Friday, September 14, 2012


God is said to be a God of order. If that’s the case... why does nature look like a rambling mess of vines, scraggly sumacs, tumbling-down oaks and a profusion of annual weeds?

Probably because the order is a lot more complex than we realize. Generally, human beings like geometric forms and straight lines. We like to see all our corn in neat rows and our grapes on taut lines. And when it comes to harvesting and planting, there is an ease to this system.

A productive mess. Cassava, sweet potatoes, figs and weeds.

In Florida, however, some of those neat rows more closely resemble a death march across the desert than a good food source. We’re always watering the thirsty sand, picking off locusts or aphids and praying things will live long enough to produce.

When you add more species, however, things change. You’re no longer counting on one thing to produce heavily enough to justify its existence. You’re also not trusting that patch of earth to be the Perfect Lil’ Environment (TM) for whatever you’re craving. Instead, you’re making a mix of plants - and often their interactions allow a greater harvest across that patch than would be possible alone. The benefits of putting marigolds in your garden has been expounded at length - we’ve all heard that they repel pests. In reality, they don’t seem to make much difference - yet the more plants you put together, the more pests seem to be confused by the profusion. It’s like taking the buffet at a Golden Corral out of its geometric organization and scattering it here and there around the establishment. The mashed potatoes are in a truck outside, the chicken-fried steaks are beneath a table and the chili is already steaming away in a toilet (saving you the trouble of passing it through your digestive tract.) Now the lardy patrons are having a hard time finding a meal. It’s all there... somewhere... it’s just tougher to identify.


Herbs and veggies mix well. The patch of garden up above has a mixture of lettuce, spinach, sage, catnip, mint, dill, onions, beans, potatoes, brussels sprouts, peas, lentils and garlic... and a few opportunistic weeds. (It's also the background photo for this site.) These plants together are doing much more than they could alone. By intercropping intensively like this, we can:

1.Confuse pests
2.Build the soil
3.Harvest a wider variety
4.Conserve space
5.Freak out neatniks
6.Keep moisture in the soil
7.Ensure we harvest something

The lentils, beans and peas in this patch are fixing nitrogen in the soil. I use lentils as a cool-weather ground cover and soil-builder. I don’t find the lentils particularly worthy of harvest, but they’re easy-to-grow, keep the earth covered from the sun, and as they mature and other plants grow between them, they make a good mulch. They’re a “nurse crop” that fulfills a variety of functions. Plus, you can buy a bag of dried lentils from the grocery store for a $1 or so, soak them overnight, and wing them across your garden with a little soil-turning and you get a lot of green going quickly. The same is true of beans, green peas, and chick peas.

Here’s a shot of a newly-transplanted pepper plant in a bed of now-mulched lentil plants:

Doesn’t it look happy? Leave the roots of your leguminous (bean and pea family) nurse crop in the ground when you chop them. I take a machete and hack down a section, then pop in my desired transplant. The roots beneath the ground feed in nitrogen as they decay, and the tops of the plants act as mulch, sheltering the soil from evaporation.

I’ll write more about intercropping in the future - the possibilities are as endless as your enthusiasm. There’s a lot of fun in finding carrots in the peas and basil in the potatoes and parsley in the corn. Trust me. It's awesome.

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