As indoor gardening continues to progress as both a science and artform, it borrows ideas from a variety of sources. For sustainably minded cultivators, the natural world provides an excellent blueprint to mimic for indoor agriculture. There are some interesting ways in which indoor growers can benefit from imitating Mother Nature — foremost of these is the practice of planting multiple crops in a growroom. The benefits primarily have to do with optimizing grow conditions and developing resistance to pathogens.
The process of poly-cropping an indoor garden stands in stark contradiction to most commercial agriculture practices where industrial farms plant massive swaths of monocrop fields. As we are beginning to understand, this popular form of industrial agriculture is inefficient, unnatural, and unsustainable. Monocrop fields simply do not exist in nature. Planting massive swaths of monocrop fields presents risks to the environment as well as the crops. Of these risks, it is well known that planting a singular species of plant in the same area year-after-year will leach the soil of nutrients, consequently stifling food production. Likewise, single crop fields are far more at risk from pathogen attacks than more biodiverse operations.
Permaculture gardening is the concept of using the most natural and suitable plant species for a specific environment in order to grow crops. This forward-looking school of thought has some fascinating implications in modern crop production, including controlled environment agriculture (CEA). Like in nature, permaculture gardening also seeks to create entire ecosystems by establishing diverse plant species in a garden. According to regenerative.com, “Permaculture gardening promotes biodiversity. It seeks to maximize the number of productive species of plant within a plot, not only to offer the gardener a diverse and vibrant number of crops to harvest for the kitchen, but also so that the ecosystem itself is strong, with different plants performing different functions so that all can thrive.”
For many, the thought of developing a complex permaculture ecosystem within the artificial environs of the indoors may seem superfluous. Largely because, as in nature, these gardens generally take years to mature into a functioning, symbiotic bio-network. Attempting to power a “forest-like” garden with grow lights may seem like a fool’s errand. However, permaculture practices are already gaining major traction with hobbyist greenhouse growers. Also, LED lighting and the use of supplemental sunlight from windows and skylights makes permaculture more viable for indoor gardens. For those inquisitive cultivators interested in permaculture gardening, or simply growing multiple crops in a growroom, here are some points of wisdom to take home.
Read also: How to Build a Food Forest
Planting multiple crops in a growroom affords horticulturists the ability to understand what crops do best in specific artificial environments. To this end, indoor gardening is still a relatively new practice. Every growroom has unique environmental constraints that affect plant growth. Therefore, through a process of trial and error, growers can optimize their given cultivation environment with plants best suited for the conditions at hand. In time, they can build this collection of plant species into a hearty garden that serves as a healthy food source.
On the flipside, indoor growers also have the rare ability to build an environment around chosen plant species. This notion stands in stark contradiction to outdoor growing, where gardeners are wholly at the mercy of Mother Nature. As such, the enterprising indoor grower can recreate nearly any cultivation environment on Earth if so chosen! This idea includes producing your favorite crops in a symbiotic, permaculture ecosystem. Have fun with designing your dream garden. If you live in the northern US or Canada, why not try growing a tropical permaculture garden in the dead of winter?
If you are interested in developing a permaculture garden indoors, it may make take months or years to understand exactly how your ecosystem is coming along. Therefore, be patient and attentive with your garden, in time you can come to understand how the various plant species benefit one another.
As any experienced cultivator knows, bugs, mold, and disease can hinder any garden operation, both large and small. Certain varieties of pathogens prefer certain plant species. Entire crops can be destroyed if they encounter a particular insect species or variety of mold. It is well known that aphids can abolish a plot of leafy greens in a matter of hours. Similarly, powdery mildew is known to plague strawberry crops in both greenhouses and fields. Yet, it’s possible to insulate your crops from such pathogen attacks by diversifying the plant species present in your garden.
By planting a variety of crops in a growroom, be it by simple mix and match or permaculture design, growers create a natural barrier against total infestation. Cilantro, dill, and fennel are known as aphid-resistant plant species, and can even help deter aphids from attacking a garden. As such, planting these in conjunction with those varietals more vulnerable to aphids can help insulate your garden from the potential decimation of a single insect. Expanding beyond such simple practices and delving into permaculture, a much more sophisticated approach is required in understanding natural plant communities in relationship to pathogen resistance.
As the indoor gardening space evolves with inspiration from Mother Nature, it will be interesting to see what new developments arise. It can’t be denied that CEA growers are at the forefront of redefining our global food systems through such practices as vertical farming and aquaponics. Within this movement, where artificial cultivation environments are built exclusively to mimic Mother Nature, it’s evident that permaculture gardening has its place. Yet, it remains to be seen how such complex biological systems can be utilized more efficiently within the confines of indoor growing. Moving forward, the practice of planting multiple crops in a growroom can at least help insulate gardens from some of the downfalls of monocrop gardening. Even better, it gives the hardworking grower the ability to harvest a variety of food choices on a regular basis.