Permaculture Projects

Wild Polycultures, Hedging, Magical Mulberry Tea and Forest Garden Plants

Week 17 - The Polyculture Project

It’s been a productive week in the gardens with plenty of summer rains breaking up the stifling heat. I don’t recall a summer with quite as much and frequent rainfall in all of the years we have been here. Normally this time of year the surrounding landscape looks parched brown but this year it’s still spring green. 

This week we’ve been joined by Simon and Eva and their lovely dog Hun. Simon and Eva both studied organic agricultural science and worked with one of the worlds leading organic agriculture research centers (FiBL). Looking forward to picking their brains on some new studies we have planned for the gardens in the coming weeks .

So here’s what we’ve been up to in the gardens.

But first just to let you know we’ve revamped our Online Store where you can find Forest Garden/ Permaculture Plants, Seeds, Cuttings, Bulbs, Rhizomes and Polyculture Multi-packs along with digital goods and services such as Online Courses, Webinars, eBooks, and Online Consultancy and finally we’ve added a Bulk Fruit and Nut Tree order form for Farms, Orchards, Nurseries, and Large Regenerative Landscape Projects. If there is anything in the store you would like to see but is not there, please let us know. We hope you enjoy the store and find something you like :) It’s your purchases that keep our Project going. Thank you. Enter Our Store Here.

Aponia – Hedge Screen

There is a tall concrete wall bordering the east side of the garden and I’ve been meaning to plant trees along this boundary for some time to provide a screen and utilise this space. It’s quite a difficult area to plant due to the surrounding bramble but also due to the intense heat and drought in the area during the summer that is intensified by the large concrete wall. I’ve tried Liquidambar styraciflua -Sweetgum trees in the past but the Bramble quickly took over the trees in the spring and the plants did not survive the hot summer drought.

This week we cleared the area of brambles and Clematis vitalba from a few wild plums already growing by the wall and extended the irrigation channel in order to plant more trees this Autumn. Prunus cerasus – Sour Cherry and Alnus cordata  – Italian Alder should do well as both plants grow relatively quickly and make good hedging. We should receive some fruit from the cherries, and the Alder – being nitrogen fixing – will provide fertility for the garden as a whole. For more about nitrogen fixing plants see our previous posts here and here.

The below image shows the existing water channels (in grey), the new channel and the location of the hedge screen.


Shahara and Simon cleared the brambles beside the wall and we placed some bales where the Prunus cerasus – Sour Cherry and Alnus cordata  – Italian Alder will be planted in the late Autumn. We’ll plant about 2.8 m apart and probably thin out the Prunus cerasus – Sour Cherry trees for fire wood after 10 years or so leaving the Alnus cordata and existing plums to provide the screen. With the irrigation in place the Alnus cordata trees will easily reach 8 m tall and 3 m wide within 10 years.

Lia and Eva pegged out a contour line for the irrigation channel through the Prunus insititia- Damson scrub. The channel branches off an existing channel that fills the wildlife pond as seen in the above overview image. We dug out the channel approx. 30 cm wide and 30 cm deep along the contour and than dropped it along the wall where the hedge screen will be planted.

Wild Polycultures

I’m always looking to the wild flora for inspiration and guidance as to how to design polycultures. There is a great example of a wild polyculture in the meadow to the south of Aponia – our market garden plot. The polyculture features a Prunus cerasifera – Cherry Plum one of the best tasting wild plums in the area being juicy, sweet and with just the perfect amount of sourness.

In the under story of the tree you can find;

Chicory – Cichorium intybus, Wild Carrot – Daucus carota, Yellow rattle – Rhinanthus minor,  Trifolium pratense – Red clover, Origanum vulgare – Pot Marjoram and Hypericum perforatum – St Johns Wort . These herbs grow among a variety of grasses and offer support to a range of pollinators and pest predators. The deep taproots of the Chicory – Cichorium intybus, Wild Carrot – Daucus carota feeding in the lower levels of the soils also help retaining nutrients in the area.

As you can see in the below photo the mixed species meadow is cut for hay (normally twice per year) however it is not cut around the tree leaving an ellipse of  the wild plants to mature there. The herb layer under the tree is grazed in the Autumn by our neighbour Gosho’s horse and foal that are tethered in the fields for a few days. This keeps the vegetation from turning to scrub and maintains the diversity of the under story. I’ve been observing the tree for the last 5 years and it always seems to be in great health, fruiting regularly with few problems of pest and disease.

Forest Garden Plants

One of our Morus alba – White Mulberry trees has been fruiting since early June with the last of the fruits dropping in a storm last week. I found out from Shahara this week that the leaves of the tree,may be used throughout the year to make tea that has almost magical health benefits. According to Issei Shinagawa from Hong Kong, who Shahara has previously worked with, a cup of Mulberry leaf tea a day will turn your grey hairs black as well improve your general health.

All fresh leaves are fine to use for the tea. You can simply run your hand down a branch and strip all the leaves, they come off really easily. The leaves can be dried whole or cut into strips. I dried some cut leaves on our kitchen table by a sunny window and they were dry within a day and half.

Simply crumble a few leaves into a cup and poor on hot water and you have a very decent tasting cuppa. I’ll report back in a few months regarding the grey hairs :)

For loads more info on Mulberry check out our previous post here 

Origanum vulgare – Pot Marjoram is a common herb in the meadows around here. The plants are in full flower now and will continue to flower until as late as October. The sweet pine and citrus flavours are often used to flavour meats, salads, vinegars, and casserole dishes. The plant also has extensive medicinal properties and was known to the Greeks and Romans as a symbol of happiness.

Prunus spinosa – Sloe in the early morning sun.  This is common early scrub plant in the east fields and a plant I always integrate within our designs. Spinosa refers to the sharp spines or thorns that are characteristic of this plant and make it an excellent choice as a “nurse” plant, i.e. to grow around other young saplings to protect them from predators. An important plant for wildlife, its early spring flowers provide nectar for early emerging pollinators, and its dense form provides secure nesting sites for birds making it popular in hedging. The fruit is referred to as sloes and is best known by the alcoholic beverage sloe gin, although numerous delicious recipes for jellies and preserves can be found.

Ajuga reptans – Bugle ‘Atropurpurea’ (the purple plant in the below photo) planted as ground cover within this productive polyculture of Prunus tomentosa – Nanking CherryVaccinium corymbosum cv. – Blueberry and  Rubus idaeus cv. – Raspberry has exceeded my expectations this season. We planted out the 15 cm wide 12 cm deep potted plants in the first week of April and each plant is already providing at least 50 cm wide cover within 4 months. I’ve had success with Ajuga reptans – Bugle in various scenarios making this one of my favourite ground cover plants.

The wild patches in the market garden including  Foeniculum vulgare – Fennel  are full of flowers this time of year and attract a huge diversity of beneficial insects. The best time to see the variety of insects on and around the plants is high sun on a still and cloudless day.


What I think is Willow Herb – Epilobium sp.  has moved into the wildlife pond in Aponia. I’m not sure of the species. According to Conspectus of the Bulgarian Vascular Flora there are at least 15 species in Bulgaria. Many of the plants in this genus are listed as edible and have medicinal value and are considered pioneer plants that look to colonise wetlands and marshy edges. Welcome to the garden Epilobium sp. :)

Paul Alfrey

Hi I'm Paul, Originally from the UK I moved over to Bulgaria with my family 12 years ago and set up the Balkan Ecology Project. Prior to that, I worked as a freelance Arborist in the UK for 15 years. Balkan Ecology Project is a family project run by myself, Sophie and our two boys Dylan and Archie, and supported by the amazing volunteers we have hosted here over the years. We aim to develop and promote practices that provide nutritious affordable food while enhancing biodiversity and work to achieve this by: - Researching, designing and implementing systems on the ground - Providing working examples of our designs at our sites open for the public to visit - Providing quality education and training to aspiring growers and landscapers - Providing consultancy and design for landowners and farmers across Europe - Practicing an open source policy, whereby we disseminate our results freely and share all aspects of our work - Growing, selling and promoting the use of plants and plant communities that have high ecological and nutritional value Our activities currently include: Biological Plant Nursery, Educational Courses, Local Land Stewardship, Polyculture Research, Market Gardening​, and Consultancy and Design.

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