Wouldn’t it be wonderful to choose plants that you know will be 100% suitable for the job?

Whatever project you’ve got planned – growing salad greens, root crops, fruit trees, forage and fodder trees, or using plants to provide ecological services, it makes sense to choose plants that do well in your growing conditions and get the job done.

We do this by:

  1. Getting to know and mapping the growing conditions on our land using the GrowMap
  2. Choosing plants that meet all the selection criteria in our job description
  3. Checking that these ‘short-listed’ plants will thrive our growing conditions

Job Description

It doesn’t take long, and you’ll come up with selection criteria enabling you to pick the best candidates for the job.

Think through the following:

1.    Responsibilities

What job(s) do you need the plants to do? For example, do they need to produce an income, or provide ecological services like fixing nitrogen, de-compact your soil, or food for pollinators?

2.    Useful skills

Would additional skills be helpful? For example, easy to grow and deep-rooted?

3.    What you don’t want them to do

When we first grew living mulch under our fruit trees, our only thought was to grow nitrogen-fixing plants. This was a mistake as one of the plants we used was more trouble than it was worth. It wanted to climb all over the trees! We shouldn’t have been surprised. LabLab (Dolichos Bean) is a vigorous legume, with a strong preference to being upwardly mobile rather than crawling across the ground! With a job description,‘ inability to climb’ would have topped our selection criteria. Any plant with a partiality for climbing is not a suitable candidate for growing with young fruit trees, or anywhere there’s a climbing frame!

Growing conditions?

For the candidates you have short-listed, find out which ones will thrive in your conditions. Most species are reasonably fussy about where they live. If your growing conditions (soil, shade, drainage, etc.), don’t meet the needs of the species you have selected, they won’t grow well and you won’t get the job done.

Finding information on the preferred growing conditions for plants isn’t hard. Neighbours, local farming and seed saving groups, seed merchants, and agricultural advisory services usually have a lot of experience to share. There is also plenty of excellent information on the Internet – websites with directories on plants covering topics from tropical forages, pasture grasses, legumes, to cultivars of food crops. You can even search some online plant directories specifying your climatic and other environmental conditions.

Example – Cover Crops

The job of cover crops is to protect and improve soil, and reduce the growth of undesirable plants. Cover crop plants, therefore, need to grow fast, produce masses of plant biomass to increase organic matter levels in the soil and rapidly produce a thick ground cover. With a dense cover of cover crop plants, undesirable plants (weeds) find it difficult to germinate and grow in the low light levels underneath the green manure crops.

Additional, though not essential skills, could be to grow deep roots to till the soil and pull up nutrients and produce flowers attracting beneficial insects. From this job description, I put together the following selection criteria:

Essential criteria

  1. Grow quickly
  2. Produce a dense ground cover
  3. Grow heaps of biomass

Desirable criteria

  1. Able to fix nitrogen
  2. Seeds easy to obtain and cheap
  3. Deep-rooted
  4. Running growth form
  5. Flower and set seed about the same time

Would you have thought of the last two criteria? Using running plants saves money because we need less seed to get a good ground cover. I didn’t think about the need for my plants to set seed about the same time when I grew my first cover crop. The millet seeded early and I had it coming up amongst my next crop of veggies.

choose plants like this one

Lacy Phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia) is a popular cover crop species

Example – Silvopasture

In Silvopastures, trees can produce extra feed for livestock, timber, fruit and nuts. In this example, the farmer wants more forage for cattle. The soil is compacted heavy clay.

Responsibilities – Trees need to provide nutritious forage for livestock over the dry season, without any special preparation.

Useful skills – It would be groovy if they were legumes and deep-rooted to help de-compact the soil and bring up leached nutrients. Can be easily slashed underneath if required. Don’t need irrigation.

What don’t you want them to do? – Produce a dense canopy shading out the grass underneath.

Now you know how to choose the best plants for the job!

Putting together a job description doesn’t take long and we save time avoiding expensive mistakes!

Using eco-logical approaches to regenerative farming and gardening, we rely on the ecological services provided by our plants. It, therefore, makes sense to choose the right plants for the job and “grow from our strengths” by choosing plants that will grow well in our growing conditions.Choose plants for silvopasture

Cattle foraging legume trees at Hill Top Farm

GrowMap cover - making it easy to grow foodGet to know and map the growing conditions on your land using the GrowMap

 

[i] Using eco-logical approaches we rely less on fertilisers, pest controls and other ‘trademarked’ products, and more on the ecological services provided by our plants and livestock to improve our soil and other growing conditions.

Image of Phacelia by Evelyn Simak. Lead illustration © BioDivLibrary

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