Permaculture Projects

The Polyculture Project 2020 – Week 21

A Beautiful Garden in the Welsh hills

This week we take a break from our usual Polyculture Project update, and instead have a post from Sophie about her recent trip to a beautiful garden in west Wales.


During this past week I have been experiencing some cooler weather in west Wales, and based near the old market town of Machynlleth, I had the pleasure of visiting a most beautiful garden belonging to good friends of my dear friend, Susannah.  A real sanctuary for humans and a host of other organisms, nestled on the woody mountainside.
Claire and Emma’s garden is very energetic. Despite visiting on a cool and damp day characteristic of a Welsh summer,  I saw an incredible amount of beneficial organisms on the site. The garden is a hub of activity, with numerous birds enjoying the canopy and understory of the plants layers which extend out the back to meet the local woodland itself. There were also plenty of visiting insects and pollinators which wasn’t surprising given the incredible quantity and diversity of flowering plants in the garden. With floral diversity comes invertebrate diversity and the invertebrates are, in large part, the main diet for birds and animals further up the food chain. I’m sure I counted at least 4 different species of bees on the blooms of Phacelia tanacetifolia – Purple Tansy, which definitely appeared to be a firm favourite among the bee community.
Phacelia tanacetifolia – Purple Tansy. I was delighted to learn from Paul that we’re growing it this year in our own gardens
Phacelia tanacetifolia – Purple Tansy is an annual and although it does self seed, apparently not prolifically so it’s a good idea to sow annually and even successively, to prolong the bloom time which may be from late June to September.  It is most commonly used as a pollinator plant and is considered by some bee keepers to be the best pollinator plant ever! It also plays a role as green manure/ground cover, with an extensive root system and an ability to smother out other plants. We’re looking forward to sowing more of this next year, perhaps in small patches or blocks scattered throughout the annual beds or in close vicinity to our annual production.
A visitor to a Daisy, possibly Oxeye Daisy.

Having an abundance of blooms throughout the year is vital to attract beneficial organisms to our gardens, but ideally we would like to encourage them to reside and breed there. The surest and simplest way to attract and provide for a broad range of wildlife into our landscapes is to include (or preserve) a diversity of habitat. The edges between habitats will often present changes in air temperature, vapour, soil moisture, light intensity, and nutrient availability, encouraging growth of opportunistic species there. A mosaic of habitat is therefore a great way of welcoming wild allies into our landscapes. Broadly speaking, the habitats may be categorised as grassland, woodland and forest, hedgerows and scrub, heathland and wetland/aquatic. 

Including a diversity of plants within these habitats is also great, and taking this a step further, including a diversity of plant architecture.  Variation in plant form and height provides the perfect habitat for many invertebrates.
Example of a polyculture showing diversity of plant architecture in Claire and Em’s garden.
You will likely find species that inhabit the high area of the tree canopy and others that reside in the mid and low areas. Other species prefer the heart of dense shrubs, while others hang around the leaves or on the bark with some species moving around and between all of these micro-habitats.  This variation of form and height also provides plenty of edge that can further attract more organisms. Having some gaps between the vegetation for low growing herbs and grasses will likely attract yet more invertebrate diversity.  The high number of invertebrates this type of planting scheme attracts will inevitably bring in birds and small mammals that will feed on them, while also appreciating the cover and diverse roosting and vantage points within the plant architecture. It takes a few years to start establishing, but it’s a worthwhile investment of your time.
Some photos of our Forest Garden showing the variation of plant forms and heights
Interesting diversity in the herb layer at Claire and Emma’s
Claire and Emma have areas of annual vegetable production and also an allotment, growing quality vegetables and herbs, and bringing a small selection of produce, plants, herbs and seedlings to their local markets. You can find out more about their work on their Facebook page, Nature’s basket.

One of the plants that caught my attention was a patch of Salsola soda – Agretti, growing in the greenhouse. I hadn’t heard of this plant before, but while researching it I learned that it’s a succulant annual closely related to Salicornia europaea – Samphire and that it appears to be trending with some top chefs. Claire said she was experimenting with it this year, and had been harvesting the tips which were excellent in a stir fry, and may also be eaten raw. I found an article here with some more information on growing Agretti and with links to some tasty looking recipes.

Salsola soda – Opposite leaf Russianthistle
Speaking of cooking, on my visit I had the pleasure of meeting another Claire, who together with her family owns and runs The Green Goat Cafe.  They specialise in tasty street food inspired by their backgrounds and travels, and also cater for large events. Building strong working relationships with farmers and local food growers is important to The Green Goat, and they work closely with the local community to strengthen food education, cooking skills and also helping to raise money for local initiatives.
I felt quite inspired after my visit, and heartened to meet people following their passions and putting out such goodness into the world! Diolch yn fawr, Claire and Emma, for your wonderful garden, and for sharing it so warmly :)

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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