Microplot design, #2

Jerusalem artichoke (sunchoke), basil, tomato, choko.

I actually don’t know which number this is, but I think it’s the second one I’ve posted about. This microplot is in the “vegie garden” section (zone 3A) of my trials, so it is in a raised bed filled with purchased soil of decent quality (which has been used a few seasons now and topped up along the way). This is important because soils here are so terrible. They can be reconditioned, which is what I’m doing with a lot of the plots, but for short-term and quick-install projects like vegie beds it’s popular (and probably sensible for your average not-a-green-thumb gardener) to buy in dirt that works first time. The other feature of this section is that it gets watered frequently through summer – as often as every two days. So this soil stays moist.

Quick reminder: the idea of the microplots is that they’re simple combinations of useful vegies and herbs that will grow well together at the same time of year here in Perth and can be “installed” complete by someone setting up a bed. There are lots of combinations out there for the species-savvy – but a beginner gardener tends to throw any random old thing in together without thinking. This is an attempt to set up a few simple combinations that are reasonably reliable given specific watering conditions and planting season.

This bed was planted in October here in Perth, possibly early November. It’s a summer combination. The jerusalem artichokes get tall (they’re a sunflower relative and look a lot like sunflowers) and help shelter the other plants as well as giving visual structure and beauty. The choko should in theory help protect the soil, but mine hasn’t really grown out much yet. They are a perennial though so I’m hoping it will last til another summer. Basil and tomato are a popular combination and usually grow well together.

This combination of four gives us a member of the mint family (basil), a member of the daisy/lettuce family (sunchoke), a member of the nightshade family (tomato) and a member of the squash family (choko). So in theory that should allow the soil to stay in balance, chemistry-wise, with the addition of fertiliser for the tomatoes at fruitset and after the bed has died back or been dug up. There’s no member of the legume family, which would help keep the bed running perennially, and I did consider that adding peanuts to the mix might make the combination fully self-stable. But these are all warm-season plants so the bed is going to be bare/unproductive across winter and could be planted with legumes – and brassica or the silverbeet family? – in its off season. In fact, it did have silverbeet in its previous season, which I left in when it bolted. The couple of tall overgrown bolted plants that hadn’t died off just yet made lovely drooping shelters for the other plants as they established. So I will no doubt get more volunteer silverbeet seedlings when autumn comes. Next spring the sunchokes should resprout – no matter how many you harvest, you always miss some – and I hope to keep the choko alive over winter, so only the basil and the tomato will need to be freshly grown and replanted.

The only imbalance I’ve found so far in this bed – and admittedly, I’m only halfway through the season – is that harvesting the jerusalem artichokes may be tricky. As with any root vegetable in a polyculture, the other plants will get disturbed when you dig them up. In theory I can wait until the tomatoes and basil have finished for the season (though sometimes we overwinter tomatoes here for an early crop in spring). But in practice, you only want to harvest sunchokes when you need them – they don’t keep well once they’ve been dug. So that aspect may need a rethink. But then, how many jerusalem artichokes will we actually eat?

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