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Permaculture and Native Plants, Part 1

By Bruce of Stone Marmot

Sept. 30, 2013

I decided over a decade ago to get rid of the turf grass in my yard. I wanted whatever replaced my grass to be useful so my yard would “earn it's keep.” Examples of functions I consider useful are:

  • Privacy.
  • Food production.
  • Windbreaks to help reduce energy use and for storm protection.
  • Shade, again to help reduce energy use.

I would also like to maximize environmental benefits, such as:

  • No need for fertilizers or other chemicals.
  • Little or no supplemental watering once established.
  • Wildlife friendly.

I would also prefer that the yard required minimal maintenance. But I would accept a little extra work if the plants were useful enough, particularly if they are producing food.

When I started telling others what I was doing, many people said that it sounded like I was doing a “permaculture” yard. I had heard of permaculture before, but didn't really know what it was. So I figured that I had better learn more about permaculture.

An Australian, Bill Mollison, came up with the concept in the late 1950's and 1960's. Mollison noticed how nature manages to take care of itself and provide for the needs of the plants and animals within its ecosystems for thousands of years with no help from man. He developed a set of principles and guidelines (reference 1) to allow people to design useful systems which mimic these natural self-sustaining ecosystems.

Permaculture started as a contraction of “permanent agriculture.” It quickly was expanded to stand for “permanent culture,” as many of its principles and practices can be applied to all aspects of culture, not just agriculture, to help make our lives more sustainable. The goal of permaculture is to design ecologically sound and economically prosperous human communities.

Permaculture is not itself a discipline. It is more a design approach. It is not focused so much on things but more on the connections and relationships between things. Consequently, a proper permaculture based design will draw from many different disciplines with much interaction between these disciplines.

This goal is achieved within permaculture by focusing on these fourteen core principles (reference 2):

1. Take time to observe the site, its elements, and its environmental conditions before anything is physically done.

2. Place the elements in your design to emphasize the useful relationships and time saving connections between these elements. The quality of relationships between the elements is often more important than the number of elements.

3. Notice what resources already exist within the system. Maximize the use of these existing resources. Minimize the need for outside resources.

4. Choose elements and place them in the design, both with regards to space and time, to perform as many functions as possible.

5. Each function is supported by multiple elements.

6. Make the least change for the greatest effect.

7. Use the smallest system that will do your job. Grow by repeating this successful system, with variations as needed.

8. Optimize the edge where two environments meet. It is the most diverse place in the system. The edge is where materials and energy tend to concentrate.

9. Collaborate with and encourage succession. Living systems usually advance from immature to mature, with mature systems being the most diverse and productive.

10. Use biological and renewable resources. These resources build up over time and interact with other elements, maximizing yield.

11. Turn problems into solutions. Constraints can inspire creative designs, which often simultaneously solve other problems.

12. Design so that you get both immediate and long term returns. Set up positive feedback loops to build the system.

13. The biggest limit to abundance is creativity. The designer's imagination and skill usually limit results long before physical limits are reached.

14. Mistakes are tools for learning. Evaluating what is not working helps you understand the system better, leading to better potential solutions.

How do native plants fit into this permaculture picture? That is what we will consider in Part 2 of this discussion.

Backyard with native and food producing plants

1) Mollison, Bill. Permaculture: A Designer's Manual. Tagari, 1988.

2) Hemenway, Toby. Gaia'a Garden – A Guide to Home Scale Permaculture. Chelsea Green, 2009.

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