Some call it a mess. Others contend it’s natural order. Technically, it’s referred to as polycropping but we call it a chaos garden and it’s the perfect microcosm of a regenerative farm.
Regenerative agriculture is focused on restoring natural nutrient cycles in the soil by emulating the natural ecosystem. The goal is to create an ecologically diverse environment for crops where micro-organisms, cover crops and edible plants all work together to protect each other from pests, disease and even weather events like drought or flooding.
A chaos garden takes these agricultural principles which we usually speak of in terms of large-scale farming and applies them to your garden.
In an effort to showcase these principles in action the Prairie Serf along with our partners Prairie Son Acres and Hillside Foods, proudly presents our very own experimental chaos garden just off the No. 16 highway in Duval, Saskatchewan.
Hand hoes were used to create rows, half and inch deep, into a standing pea crop about four to five feet apart. Peas make an excellent nurse crop for the rest of the garden as they tend to be less competitive and demand less water than other crops. Peas have the added benefits of fixating nitrogen into the soil while providing a broad cover for other young plants.
A seed mix consisting of; corn, kale, cabbage, squash, lettuce, sunflowers, cucumber, carrots and beets, was treated with a homemade compost extract. This extract functions to boost microbial activity in the soil which in turn aids in seed germination and helps provide the early nutritional needs of seedlings.
Once treated, handfuls of the seed mixture were spread casually into the rows. Potted plants, namely, tomato, red onion, yellow onion, capsicum peppers, basil, thyme, rosemary oregano and kohlrabi were planted randomly into the rows.
Seed rows were then treated with humic acid which functions as a carbon source and the garden was watered once just after planting.
Now, it is important to keep in mind that regenerative farming is a long game. That is to say that the rewards are not immediate; developing healthy soils is a multi-year process that produces increasing benefits as time goes on.
Nonetheless, the benefits are the same regardless of whether we are talking about a half section cash crop or a relatively small chaos garden.
A Few Benefits of Polycropping
- Plant root diversity breaks up hardpan earth and creates soil aggregates that in increases water infiltration into the soil
- A variety of broadleaf plants and grasses creates a thick canopy that blocks water evaporation and helps prevent soil leaching.
- Plant diversity helps protect crops and gardens from pests and disease.
- Healthy communities of microorganisms exchange nutrients with plants and provide important roles in natural cycles (e.g. the carbon cycle, etc.,)
- Overtime fungal networks (i.e. mycorrhizal fungi) develop and play an important role in nutrient optimization and distribution.
- A diversity of flowering plants will continually attract pollinating insects which inturn attracts a variety of song birds
Come fall and regenerative agriculture can look a bit messy at first glance, and our chaos garden is no exception. Hidden with the tangle of leaf and vine can be found a veritable cornucopia of organically grown vegetables. However, the true treasure of the chaos garden is not what you can take out, but rather what is left behind.
Beneath the matted layers of plant residue left lying on the surface, the soil has been primed, the first steps in restoring natural mineral cycles have been taken and the microbial community is getting ready for exponential growth come spring and the start of a new cycle.