At Home With Nature

Tips – How to Keep Track of Your Polyculture Garden Plantings

A few years ago I excitedly planted several varieties of snap beans and dry beans in the same section of the garden. At the time of planting, I marked the different varieties with wooden markers, so I didn’t think I’d have any problem knowing which was which later. By the end of the summer, however, the garden was a tangle and the writing had faded from my wooden markers – completely. Neither my husband, Chad, nor I could tell which beans were which. We didn’t know which varieties had done well, which ones we were supposed to let dry, and where the section for one variety started and the other stopped.

Wooden garden markers and part of a metal garden marker. They didn’t do their jobs very well!

The Challenge of a Permaculture Garden

Many gardeners never encounter this problem. If you’re planting a conventional garden it probably won’t be terribly hard to keep track of things – one row is beans, the next is tomatoes, right?  However, if you are growing a diverse polyculture garden that incorporates companion plants, includes many different varieties, and takes inspiration from Permaculture, most likely the beans and tomatoes are shoulder to shoulder, and the melons are sprawling around the basil. That is certainly what our garden looks like each year. In order to keep order in this chaos, Chad and I have developed a few tricks for keeping track of things, some of which may be of assistance to you as you start, grow and plan your garden.

Maddy sits in our garden in the end of August.

The Advantages of Keeping Track of Seeds and Plants in Your Garden

There are many reasons you’ll want to keep track of things in your garden. The most obvious is so that you know what is growing where! There are vegetables other than beans that have a fresh eating type and a storage eating type, squash for instance. Unlike summer squash, some winter squashes will not taste good at all until fully mature, so it would be a waste to pick them too early because you failed to realize what kind it was. Keeping good track of where you planted your vegetables will help you keep your winter keepers in the garden until they are ready.

This winter squash may be easily recognizable as a storage variety at this point, but some are not so easy to tell just by looking.

Using Sticks and Twigs to Define Spaces

Even though we plant in polycultures, we still like to know what we are growing! So we define foot or two-foot sections in our rows with sticks or twigs. These are very useful when planting seeds, especially when the sections alternate in size. For instance, I will mark off two-foot long sections for melons or winter squash, interspersed with one-foot sections for flowers or herbs. We use this method now to lay out our garden before we plant our seeds. Bonus: sticks and twigs are free, compostable, and renewable so using them will go easier on your conscience.

Chad marked off sections in this sunken bed to separate different sections of beets, radicchio and purslane in this new herb garden. The volunteer buckwheat and melons are doing their own thing however!

Using Flowers to Define Spaces

If you are planting in a row or bed, you can use companion flowers to indicate a change or to create a border. This year we have our snap bush beans and dry bush beans in the same row, with a marigold planted mid-row to indicate the change from snap to dry. Flowers with bright colors, such as marigolds, will serve as bright, easy-to-see signposts when you want to make a quick assessment of what’s going on where.

Wispy, yellow marigolds separate the snap bush bean section and the dry bush bean section. Different varieties are interplanted with herbs or other vegetables.

Separate Varieties with Herbs or Flowers

We prefer to plant many different varieties of each of the types of veggie we plant. Planting more varieties makes the garden more resilient – some are susceptible to certain pests and others are not. This also gives us a chance to indulge our favorite shopping indulgence – buying seeds. Instead of planting different varieties side by side, we tend to separate them with herbs, flowers or other vegetables. This is also known as “interplanting.” Another advantage of alternating types of plants is that insect pests don’t have as easy of a time devouring your entire crop. This strategy works well for us in our arid climate where grasshoppers are one of our biggest garden pets.

Two varieties of squash separated by corn help us to keep track of which squash is which and to confuse pests.

Keeping a Garden Map

Our main tool for keeping everything tracked is our garden map. Each year I pull out our garden notebook, re-draw our garden map and start to plan. I refer to the previous year’s map so that I can easily rotate our plantings, preventing pest and disease problems and keeping soil nutrients balanced. When we have volunteers come up we don’t have to wonder what they are – we can quickly refer back to the last year’s map and identify the plant that was planted in that spot last year.

Me using my map of our pumpkin patch to see which pumpkin seedlings are about to emerge from the soil.

Keeping a Garden Notebook

Keeping a garden map is good, but I find that keeping the map within a garden notebook dedicated to your garden is even better. Whether you’re planting annuals or perennials, keeping records of what you plant in a dedicated space will help you know what’s in your garden. We keep other information in our garden notebook besides our garden maps, too, such as our harvest tallies. We also take notes on what grows well, what doesn’t, what we liked and what we didn’t, to help us decide what seeds we’ll buy and plant the following year. A garden notebook is also a really cool history of the life of your garden and of your life gardening! I treasure our garden notebook and look forward to the time in late winter when it’s time to pull it out and start using it again.

I like using graph paper to outline my garden maps. Here, each square equals half a foot.

Great Habits Grow Great Food

By using these tricks – marking your plantings off with sticks, using flowers or herbs to create borders or to indicate a change in type of plant, and keeping garden maps in your garden notebook, you will be able to keep track of what varieties of plants you have planted, prevent disease and pests from gaining a foothold, and learn which seeds turn into the food you love.

Showing off our garden notebook

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