An Intercropped Garden
An Intercropped Garden Image


If they can do it, why can't I?

Many of my friends know about our family's work to help others around the world end their struggle with poverty through implementing sustainable agriculture techniques as taught by Heifer International. After observing the huge gains people made once they began to grow their own food and learn to take care of their own needs, I became inspired to share with others how to do the same. I realized that like these others, I also couldn't do much for myself, but was instead heavily dependent on what I could purchase. I wanted to learn to grow my own food in the sustainable way I had observed, not only because homegrown food is highly nutritious and easy to grow, not because there is so much more to eat than that the narrow offerings put on our supermarket shelves, and not because it really tastes different. I wanted to grow my own food because I live in the garden state of New Jersey on some of the best soil in the United States. After watching others all over the world grow food in much poorer gardening conditions, I realized that practicing sustainability at home was an uncommon practice that I wanted to change – at least for myself.

Specifically, I wondered how it was possible that others with little money or resources and poor soil can still build a thriving sustainable subsistence farm on only 1/3 acre using leaves and manure to build their own soils and greywater to irrigate their crops. How were these farmers creating little pieces of heaven within each peri-urban homestead, tailored to their own circumstances and interests while I barely grow a thing on 3 acres of some of the world's best soil with access to fresh water and anything else I might be able to dream up?

It was then that I discovered that the farmers in this program were not using the row-crop, heavy-input method so common today in modern farming, but another ancient method – an entirely different technique called agroforestry, which is very similar to modern-day permaculture.


Among other commonalities, agroforestry and permaculture share ancient and organic agricultural techniques, but what is most unique about them is their use of intercropping. Intercropping is an incredibly resilient planting method created by building by a multi-layered, multi-functioning eco-system. Plants of differing heights are all planted together, and each offers at least one type of food or resource.

One of the most unique results of this process is that both vertical and horizontal space is used for something beneficial to humans, wildlife and/or the eco-system. Crops such as fruit and nut trees are planted next to medicinal herbs, berrying bushes and vines are staggered between perennial and annual vegetables, and ground crops reside underneath. Additionally, the presence of a wide variety of species works to fix nitrogen and allow leaf build up to decay into a thick layer of rich, forest hummus while leaving little bare soil. This type of garden produces copious amounts of food and feeds not only humans, but wildlife as well; all while rebuilding soil and filtering water that passes through it. (There have been many books written about the permaculture process created by Australian farmer Bill Mollison, including How to Make a Forest Garden, Patrick Whitefield, Gaia's Garden, Toby Hemenway, Edible Forest Gardening, David Jacke & Eric Toensmeier. For more books, see book list.)

This type of garden is exhilarating and thriving with abundance! Though it might tend to appear on the verge of chaos, it is bursting with life from birds, bees and butterflies. The colors, textures, and even the sounds are rich. This type of garden has its own magical energy. From the enlivened, natural, organic soil, microbial life thrives. From the first plentiful fruit offerings to the later, heavy bearers of fruit, this garden continues to provide.

Trying to imitate what I have seen, I have been working to create my own bit of paradise in my suburban front yard.

Creating my own Intercropped Agroforest

Here's how it began. Many years ago, at the suggestion of a gardening friend, I removed much of the grass in my front yard, and planted a dozen fruit trees, apple, pear, cherry, nectarine, peach and almond. Over the years, I added 20 more, mostly peaches but also persimmon and apricot. This gave me tree fruit and nuts each year, and I thought this was perfect.

But then I studied biodynamic agriculture and learned that by letting my grass grow I could create a meadow which would feed my trees. The lively characteristics of the meadow surprised me, as I had only been used to short grass, I became deeply enchanted by the movement in the meadow and all of the insects that were attracted to it, and the meadow became a permanent fixture in my yard.

I then began to study herbs and started augmenting the orchard grasses with medicinal plants like echinacea, yarrow, chamomile and dandelion. Now the orchard had not only a meadow, but healing herbs as well. When I ran out of space in the backyard kitchen garden, I also dug a few new beds and added arugula, basil, tomatoes and potatoes on the edges. My husband told me how much he loved blueberries, so I surprised him with a dozen high bush blueberries one year for Fathers day.

Shortly after, I started keeping bees. I placed a hive first under the almond trees, and then more under the apple tree and peach tree once they colonies grew and needed to swarm into new hives. This required a small pond for the bees to drink, and more flowers from which they could collect nectar, so in came blue bachelor buttons, sedum and clover.

At this point, I learned about permaculture and decided to really plant out the space. This led to the addition of three rows of seedless eating grapes, red and black currants, Siberian Pea bush (which has peapods for chicken feed), cranberry viburnum and finally a group of blueberries specifically for the birds.

And to top it all off, I added a bench on which to recline, relax and have a drink while I take in the vibrant, natural beauty of my little slice of heaven!

Today, this idea of intercropping in agroforestry and permaculture is becoming more common in gardens around the world. Gardeners are interested in growing larger amounts with greater varieties of organic, pesticide-free food with less work, while simultaneously creating a healthy eco-system.

If you find yourself home for your summer vacation looking for a project, consider building an agroforest of your own. Jump on in... the soil's great!

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