intercropping is the practice of growing two or more crops in proximity. It is particularly important, when using intercropping techniques, not to have crops competing with each other for physical space, nutrients, water or sunlight. Examples of intercropping strategies are planting a deep-rooted crop with a shallow-rooted crop or planting a tall crop with a shorter crop that requires partial shade. I intercropped my orach, which grows quite tall, with carrots this year. The carrots are growing deep into the soil, while the orach is stretching up toward the sun. Many plants have natural substances in their roots, flowers and leaves that can alternately repel and/or attract insects depending on your needs. Thus, using companion planting throughout the garden is an important part of integrated pest management. By using companion planting, many gardeners find that they can discourage harmful pests without losing the beneficial allies. A good example of this type of design element is companion planting tomatoes and cabbage. Tomatoes are repellent to diamondback moth larvae, which are caterpillars that chew large holes in cabbage leaves. A beneficial weed is any non-domesticated place that nonetheless has a companion plant effect. A good example is white clover that adds nitrogen to the soil through the process of nitrogen fixation, making the nitrogen plant-available. Purslane, as well, is an excellent companion plant for tomatoes, peppers and corn (not to mention being an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids when eaten in salads or smoothies). Alley cropping is a simple technique that restores nitrogen to the top layer of soil so that gardeners can use the same piece of land year after year to grow their vegetables. It is essentially a method of planting in which rows of a crop are sown between rows of nitrogen-fixing plants. I alley crop fava beans, which are extraordinary nitrogen fixers, with brasicas (cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower), plants requiring immense amounts of nitrogen to mature. In a nutshell, polycultural approaches to gardening are based on mixed cropping. Some of the advantages of this type of model include less pest loss, improved plant fertility, better pollination, reduced land and water use, and improved yields. It is a good model for productive, eco-friendly and sustainable gardens.