Polyculture Update. February 2013

I wanted to write a short post to keep up to date with my vegetable/grain polyculture experiments. The overall aims and objectives are described in my vegetable/grain polyculture design, but the page is really a number of linked projects. This post updates a couple of those polyculture projects.

Grain, Clover, and Bean Polyculture

The main thread of the polyculture experiments is the Sustainable Grains Project. This year I am growing wheat, rye, and spelt at 12 inch spacings, and wheat at 12 inches between rows, and 6 inches within each row. The pictures below show beds of Spelt, Rye, and Wheat at 12 inch spacings.

Polyculture of Spelt, beans, and clover

A Polyculture of Spelt, Beans, and Wild White Clover

All were taken in February (2013). The broad leaved plants are the Broad Beans.

small scale grain growing. Rye

Rye and White Clover. February 2013

polyculture of wheat, beans, and clover

A polyculture of wheat , beans, and white clover


The wheat was sown and planted out much later then the other grains, and this is obvious from the pictures. In fact it is only slightly more advanced than the spelt planted across the road from me, on a biodynamic farm. This highlights the benefits of early sowing.

If you compare the pictures with those that I used for the January Small Scale Grain Growing Update, you may notice that the grains have continued to grow. A week of warmer temperatures have seen a noticeable increase in size, especially of the rye.

Broad Bean Experiment

Of more interest in terms of the polyculture is the success of the broad beans. One strand of the polyculture experiment is to develop a really cold hardy strain of the Broad Bean ‘Bunyard’s Exhibition’. I’ve chosen this bean as it is the tallest that i could find among the commercially available beans. Last Winter I lost about 90% of the beans. This year I planted out seedlings that came from last Winter’s survivors. This Winter the only losses that I’ve had are to rats digging up and eating the large seed leaves at the beginning of Winter. The remaining plants have all survived so far. It’s been a less intense Winter. The temperatures haven’t been as low, so I don’t want to read too much into the good survival rates, but I am pleased. The beans will play a key role in the polyculture experiments. Adding Nitrogen, food, bee forage, with a high biomass, all from a plant that will stand out all Winter, protecting the soil, and helping to maintain the mycorrhizal fungi.

Soybean Experiment

Another strand of the polyculture experiment is the attempt to grow soybeans in the UK. The picture below shows my harvest last year.

growing soybeans in the UK

Soybeans grown in the UK

It doesn’t look impressive but this is just from six plants, all of which lost much of their lower foliage and seed pods, which were stripped by my chickens. These soy plants were grown in two pots along with a tomato plant in each. The idea of the pots was to enable me to see if I could use the soil/compost from the pots to innoculate next year’s soy plants with the right nitrogen forming bacteria. These are not naturally present in our soils. I had bought a packet of innoculant from the USA, but it was marked as only being good for one season. I wasn’t sure if that was just good sales practise, or genuine. So  I’ve adapted a technique used to grow mycorrhizal fungi, to see if I could produce my own innoculant. The pots are sat in the dry waiting to try this out this year. There is no mention of the innoculant on the RHS website.

Lessons Learnt

Everything wanted to eat the soybeans that were planted in beds. They were eaten by rabbits first. Then when I put mesh over them, the pigeons ate whatever grew through it, as soon as it was in reach. As I mentioned earlier, my chicken ate the leaves and young pods. This suggests that the beans would make a good forage crop, perhaps grown as part of a summer green manure mix. Growing the soybeans without protection may need a complex polyculture in which the soybeans can ‘hide’ amongst other plants.

I grew the soybeans as I had read that growing potatoes in a bed after it had grown soybeans, helped to reduce scab. This will be difficult to test unless I can prevent the soybeans from being eaten. I could grow them in a polytunnel (arriving later this year), but this won’t help the potatoes.

Polyculture Progression

The polyculture experiments are now entering an interesting stage. I have some fellow ‘experimenters’ enrolled for some experiments with the small scale grain growing element of the project. This will begin at the end of this Summer (2013). The Broad Beans may have already started to show signs that the ‘natural selection’ of our colder Winters are creating the type of bean that I want. I have succeeded in harvestig soybeans in the UK, grown outside without protection. Not a bad start to my vegetable grain polyculture system.

10 thoughts on “Polyculture Update. February 2013

  1. Tom

    Thanks to your excellent blog I’m also going to be growing grain for the first time (and in a polyculture). I’m too late for the rye but I’m going for the barley in the spring. Then rye and some nitrogen fixer over the winter for the long stalks to compost (and the grains of course). Thanks for putting me on to this especially its sustainable aspects. My plot(s) wont feed me fully but I reckon I can make them a closed system with these techniques.

    1. Deano Martin Post author

      Hi Tom
      Great to hear of somebody else giving small scale grain growing a go, especially using some form of polyculture. Let us know how you get on.

  2. Tom

    My barley is just sprouting on some wet tissue! I used Pearl (hulled) Barley cos it was there in front of me in the supermarket. No idea how well this will work but I didn’t even expect it to sprout.

    1. Deano Martin Post author

      We’ve sprouted and used all sorts of stuff for small scale rain growing. Speciality grains like Einkorn have worked well, although small. I have some ‘Kamut’ grains (khorasan wheat) sat waiting to try. It may prefer a warmer, drier climate, but I’ll give it a go.
      Good luck with your polyculture experiments.

  3. Tom

    Sorry me again. Sprouting didn’t work, I was misled by a tiny amount of sprout but its all disappeared. Any ideas where online I can get some grains that I can sow?. I’m based in the UK like yourself but I’m pretty confused as to what to buy (its my first time doing this).

    1. Deano Martin Post author

      Hi Tom
      It’s a bit late for a lot of stuff. For small quantities you could try brown envelope seeds. A search should find them.

  4. Pingback: Growing Soybeans In the UK - The Sustainable Smallholding

  5. Valerie Rawlinson

    i don’t know where you live Tom, but I bought my organic wheat seeds from the Unicorn in Chorlton, Manchester. Despite the robbery by sparrows I have had good germination of what is left. I sowed broad beans and peas in january, and planted out in February with protection from pigeons. They are both growing strong despite the cold weather.

    1. Deano Martin Post author

      Hi Valerie
      Thanks for passing that on. What varieties are they selling, and do they sell anything other than wheat?


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