Permaculture Projects

The Polyculture Project Week 1 – 2020

From March 2020

It’s been a while since my last post and it feels as though within that time span everything has changed. The optimist in me believes for the better, the realist believes not without a struggle and the pessimist would not be writing anything at all. It feels as if we have all suddenly woken up from a bizarre dream but can’t quite tell what’s the dream and what’s reality. It’s certainly testing times and I hope that you are all keeping well and using this time to benefit your family, friends, and neighbours as best as possible.
So here’s what we’ve been up to the last few weeks, and how the recent events have affected our project and what we are doing in response to what is happening right now.
I was in Istanbul for the winter writing for our online course and book. Fortunately, I managed to get back to Shipka a day before the borders shut and feel lucky to back with my family and the plants in the gardens. It’s difficult to imagine how that beautiful city will cope with the pandemic but every experience I’ve had with the people there leads me to believe they will face it with grace and dignity.
Crossing the Bosphorous – photo by Georgi Pavlov who joined me in Istanbul for a week.
Back in Shipka, it’s been a super busy week as we work on getting our spring plant deliveries out to our customers. Most of the orders are on their way now, however, our courier is not delivering to Italy or Switzerland and the post office is only sending small packages without guaranteed tracking so we’re looking for alternatives. With travel bans in place across the globe, our Polyculture Study Crew and European volunteers from the ESC scheme can’t make it in April and it looks most likely that our April course and open day will not be possible under the current laws prohibiting groups of more than 2 from gathering. We’re expecting that the travel bans will continue into early summer so perhaps we can pick things up in June/July.

Day to day life in Shipka is pretty much like it’s been since we arrived 13 years ago, the people of our age and older accustomed to having to rely on the land and each other, and many people here still have fresh in their minds hyperinflation events and political collapse during the 1990’s and are well equipped to take care of their basic needs. The main notable differences are that people are wearing masks, the social distancing rules in the local shops and in the nearby town of Kazanlak, and yesterday a large tanker vehicle drove through the village with two people masked up sitting on the back spraying disinfectant on the streets and pavement, a very dystopian scene. The schools have been closed but we’ve been home educating the boys for 8 years so that does not really make any difference to us personally. Normally when schools are off the kids and their friends take over the house but with the lockdown we’ve not seen any other kids the last few weeks.


Our Plans for this Year

Our plans have changed this year and most of our trials will be put on hold as we turn our attention to grow more crops. Given the uncertainty, we’re going to use this situation as an opportunity to practice a life where the regular food supplies are not reliable. Although we have set up a life here in preparation for such events with perennial crops, diverse fruit and nut trees, and healthy and fertile soil all supporting a wide diversity of wildlife,  we along with probably most people on the planet all too readily take for granted the stability of our economy and supply chains.  We’ve ordered 40 kg of potatoes from an online vendor that we’ll be planting out in Ataraxia. 80 potato plants should provide up to 6 months’ worth of meals for a family of four with potatoes on the menu 5 or 6 days week but we’ve ordered more than we need in case there is a shortage later in the year and some of our neighbours can use them.  We’ll also plant plenty of corn in May, and we will grow all of our regular annual crops highly concentrated in polycultures in our back garden. When the last of the spring plant orders are out of the nursery we will move the majority of the nursery plants into the market garden to make more space in the home garden for crops. The boys have already started to plant out nitrogen fixers Alnus cordata  – Italian Alder and Elaeagnus angustifolia – Russian Olive in the nursery beds in Aponia. We are growing our mother Corylus avellana – Hazelnut nut trees in this bed spaced 4 meters apart and will be harvesting division from these plants for new stock (find the cultivars we are growing here). In between the hazels, we are planting patches of the above mentioned Nitrogen-fixing trees and shrubs for a year or two before they go out to our customers.

From the forest gardens, we’ll be focusing on preserving fruit and nut harvests this year via drying, and preserving in jars and dipping into the wild larder as much as possible for teas and salads. We’ll be getting a batch of 3-day old chicks that Dylan will take care of, that we will grow for 10 weeks and process for meat, and a couple of piglets in May. The ducks are producing eggs for us and with 2 males and 3 females we can expect an expansion of our flock this season if all goes well.

New Daily Video Series from Dylan and Archie

Soph and I thought it would be a good idea to take this time to press the point to our two boys Dylan and Archie not to take things for granted and how important it is to at least know how to meet your fundamental needs. We’ve made an agreement that when they have finished their help around the gardens and completed a daily video on living off the land they can play as much computer as they like. Dylan and Archie will be making daily videos of what they are up to, the first and second of which you can find below.
Day 1
Day 2 

Forest Garden Plants

First blossom from a Prunus cerisifera  ‘Nigra’ – Purple Plum we planted in the Autumn, we’re looking forward to the first fruits this summer. Somewhat tarter than the usual cherry plums, just how I prefer a plum.
Often considered as a weed by gardeners, Ficaria verna, the ground cover formerly known as  Ranunculus ficaria L. common name Lesser celandine, is welcome in our gardens where it forms dense mats in the understory of the forest garden. The flowers provide great early fodder for bees and the leaves can be eaten when cooked but are poisonous if ingested raw, and potentially fatal to grazing animals and livestock such as horses, cattle and sheep.
Here we have the first-ever blossom from a Prunus domestica – Plum ‘Angelino’ that we planted a few years back. Hopefully, the fruits will follow this July. I love the suspense of trying a new fruit for the first time, but I have noticed that with fruit cultivars the first blossoms do not always produce fruit.


Dipsacus laciniatus growth leftover from last winter. This native to Europe and Asia is a perennial herb that may grow up two to three meters in height. The erect, branching stem is hollow and prickly and although I have not investigated the inside of the stems yet it has the potential to serve as overwintering sites for invertebrates. The flowers are much loved by a wide variety of bees and we always encourage this plant to grow in our gardens.



The incredibly potent Nectaroscordum siculum – Bulgarian Honey Garlic  coming up through Vinca minor – Lesser Periwinkle ground cover


Cornus mas the first trees to flower in our gardens


Scilla forbesii a bulbous perennial from west Turkey is new to our gardens and we’ll be offering it from the nursery next season. Glorious little flowers!
Dylan found this beauty under a strawbale when planting out some boundary trees in the market garden.


The ducks are still free-ranging around the garden and do not make any problems for the emerging garlic plants. We’ll likely keep them in their pen when we start sowing the leafy greens as they are partial to the emerging seedlings.


Looking more like a Starfish at the moment than a plant, this is one of the new Allium plants we are growing for the nursery and around the gardens. Allium atropurpureum is native to our region and a popular ornamental given its beautiful flower.
Allium sativum planted by the boys a few months ago will be ready for pulling and drying in late June.


Forsythia x intermedia a common ornamental shrub and a native to Bulgaria and Eastern Europe. Makes a great hedge and produces plenty of biomass.


Salvia growing well during the mild winter we had this year.


Prunus dulcis cv. – Almond in the blossom in the foreground with Alnus cordata  – Italian Alder in the back. Both plants provide early nectar to the bees and on sunny late winter days are full of pollinators.


Hedera helix leaves looking stunning. I’m going to use the leaf vein patterns from this leaf as the path design for our next forest garden.
Prunus dulcis cv. – Almond  blossoms in the rain


Sedem telephium – Orpine regrowth


The last of the flowers from Galanthus gracilis – Snowdrop . We have these planted under most of our trees to mop up nutrients during the winter and turn the spring light into biomass while all the other plants are still dormant


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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