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Five of Our Favourite Plants to Attract Beneficial Insects

Five of Our Favourite Plants to Attract Beneficial Insects

All organisms are beneficial, and at the very least all organisms past, present and future decompose to nourish something else, but when we speak of beneficial organisms we are speaking of those organisms that provide clear and present benefits, specifically to our polyculture activity. Beneficial organisms, or Borgs as we like to call them, provide benefits to our activity of growing the stuff we need. They seem to be happy to carry out these duties providing we supply (or at the very least don’t destroy) suitable living conditions for them, i.e, habitat. The benefits these organisms offer come mainly in the form of increasing the productivity of our crops via pollination support, protecting our crops from pests via pest predation and providing fertility to our crops via their roles in decomposing organic matter and supplying nutrients, fertility provision.

In this post, we’re identifying some of the plants whose flowers are total Borg magnets. All the plants mentioned in this post with the exception of one are in the Umbelliferous or Apiaceae family, whose flower heads readily attract large numbers of Borgs and appear to drive them into something of a frenzy! Some of these flower heads are edible to humans, and others deadly poisonous, but all are shaped like an umbrella. The curved flower stems and flower buds are essentially clustered in yet another small umbrella, and this structure allows Borgs easy access to forage.  It’s not just this that pulls in the punters though – insects looking for a mate find love in the umbels, and predators take advantage of this busy meeting space.

Fennel – Foeniculum vulgare

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A Homemade Vegan Version of Natural & Organic Fertilizer


Last year I worked a couple of gardens with a friend/boss, Buck, who has been cultivating these spaces for decades. Though some of his techniques don’t jive with my permaculture sensibilities, such as tilling every year and walking in garden beds, on many things we were in lock-step. For example, once our seedlings had popped up a few inches high, we used leaves that had been piled the previous autumn to mulch the entire garden.

Up until then, I’d been dismayed with the amount of weeding we were doing each week. Once we’d applied the mulch, I asked why we’d not done it from the outset. Buck told me he preferred to keep a closer eye on the young seedlings—It was easier to amend the soil or address obvious issues without mulch being in the way—and thought of the early weeds, many of which were “chopped” into the soil, as nutrients for the plants. At the end of the growing season, he tilled the leaf-mulch into the garden to replace nutrients.

I have to admit, despite being a proponent of no-dig gardens and cultivating soil life (i.e. not killing it with a tiller), Buck’s technique had a lot about it that seemed sustainably conceived. Leaves had to be raked from the lawn and driveway (Buck is a caretaker for these properties) in the autumn; gardens had to be grown in spring. It made a lot of sense to me to do it this way. Other than adding a little soil enhancement to the hole when planting, the garden’s fertility was set-up to cyclically revive itself.

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The Polyculture Market Garden Study–Results From Year 4–2018



In this post you will find an overview of the trial garden and the polycultures we are growing, a description of what we record and the 4th year results from the trial. You can find results from previous seasons here.

First of all we’d like to say a huge thank you to the team of volunteers that joined us for the study this year and that make it possible for us to carry out our experiments and research. It was a pleasure to work together with you. Thank you Victoria Bezhitashvili, Angela Rice, Malcolm Cannon, Elise Bijl, Alex Camilleri, Daniel Stradner, Emilce Nonquepan, Ezekiel Orba and Chris Kirby Lambert.

It was a great a mix of people from all over the world including university students, a crypto fund manager, ex-nintendo web editor and market gardeners. Thank you all for your valuable input, it was our pleasure to host you and we look forward to seeing you again some day.

The Polyculture Study 2018 Team


Location: Bulgaria, Shipka
​Climate: Temperate
Köppen Climate Classification – Dfc borderline Cfb
USDA Hardiness Zone: 5b – 7a
Latitude: 42°
Elevation: 565 m
Average Annual Rainfall: 588.5 mm
Prevailing Wind: NW & NE
Garden Name: Aponia – Polyculture Market Garden


The six longer beds in the left hand corner of the photo on the right (the Aceaes) are the trial beds, the focus of this study.You can find the location of the Polyculture Market Garden on google maps here (labelled as Aponia on our Project map)

Garden area: 256.8 m2
Cultivated beds area: 165.6 m2
Paths: 50 cm wide – 91.2 m2
Bed Dimensions – 23 m x 1.2 m  Area – 27.6 m2 per bed
Number of beds: 6

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How to Make Your Garden Have Less Weeds?


In crop gardens, we sometimes get into a spatial race with weeds, and the solution is to replace the weeds with “designed weeds” to take up the space. This can be done with green manure mulches to fertilize the gardens and supply quality mulch. This is an example of how understanding the inner workings of weeds allows us to harmonize with natural systems to both repair the earth and create production for ourselves.

It’s important to understand that the term “weed” is applied to any plant that isn’t wanted in a particular area. While we now call dandelions weeds, they once were sought-after greens. Banana trees are so prone to take root in the tropics that someone might consider them a weed, removing them from the yard, though they are the best-selling fruit in the world. The point is that just because we call a plant a weed doesn’t mean it lacks value. “Weeds” can be useful, or they can be prevented. Often, it’s us, as cultivators, who make and foster these choices or pick our small battles.

Mulch – The best way to have a weed-free garden is to prevent them in the first place, and organic mulch is probably the best way to go about that. Thickly (about 5-10 cm) mulch gardens with straw or leaves to effectively suppress weeds, and those weeds that do make it through are much more easily pulled. Not only will mulching help with weeds, but it’ll reduce the need to water, support soil life, and prevent erosion. Ultimately, the mulch will break down and continually replenish and improve the soil.

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Growing Grains at the Home-Scale Farm


I dream of growing grains, of being so far down the line in establishing a kitchen garden, a vegetable garden, a food forest, that time can be allocated to developing a system for handling the cereal part of the food supply. Well, let me put that differently: I aspire to get to that project one day, and from time to time, I do catch myself daydreaming and wondering just how it’ll work. Today, this morning, is one of those times.

Now, the truth of the situation, at least from what I deduced, is that producing fruits and vegetables and adopting a diet centered around them is more proximately realistic than growing my own wheat or rice. In large part, I’m on my way. The vegetable garden produced well over the summer such that the pantry has a nice stock of relishes, stewed items, and pickles, and the freezer is stuffed with bags of green beans, okra, and pesto ice cubes. We foraged serious quantities of wild mushrooms and persimmons. We have a box of sweet potatoes and another of autumn squashes. With some tweaks and natural growths (in area), those gardens will be there to provide substenance. With our new property finally purchased, fruit trees and berry bushes will hopefully start this spring. In other words, I can truly visualize how this side of things will get going. It won’t end the way I see it now, but the general direction is real.

Home-scale grain systems, however, elude me. Other than growing some amaranth this year, what amounted to about a pound of dried seed, I have no real experience with producing grain.

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Build More Gardens, Phase out Cars

Build More Gardens, Phase out Cars

Because plants convert CO2 (a greenhouse gas) into oxygen, gardens combat global warming. Right? Isn’t this, as Sherlock Holmes would say, elementary? So why then is the mayor of a major coastal city, one whose very existence is threatened by global warming, intent on destroying community gardens? Could it be because the mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, isn’t terribly concerned about the already unfolding ecological catastrophe? It certainly looks that way. Perhaps this is why, in spite of the fact that he lives in a city in which getting around by car is ridiculously slow, and there’s great public transportation, and cars are a major source of pollution and global warming, and New York City will be accessible only to scuba divers before too long because of sea-level rise, he not only travels 12 miles in an SUV to work out, but reproduces anachronistic, car-centric politics. His priorities lie elsewhere, with those of real estate developers, and the “business class” generally. This is why de Blasio can’t stop shutting down community gardens.

Grown on lots of land leased from the city, these gardens are being taken away from the communities that cultivated them, and that they enrich, and handed over to de Blasio’s real estate developer allies. Transferring vital resources to the wealthy, so that the wealthy can enjoy even more than they need, while the rest of us manage with ever less (no different from efforts to take away Social Security), is, of course, how this system works – and has worked here since the Dutch colonized the region in the 17th century. It doesn’t matter that the planet is growing hotter, and that trees and gardens ameliorate this – cleaning and cooling the carcinogenic air. The system has rules of its own, it must “efficiently exploit” the land and everything on it – i.e., generate profit. Necessities must be subordinated to luxuries. Obstacles to this effort will be plowed under.

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5 HA Polyculture Farm Design–Suhi Dol Revisited


Paul Alfrey from Balkan Ecology Project shares with us his observations and thoughts in regards to a visit he made to a farm he designed and how it slowly developed into a polyculture of fruit trees, aquaculture and vegetable gardens. 

Last week Dylan and I set off on a road trip to discover the flora and fauna of the North East of Bulgaria. Our first stop was to Catherine Zanev ‘s farm in Todorovo, North Bulgaria. As those of you familiar with our project may recall, this was a farm I designed in 2013. I had not visited the place for some time and was very excited to see how the plans had emerged into reality.

Catherine’s goals for the plot were to create a polyculture farm with focus on producing fruit for juicing, to include vegetable production for a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) scheme and to experiment with dye plants. The design was complete by 2015 and implementation began that year.

The 5 ha polyculture plot Suhi Dol on the right, locally practiced intensive monoculture farming on the left

The design concept for Suhi Dol was to create an agroforestry system of “Belts” that are comprised of mixed species fruit trees, soft fruits and nitrogen fixing shrubs planted in “Rows” under-storied with support plants, herbs and perennial vegetables. Between the rows are the “Alleys”. The Alleys have potential to be used for growing hay, cereals, vegetables, herbs or rearing pasture raised poultry such as chickens or turkeys. Integrated throughout the belts and around the perimeter are various beneficial habitats to enhance biodiversity. The designed system is an elaboration of Alley Cropping and is based on tried and tested models of our small scale forest garden systems scaled up.

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The Rhizosphere

green wheat grass


The rhizosphere is the word used to describe the area of soil surrounding plant roots. It is the most biologically active layer of the soil; populated with micro organisms interacting and benefiting from chemicals released by plant roots (1,2,7). There are more micro organisms present in a teaspoon of soil than there are people on the earth; the rhizosphere can carry 1000-2000 times this amount making it highly populated with microbial life (2). The rhizosphere has three zones (2,9,10)-the endorhizosphere, the rhizoplane and the ectorhizosphere (figure 1).

1. The endorhizosphere: This is the inner section of the rhizosphere. It is the section of the plant root occupied by micro organisms (which benefit from organic compounds released by roots).

2. The rhizoplane: This is the middle section of the rhizosphere. It includes the plant root surface with soil particles adhering to it.

3. The ectorhizosphere: The outer area of soil surrounding the roots.

Figure 1: Image of the rhizosphere showing its three described sections-the endorhizosphere, the rhizoplane and the ectorhizosphere. Source: McNear H. (2013)
Figure 1: Image of the rhizosphere showing its three described sections-the endorhizosphere, the rhizoplane and the ectorhizosphere. Source: McNear H. (2013)


Rhizodeposition is what makes the rhizosphere an interesting place for biological study. Plant roots release organic compounds into their surrounding soils (1). These compounds are what scientists refer to as rhizodeposits and the process is called rhizodeposition. As plants release organic compounds from their roots they lose some of their carbon to the surrounding soil; this means that they contribute to the soil carbon content (3). So the soil benefits from the plants lost carbon. The release of organic compounds in the root zone also supports the soil microbial life (3). The amount and composition of rhizodeposits from plant roots vary depending on the type of plant, the climate, the nutrient deficiency, and the physical, chemical and biological properties of soil surrounding the root (2). Rhizodeposits are released through the following ways (3):

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Basil: What Every Permaculturalist Should Know


In a design system in which we are looking for each element to perform multiple functions, there are few plants that can show off quite the way basil does. As a rule of thumb, things are expected to warrant their placement within our designs with at least two useful attributes, but basil performs well all over the show. It dazzles in the kitchen, the garden, the herb spiral, the food forest, the medicine cabinet, the artisanal products, and the blender. This article is here to delve into that, the seedy world of basil. (Warning: Basil is not good for making puns, even for practiced writers.)


Basil is a great addition to permaculture gardens. Despite having plenty of perennial varieties, the big challenge can be that they are not particularly frost-hardy. They like a lot of sun, and in tropical climates, they can endure both wet and dry season without much bother. For places that dip below freezing, basil might work better as a potted plant that lives inside for the winter, and there it will still need plenty of light, six to eight hours of sun or ten-plus of artificial light. Hey, it’s a big world, to each place its own, but if basil is in your wheelhouse, it is worth it. It works overtime in the garden.

Sweet Basil (Courtesy of Khairil Yusof)
Sweet Basil (Courtesy of Khairil Yusof)

• As with any member of the mint clan, it does well to confuse many garden insects, so it works as a pest deterrent on behalf of the other plants within its system.
• On the other hand, bees absolutely love a flowering basil plant, so it will invite those pollinators in to do their work.
• Basil is very aromatic and simply walking by it, or brushing up against it, fills the area with something lovely to breathe.

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Learning More on How to Think About Soil

Seedling & Soil


Obviously, I’ve not been unaware of the importance of healthy soils, and by happenstance, I’ve probably even managed to make a good deal of it. But, my technique has largely been based on adding a steady supply of organic carbon and nitrogen matter, mostly in the form of brown leaves, boxes and newspaper to layers of manure, household veggie scraps, and fresh cut greens. I stack them atop earth and begin building layers of soil, usually doing an initial cover crop of legumes that get chopped-and-dropped. I probably would have stopped to learn more before now had the system not worked—though slow—as well as it does.

But, this morning I learned a new way—very practical and familiar—of looking at soil. Firstly, Lawton explained the necessities of minerals beyond just NPK, using a wonderful analogy with the modern food system and its effects on people. Then, he explained pH balance, something I’ve never spent a lot of time addressing, save for avoiding certain things that have been reported to me as overly acidic.

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Perennial Polycultures-The Biomass Belt: Fertility Without Manure



We’ve been looking into fencing our plots, and how to meet fertility demands of the establishing perennial crops such as fruits, nuts, herbs and perennial vegetables without relying on animal manures and imported compost, and have come up with a polyculture that may meet both of these needs that we call the biomass belt.


The biomass belt is a perennial polyculture dedicated to growing mulch and fertilizer fodder that can apply to annual and perennial crops. It’s a very simple closed system that can quickly provide a supply of nutrient dense liquid fertiliser or nutrient dense mulch material as well as valuable habitat.


The polyculture is composed of mineral accumulating comfrey in raised beds, Nitrogen fixing ground cover sown into the pathways and a Nitrogen fixing hedgerow. Local native herbaceous annuals and perennials are also encouraged to grow within the hedgerow.

Illustration by Georgi Pavlov - www.georgipavlov.net
Illustration by Georgi Pavlov – www.georgipavlov.net

The comfrey is grown in raised beds for biomass and can be cut from 4 – 7 times each year with the material being used to make liquid fertiliser or used directly as mulch. The deeply rooted comfrey mines nutrients deep in the subsoil that would otherwise wash away with the underground soil water or remain inaccessible to other plants. Some of these nutrients are relocated within the comfrey leaf biomass. As the biomass is cut and applied as the mulch or converted into liquid fertiliser, the nutrients are delivered back to the top soil and again accessible to crops and other plants.

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Perennial Vegetables and the Other Reasons You Should Consider Them For Your Garden

Turkish Rocket (Courtesy of Eric Toensmeier)


However, what I’ve noticed in my experience with introducing other people to the practice and perennials is that the change isn’t always so welcomed. At the last farm I was on, building a demonstration garden, the owner was only very interested in prototypical annuals despite a wealth of the perennial possibilities we were planting. Working with NGOs, I’ve realized that, while people are excited about growing more food, the idea of introducing something new to their diets isn’t nearly as inspired. Instead, the expectation seems to be that we will be growing the same old corn and bean staples, making the need for nutritional and culinary education an equally important aspect for a permaculture project to succeed.


In theory, planting perennials would be something that people would latch onto. They are less work. They require less resources. They are better for the stability of the soil, helping to prevent erosion while maintaining a network of soil life beneath the surface. They extend harvests, often producing crops earlier and later than annuals can do. They make great, productive, living fences, trellises, shade and animal habitats.

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As Climate Warms, How Do We Decide When a Plant is Native?

As Climate Warms, How Do We Decide When a Plant is Native?

The fate of a tree planted at poet Emily Dickinson’s home raises questions about whether gardeners can — or should — play a role in helping plant species migrate in the face of rising temperatures and swiftly changing botanical zones.

On rare occasions, the townsfolk of Amherst, Massachusetts, would catch a glimpse of a ghostly figure dressed in white, leaning over to tend her flowers by flickering lantern light. The mysterious recluse, who was better known to neighbors for her exquisite garden than for her lyric poems that revealed a passionate love of nature, differed from fellow 19th-century American writers whose thinking became the bedrock of modern environmentalism. While Thoreau famously declared wild places to be “the preservation of the world,” Emily Dickinson was finding nature’s truth and power in an ordinary dandelion.

Among the plants that survive on the family property where Dickinson confined herself for much of her adult life are picturesque old trees called umbrella magnolias (Magnolia tripetala) — so named because their leaves, which can reach two feet long, radiate out from the ends of branches like the spokes of an umbrella.

Jesse Bellemare
Umbrella magnolia trees in Concord, Mass.

The trees, believed to have been planted by Emily’s brother Austin, have jumped the garden gate in recent decades and established wild populations not far from the poet’s home. This new location is a couple of hundred miles north of the tree’s native range, centered in the sheltered woods and ravines of the Appalachian Mountains, and is the first evidence that native plant horticulture in the United States “is giving some species a head-start on climate change,” according to Smith College biologist Jesse Bellemare.

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Nature Did It First (and Best).

Leaf lettuce plantation in hydroponics system


Aquaponics are a very interesting development in the world of permaculture and offer some great benefits and advantages. Let’s take a look at hydroponics and aquaponics to see what they offer, and how aquaponics functions in comparison to hydroponics.

Hydroponics – the ingenious and highly optimized system of growing plants in water. Commercially available nutrients provide all that is needed for the reservoir and after these nutrients have been added the growing begins. This is really great for those who want to hit the ground running.

Careful attention needs to be paid when adding elements to the system though as it needs to be completely sterile. This sterile system uses a flood and drain technique allows for fertigation (fertilization and irrigation at the same time) and optimal water as well as nutrient levels. Of course, there are many supplements available to maintain the perfect nutrient levels, for the right price.

As previously mentioned, absolutely everything that comes in contact with a hydroponic system must be sterilized in order to ensure that pythium, otherwise known as root rot, doesn’t take hold and destroy one’s plants. This fungus is an absolute scourge in hydroponics. The temperature of the system needs to be kept below 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Anything above that temperature and the root rot will have a prime environment.

Regular dumping of the water makes sure that the nutrient imbalances that inevitably developed are controlled. There is eventual build up of the nutrients that are supplied in mineral form, and this needs to be balanced out again. This is tested by checking for electrical conductivity in the water due to all the salts and minerals added. Dumping this water can be tricky if there isn’t a safe and convenient location though.

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Mulching With Purpose and Precision

A Mulched Garden Bed


To be completely honest, I have been a crazy advocate of mulching, especially when people with modern gardens invariably ask what I think they should do to improve their plots, but I am not always the most productive of mulchers…mulchsmiths…mulchmen. I’m lazy, simply throwing down whatever organic matter is on hand, and perhaps, in my defense, this has been because I’m doing my best to use what’s on site. Despite having had success with my devil may care method of mulching, I know it’s not actually the best way, that just as different plants require different inputs, different mulches deliver different goodies. So, while I know my mulchful ways are a good practice, I’ve decided it’s time to start practicing them better.


For me, and I think many fellow permaculturists, the idea of mulching with inorganic materials—those popular plastic sheets particularly—is simply not part of my MO. I’ve also come across the idea of using shredded car tires, which I, of course, appreciate in its repurposing but ultimately would not choose for my gardens.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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