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"Earth to Sky" polyculture design

Picture of Melinda Kelley
"Earth to Sky" polyculture design
by Melinda Kelley - Friday, 11 December 2020, 5:31 PM

Hi everyone,

I hope others will continue to post their polyculture designs - they're really helpful to see!  Here's the long version of my plan, with my design sketches attached.  I feel like my artistic skills are severely lacking so I will apologize in advance for my poster!

Polyculture Name:  Earth to Sky Polyculture  

Polyculture Goals: 

  • Maximizing sun exposure of all plants through creative use of vining plants and vertical space
  • Enhancing soil through dynamic accumulators throughout the year, to avoid re-digging the bed (so that perennials (e.g., rhubarb, strawberries) won’t have their roots disturbed and will be more likely to survive)
  • Optimize the productivity of the patch through thoughtful placement of food-producing plants to take advantage of the seasons and the growth characteristics of the individual plants
  • Providing shade for both plants and small animals (e.g., toads, which are plentiful on our site)
  • Providing sufficient exposed (i.e., not covered with netting) crops in early spring to support wildlife visitors (e.g., rabbits)


  • Humans are a primary consumer – Everything in the bed produces something for human consumption.
  • Last spring, at least one baby rabbit lived in the rock wall behind this garden bed and enjoyed a number of kale starts.  I’ll leave some extra seedlings exposed for rabbit visitors in the coming spring.
  • A large number of chipmunks live in the rock wall as well; I think they sometimes nibble on greens but tend to unearth seedlings as well.
  • Our site also includes many squirrels and an exceptionally large number of toads.
  • We also have a lot of slugs, but they have not presented an issue to date with plants in this particular raised bed. 
  • Many plants near this raised bed attract butterflies, but I am hoping to increase the number of flowering plants in the bed itself to attract pollinators (i.e., borage and yarrow). 
  • The bed is adjacent to a walking path, in zone 1.  I am typically able to visit it multiple times throughout the day.

Decomposers/Abiotic Factors: 

  • Sun:  Maximal sun is needed at the upper level for squash, beans, and tomatoes; less sun is needed at the ground level.  This aligns with the placement of this bed.
  • Soil:  Nutrient rich soil but with good drainage. 
  • Water: Average, although additional watering will probably be required because tromboncino squash, at a minimum, will have heavier water needs.
  • Wind: Very little since this bed is on the lower level of our site and is well protected by our house, fencing, and the stone/retaining wall behind it.  This should aid in the trellis’ survival (given how much weight it may be bearing).


“Canopy” layer (also climbers):

  • Tromboncino squash (Curcubita moschata) – produce for human consumption (summer/fall)
  • Romano pole beans (Phaseolus coccineus) – produce for human consumption (summer/fall)

Herbaceous layer:

  • Tomatoes (various types), all indeterminate (Solanum lycopersicum) – produce for human consumption (summer/fall)
  • Kale (Brassica napus va pabularia) – produce for human consumption (spring/fall), extra starts for visiting rabbits
  • Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) – herb used medicinally, attracts pollinators (summer/fall), dynamic accumulator
  • Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) – perennial, produce for human consumption (spring), dynamic accumulator
  • Borage (Borago officinalis) – herb used medicinally, attracts pollinators (summer/fall), dynamic accumulator

Groundcover layer:

  • Alpine strawberries (Fragaria vesca) – perennial, fruit for human consumption (spring/fall)
  • Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) – herb for human consumption (all year), dynamic accumulator

What is the context of this polyculture? Where would it work, and where would it likely not work?

  • This polyculture is flexible enough to work in areas that have greater sun exposure, since the vining squash plants would provide shade mid-late season to the lower-tier plants, even in an area with full sun.
  • It would not likely work in very sandy soil (since some of the plants require more water and there are many plants in the bed that will be competing for moisture) or very compact soil (the plants generally need reasonable drainage).
  • This polyculture might not work in an area that is exposed to moderate/high winds.  The trellis will hopefully be supporting quite a number of vegetables and will be heavy.

What is your concept? In other words, what theme or idea did you organize your design around? 

  • My concept developed from successes I had in the summer of 2020 with growing indeterminate/vining plants to maximize the sun exposure as it moves over the southeast side of my house to the southwest side.  Our house and trees block some of this sun, but the higher the plants are, the more they area exposed (due to the characteristics of the roofline).  There is enough sun on the lower levels, though, to support a number of plants that have lower sun requirements.
  • I also needed to consider the seasons too, since there are plants that produce in spring that have more limited sun requirements and would fare well at ground level in this bed.  As a bonus, they should be fine over the summer when shaded by the trellised plants.
  • Lastly, I have re-dug this bed every year that I’ve had it, but growing perennials like rhubarb (I have one plant in the bed that should be coming into its first year of productivity) and yarrow (I’ve grown it in pots next to this bed, but am planning to move it to the bed in 2021) will necessitate my leaving the bed in a no-dig state.  To do this, I will need to add a layer of manure or compost each year but the dynamic accumulators I’m planning to add should help.

What questions remain? What aspects of the design are you unsure about?

  • Will there be enough sun for the squash?  I believe there will be if the trellis is high enough.
  • Will the trellis be long enough?  This squash can supposedly grow vines of up to 15 feet in length.  I’m not sure that mine will grow this long because it won’t receive a full 8+ hours of sun each day, but I may need some “extension” trellises that provide support outside of this raised bed.
  • Will there be too much shade given the mature trees that already exist on the property and the squash plants on the trellis? 
  • How strong of a trellis will be needed?  I am planning to grow the squash and several bean plants on the same trellis and I don’t know what materials will be strong enough to support the weight.  I may also tie some indeterminate tomato vines to the same trellis if it seems sufficiently stable.   
  • Will the borage receive enough sun in the back of the bed?  I’ve grown borage very successfully in full sun, but I’ve never tried it in this particular bed.  It’s hard to know whether it will bloom quickly enough to avoid being shaded out by the squash vines.

That's it!  Now I just need the seed catalogs to arrive :-)






Picture of Deb Winther
Re: "Earth to Sky" polyculture design
by Deb Winther - Saturday, 12 December 2020, 9:38 AM

Hi Melinda,

I really like your design - it looks like it will take full advantage of your limited space by going vertical.

I just wanted to share my experience with "no-till" gardening. My space is limited and currently I only have 3 4'x4' raised beds planted with vegetables. When I built the beds, I covered the grass with sheets of cardboard, then put in layers of composted leaves and salt marsh hay. Finally, I topped it off with purchased garden soil (this was before my own compost pile got going). This was about 8 years ago, and I've never tilled the soil in the beds since then. When the plants have died back in the fall, I cut then down at the base, but leave the roots to decompose over the winter. I've planted a cover crop of crimson clover each fall for the past 3 years. In the spring, I top off the beds with a new layer of compost from my compost pile. I don't use any commercial fertilizer, and I've gotten good yields from my little vegetable patch. I'm a believer in the "no-till" approach, and I hope it works for you, too.

Good luck with your design.