Plant Your Margins to Increase Harvests

Reader Contribution by Joshua Burman Thayer and Native Sun Gardens
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Making your home garden productive is an in-depth and gradual process. Though you can work with a design professional to hash out a use plan and plant list early on, it still takes several phases and periods of acclimation for a garden to begin to really thrive.

Assessing Your Various Microclimates

Assessing where the best sun is and where different microclimates lie can begin to help define use areas.  As each exposure and conditions create a different microclimate, you may have three to four distinct areas at your home, each with their own strengths and setbacks — even in a small urban lot. Best to work with the forces of nature to create plant groupings that reflect the microclimate of each area.

For example, if you try to grow your micro-greens in a hot,south-facing front yard, they may quickly become stressed from the sun’s intensity. Likewise, should you attempt to grow your heirloom tomatoes under that giant Italian stone pine in the backyard, you may become frustrated as it appears to stay stunted despite the loads of fertile organic compost you added.

As for a commercial example, if you were to try to grow two acres of carrots on a parcel of land, but only 3/4 of that land is in full sun, you may have trouble with carrot yields in the shadier area.  Would it not make more sense to work with the lay-of-the-land and plant something more shade-loving in that shadier area?

By working with nature and taking the time to assess the nuances of microclimates on our land, we can most affectively develop a polycultural system of diverse, healthy foods.


Consider Sun and Shade

A great quote from pioneering polycultural designer Bill Mollison is “Don’t just do something, stand there.” Take the time to observe how the sun crosses over your property. By doing this, you will know in your bones the way the arc of the season’s sun arrives across your land. This will let you see what areas receive the best and longest sun during the crucial fruit-making hours of 11a.m. to 3p.m. These areas will be your choice areas for fruit production but is not the subject of today’s blog post.

As for the rest of the property, work with marginal or shady areas by assessing plants that don’t mind the shade. Many greens and culinary herbs originate in meadows and forest under-stories where the light is dappled. Because they do not have the pressure to produce fruiting bodies, greens are able to stay healthy in less than full sun.

Of course, they will grow larger and faster in full sun with ample water, but in limited scale, we can save the full sun for crops like fruit trees and tomatoes and squash, leaving the greens for the less-desired light shade. In this way, we create a crop that requires less daily water uptake than when in full sun, while taking advantage of a marginal shade zone.

Planting at the Margins

So, greens are now in the shade and our choice full-sun zone is now completely planted; how might we continue to add surplus crops to the remaining margins?

One simple addition that I love is to plant hearty annuals in the basins at the base of each fruit tree. Particularly when using drip irrigation, there is already a water source at each fruit tree. In this way, the secondary understory crop is acting as a green mulch for the fruit tree, reducing weeds as well as slowing evapotranspiration.

I have had success particularly with beans, peas and arugula. These crops are bonuses and when you direct-sow with bulk seed, it costs pennies on the dollar to add these to your existing food system.

Finally, what to do with those unused margins? Perhaps there is a rocky patch at the edge of your production zone that simply is not ideal for agriculture. Or perhaps there is that upslope area that is difficult to irrigate.

My solution for these marginal margins is to plant native plants and drought-tolerant Mediterranean species. In each case, these plants have evolved to adapt to local conditions and require far less water and nutrients than wet, lush food crops.

Here in California, one can create much more edible abundance by shifting even some of production crops to more drought-tolerant perennials such as pomegranate, persimmon, fig and olive.

As for the natives, they can provide insectary zones adjacent to your crops, which will ensure that your food crops get regularly pollinated. Think of these native flower zones as apartment complexes for beneficial insects. It is my great joy to return to a garden I have designed and see resident bee populations able to stay in the vicinity due to year-round pollen on-site.

Start utilizing the margins in your garden and beginning yielding more for your community.

Joshua Burman Thayer is a landscape designer and permaculture consultant with Native Sun Gardens. He is the Urban Agriculture Supervisor for Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation in San Francisco, Calif. Find him atNative Sun Gardens and read his other MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here. 

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