Thursday, April 24, 2014

U Is For Underplanting

As you might have gathered, I'm growing what amounts to a food forest in my garden. In time, the gardens are expected to provide the majority of our vegetables, fruits and herbs.

In theory, we have a big enough land to be able to accomplish our goal. However, I have no plans to grow our main grains (maize and sorgham) on a large scale enough scale to support us year-round, as my grandfather used to do.

There are plenty of maize farmers in our province and I'd rather support them than try to duplicate what they do at a much higher cost.

This gives me enough space to grow a wide variety of vegetables, fruits and herbs - some being our staples; others the type we buy based on availability and affordability but not necessary, while others would be to experiment and liven things up a little.

My plan is to grow fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers all interspersed with each other so that I have productive garden that is attractive, where the plants support each other to grow and that I don't have to work  like a slave to make it work.

Below is a basic framework of how the various plants would be interspersed with each other.

An illustrated  7-Level Forest Garden via The Good Life

So how does under-planting come into it?

Under-planting is just that - planting crops under each other. First imagine that I live in a lightly forested area (which I do). There are a lot of indigenous plants, some of them producing some kind of wild fruit.
So I'm adding traditional fruit trees to the mix, planting them up all over the yard to create the canopy level.

This year I planted around 15 fruit tree saplings. The plan is to try to have as many varieties of fruit as possible, and we should have one or two in season throughout the year.That's the first layer of the garden.

The second layer is dwarf trees. Some will go into the soil, others into large containers placed all over the yard. The majority of my trees are still saplings, so it will be a long time before I see a return on any of it.

The third level is shrubs and berries. These are the plants that grow into medium-sized bushes. We've planted a number of chilli, capsicum and strawberry bushes, but I plan to plant some more.

The fourth layer is herbaceous - that's most of the leafy annual crops we grow such as lettuce, cauliflower, cabbage, kale etc. This also includes many of the bushy herb plants.

The fifth layer is the root vegetables like onions, carrots, turnips etc while the sixth layer is ground cover crops. Many herbs and berries make excellent edible, evergreen ground cover. So far I've used mint and thyme. I also want to use cranberries, blueberries, chamomile, oreganum, lavendar and sage. 

The seventh layer is the vining plants - cucumber, sweet potatoes, grapes, strawberries, pumpkins, butternuts, kiwani etc. So far I'm just letting them run wild on the ground, but that's not ideal, and I'm slowly building movable structures/cages that I'll put in to vine over.

Here are some of the tips I found on the Internet while researching under-planting:

  1. Place your fruit trees in their ideal location, as they'll occupy that space for decad
  2. The next step is to add your perennial plants, as they also form a permanent feature in your garden.
  3. Grow crops that need shade under your tall plants that love the sun e.g  my broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage crops are planted under trees,  and lettuce hides very well from the summer heat under the big leaves of marrows (zucchini?).
  4. Plants crops that  structurally support each other close together e.g. maize and beans are grown together, and the maize provides the beans with a structure to run over.
  5. Plant crops that may have a beneficial impact on each other e.g. my companion plant chart shows that onions are a very beneficial plant, and can be planted with beetroot, strawberries, tomatoes and beans and potatoes. So instead of having a bed full of onions, I transplant them to the borders of most beds.
  6. Mix your plants up to ensure biodiversity in your beds. I usually start out with seedlings from one crop and then add different companion plants into the bed to mix things up. 
  7. Make sure that the plants you put together have the same water needs. Also try to get plants with differing nutritional needs together (e.g. a nitrogen-releasing plant with a nitrogen consuming plant)
I hope that you find this information useful for your own under-planting effort. You can also get some tips on under-planting  your ornamental garden in this article.


  1. Wow, this sounds amazing. I have the black thumb of death when it comes to plants; I look at it sideways and it dies :). My father has started growing veg and things since he retired though, and he loves it.
    Tasha's Thinkings - AtoZ (Vampires)
    FB3X - AtoZ (Erotic Drabbles)

    1. @Medusa - Do your think cutting off the snake hair might help? Sorry. Your comment brought that legend to mind. Hehehehe!

      Seriously though, I'm glad your dad is enjoying it. It's such a relaxing past-time....

  2. I grew up with a forested area in my yard, but we planted in a separate space--I think to make sure the optimal nutrients went straight to the garden. I've heard of rotating sections, but I'd never heard of underplanting. Awesome.

    True Heroes from A to Z

    1. Sounds like you had an amazing garden in your childhood. I think growing vegetables and herbs wherever instead of a specially designated area is a new trend.. probably driven by lack of space?

  3. Hi Damaria .. well those are amazing goals to have - and I truly admire you ... and then I'll be over to help you with the fruits of your labour. You really have it all planned - that's fantastic .. and as you say underplanting and layering makes so much sense ..

    Good luck ... looking forward to watching it all grow and provide for your family .. cheers Hilary

    1. Hehehehe! Help with the fruits of my labour is always welcome:)

      I started out haphazardly, growing what I couldn't kill, so to speak. But over time, the plan is consolidating in my head. It feels good to have a sense of direction.

  4. Love this! I'm really looking forward to following your blog. I've been gardening for 5 or 6 years consistently, but I feel like I have so much to learn. Thanks for all your tips.

    Stopping by from A to Z Challenge:

    1. Hi Leslie. thank you for coming by. Enjoyed your blog too:)

  5. That's so great! I need to learn more about how to fit more plants into my tiny garden. I've got a pretty good selection, but I'm only in my 2nd year and find myself pretty nervous about putting too many things in near each other. Maybe I should get over that a bit?

    1. I think so. My hope is I'll get better at it over time. I've made so many mistakes.. continue to make many more.. with the placement of plants. My philosophy is.. if you kill or injure it, plant another batch of seeds. Something eventually makes it:)