Archive for March, 2015

Annual Polycultures – an easy way to ‘permaculture’ your plot

Written by Caroline Aitken on . Posted in Uncategorized

Sweetcorn (maize) under-planted with squash

Permaculture began with the concept of edible polycultures with Mollison and Homgren’s observations of natural ecosystems. Their initial idea looked much like a young emerging woodland with a mixture of trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants, all of which were edible or useful to humans. Forest gardens are becoming increasingly popular and people are growing accustomed to the idea of edible perennials. But a polyculture doesn’t have to consist of only perennials. There is room for self-seeding annuals and planted vegetables in and alongside a forest garden. Or you can simply create a polyculture within your annual vegetable garden. Here are some good reasons for growing annual vegetable polycultures and a few helpful tips for having a go.

Benefits of diversity

All of the benefits of a diverse system will apply to your annual polyculture. The most important one perhaps is the improvement in the health of the plants and the soil. Pests and diseases tend to be species specific – that is they like to prey upon one type of plant. Club root for example is only found in the brassica family of plants; cabbages, kales, cauliflowers, broccoli, etc. Black fly colonise broad beans and carrot fly only eat…well you get the idea. As well as being unimaginative with their diet, pests are also easily flummoxed and less likely to find your crops if they are part of a polyculture. In nature you rarely see explosions of pests and diseases as they are kept in check by the challenge of finding their prey and being preyed upon themselves. Taking care of your soil will make a big difference when it comes to controlling pathogenic microbes, but mixing up your crops in the growing area will help to confuse the flies, bugs, beetles and other invertebrates which are looking for lunch. By including flowering plants which attract predator insects you can help to keep damaging bugs like aphids, white fly and black fly in check.


Insect attracter plants:

These can be either included in plant mixes or grown around the polyculture beds.

Angelica, chervil, dill, fennel, hogweed, lovage, sea holly, sweet cicely.

Cornflower, corn marigold, fleabane, golden rod, Michaelmas daisy, ox-eye daisy, Shasta daisy, yarrow, tansy, chamomile.

Winter flowering heathers, wild marjoram, spring flowering willows, Melissa, comfrey, borage.



A well designed polyculture can easily out-crop a monoculture if managed well. Each crop included must occupy a different niche. For example their specific root depth, light requirements, water and nutrient needs, seasonality and growth rate. Rather than competing with one another they will co-exist harmoniously, and ideally actually benefit one another. Some classic examples are lettuces around purple sprouting broccoli with a ground cover of radish. The lettuces make use of the ground between the PSB while it slowly fills the space over the growing season. As it grows more leafy in the summer it will cast a little shade on the lettuces and prevent them from bolting. Meanwhile any remaining gaps can be filled with fast growing radishes which will crop before the gaps are filled by the other two crops. Radishes can also be sown with parsnips. As parsnips are slow to germinate the radishes come up quickly enabling the gardener to see where the parsnips rows are, and thus avoid hoeing or weeding them – so a polyculture can be as simple as you like, so long as it has some benefit.

Growing two crops together can out-yield a monoculture by up to 150%. The more plants you add, the lower the rise in overall yield, but it will still always be more than a monoculture because of the different niches being occupied. The better the design, the better the yield.


camera July 390

As the plants grow much thinning is required and a constant level of attention to ensure plants have enough space and are not competing. Harvesting is fairly constant and plants are often picked when small or young to make room for other crops. Gaps from harvesting can be filled with seedlings for the next succession of crops.Ianto Evans (Cob Cottage) and Sepp Holzer (Hugelkulture) both broadcast seed mixes on to open ground. Evans advocates broadcasting each type of seed individually at a normal rate, while Holzer broadcasts mixes. The plant mixes or ‘guilds’ are chosen according to the different needs and qualities of each plant. You may choose to either broadcast seed, raise seedlings to plant out, or a combination of the two. I raise most things as seedlings as we have a serious slug problem. Remove any surface mulches in the spring and only mulch with compost if you have a lot of slugs.


When designing the polyculture crops can be sorted into different groups according to their needs. For example, choosing the most demanding plants as the main crop with less demanding plants around them. Some smaller non-demanding crops can be useful as space fillers and at the edges, like spring onions, radishes, garlic, thyme, parsley or flowers like French Marigold (Tagetes) or Pot Marigold (Calendula).

If you’re trying to get more out of your soil you will need to put more in to it, so make sure it gets plenty of compost –  2 or 3 times more than usual depending on how demanding the crops are. You can also use liguid plant feeds like nettle tea and comfrey juice to make sure everything grows abundantly. Growing a polyculture takes a little more care and attention that growing a monoculture, but it doesn’t need to be complex and the rewards are well worth the effort. You should spend much less time weeding, hoeing and dealing with pests and diseases, and more time harvesting and eating!

Top Tips:

  • Every garden is different and what works in one may not work in another. Be prepared to stray from the plan and make best use of what you’ve got as the season progresses.
  • Sow/plant densely and thin out if the slugs don’t do it for you.
  • Don’t over-seed as you’ll create too much competition. Sow each crop at the recommended rate for the area.
  • Use shade to your advantage to prevent bolting or hold back crops. This can be useful if you’ve sown too much in modules but don’t want to waste seedlings.
  • Some crops work best in fairly big blocks, eg: squash takes over, brassicas need netting. You can still get other crops in though – sunflowers work well through squash.
  • Leeks need a good groundcover that isn’t too thirsty, like parsley for example. Can also be planted in groups of three in the large spaces between young courgettes- the shade can help to blanch the stems.
  • Use plenty of rapid shallow-rooted ground cover crops to make sure ground isn’t left bare, eg: salads, spinach, rocket, radish.
  • Sow/plant plenty of self-seeding companion plants which will come back and compete with weeds.
  • If you see a gap, fill it with something useful before a weed finds it.
  • Harvest quickly, don’t wait for plants to mature. Pull out by the roots to make way for next crops.
  • Don’t use too many crops if you don’t have the time to maintain it.
  • Make sure you’re adequately feeding the soil to account for the extra productivity. Plenty of compost, liquid feeds and teas.
  • While the beds will lose less water from evaporation from the soil (it will be covered with foliage) there will be a higher demand from the plants in warm and windy weather. Look out for signs of wilting.

Patrick Whitefield, an inspiration. 1949-2015

Written by Caroline Aitken on . Posted in Uncategorized





Many of you will have heard the very sad news that our founder and namesake Patrick Whitefield passed away on Friday 27th February following several months of illness. He was diagnosed with a disease of the bone marrow in June 2014 and retired the following September.

Patrick loved his work and continued to write articles and even a short book from his sick bed for as long as he was able. When he was given a prognosis of a few weeks in the autumn his outlook was impressively philosophical

“I feel happy with my life, I’ve had a career that I love and believe in, and I feel content with the work I’ve done.”

No one would deny him that, Patrick was a pioneer who became a legend. He inspired people all over the world with his teaching, books, articles and films. His amazing integrity, even at the end will be a constant source of inspiration to me for continuing his work.

In his introduction to The Earth Care Manual he says:

 “This book is much more about solutions than about problems, more about what we can do in the present situation than about how we came to be in it in the first place. Yet there’s no escaping the fact that the Earth is in a dire state, and getting worse…

“This raises the question: Is it all worth it? If we do our best to heal the Earth and make our place in her a sustainable one, is there a good chance that we will succeed? Or is it a forlorn hope? It’s a big question, and one which can lead to depression if we look at the facts honestly and dispassionately. But to my mind it’s the wrong question. Even if we could answer it – and we can never know anything about the future for certain – it would beg the question; How do I want to live my life?

“Here I find the teaching of Mahatma Gandhi very useful. One of his precepts was that of non-attachment to the fruits of our labour. All we can do in life is to make sure that we play our own part in it the best way we can. Much as we would like to, we can never do more than that. Everything we do is so complex, and relies for its ultimate completion on so many different people and natural forces, that we can never take responsibility for the final outcome of our actions. We can only take responsibility for our actions themselves.

“So my answer to the question: How do I want to live my life? is that I want to be a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem.”

This encapsulates the spirit of Patrick as a person, and Permaculture as a whole. Patrick’s particular approach to permaculture was practical, accessible and land-focussed. He originally trained in Agriculture and worked on farms in the UK, Middle East and Africa, before returning home and answering his true calling as an ecological activist, becoming involved in The Ecology Party which later became The Green Party. He learned about permaculture in the 1980’s and began running his own courses in the early 90’s at Ragmans Lane Farm, where we still run courses today. During his permaculture career he has published several books, the most substantial of which, The Earth Care Manual has become a text book for temperate permaculture for teachers and students alike.

Following the release of The Earth Care Manual Patrick was asked to speak, teach and consult all over the world. He was consulting Editor and regular contributor for Permaculture Magazine and wrote for other publications including The Land Magazine. He was interviewed on Radio and TV, appearing in the BBC series It’s Not Easy Being Green and the documentary film A Farm For The Future. He had a huge following on social media, not only because of his wisdom and experience, but also because of his natural warmth and charisma. His engaging teaching style is captured in a series of youtube films which he made in recent years, and in the filmed lessons contained within our online course The Land Course Online.

There have been many beautiful tributes to Patrick since he passed away, but the best way we can honour his memory and benefit from his legacy is to practice what he preached.

“People often think that there are two ways of doing things. One is by returning to a life of drudgery, the other is by throwing fossil fuels at it. Permaculture offers a third way of doing things and that is by design.”

Permaculture shows us a way to be a part of the solution. It gives us a framework within which we can learn again how to be a part of the ecosystem, not separate from it contributing only to it’s demise. As Patrick said, we can never know the outcome of our efforts, so what it gives us here and now is a way of living according to our values. It can empower us to take responsibility for ourselves, our families our communities and we hope, our collective future.

In this spirit I will continue Patrick’s work by running our residential and online courses and offering permaculture design consultations. I will aspire to practice what I preach with as much integrity as my friend, colleague and mentor did. I hope you will join us.


Caroline Aitken

Director of Patrick Whitefield Associates

Teacher, Designer, Consultant, Author, Smallholder, Cook.

Permaculture Design Course on Dartmoor