Although permaculture has a strong focus on positive action, the wisdom of permaculture is taught through language. It is therefore important that the terms we use are effective at explaining our designs and the way in which we relate to the world around us.

We currently live in a culture where language has become open to interpretation and a bit fuzzy around the edges. I believe this is linked to the lowering of our moral standards, and it has allowed businesses to cut corners and water down their contracts. For example, the term ‘we are the #1 business in town’ means absolutely nothing and often does not have to be substantiated.

Similarly, our language allows us to artificially extract ourselves from the landscape, as David Abram (1996) eloquently explains:

“Human language…arose not only as a means of attunement between persons, but between ourselves and the animate landscape…By denying that birds and other animals have their own styles of speech, by insisting that the river has no real voice and that the ground itself is mute, we stifle our direct experience.

“As long as we experience the invisible depths that surround us as empty space, we will be able to deny, or repress, our thorough interdependence with the other animals, the plants, and the living land that sustains us.”

When talking about permaculture, and more broadly when striving to live a life based on the ethics of permaculture, we must be careful to use the right terms and understand what they mean. So, let’s have a look at some of the key terms and concepts of permaculture:

Element

An element is a component or a part of a whole that typically has a set of characteristics, such as a tree, a house, an animal, a pond, or a fence.

Function

The purpose for which something is designed. For example, a grapevine may have the functions of providing shade, a habitat, fresh fruit, or fruit for winemaking. Typically, we want to find at least three functions for an element in permaculture design, which we call ‘stacking functions’.

Multi-Dimensional Design

Permaculture design looks to utilize four dimensions in a design, starting with the standard two dimensions of a site and then adding the vertical through stacking functions and adding the dimension of time by designing for succession.

Permaculture Layers

Layers in permaculture design refers to a multi-layered design. Forest systems and gardens can have up to 7 layers:

  • The overstory tree layer
  • The understory tree layer
  • The shrub layer
  • The herbaceous layer
  • The groundcover layer
  • The root layer
  • The vertical/climbing layer

Some designers also include two additional layers: the fungi layer and the aquatic layer.

By considering these layers in a design, we can significantly increase the yield from an area without increasing inputs such as time, money, and effort. When done successfully, stacking functions through layering can increase the efficiency, the resilience, the biodiversity, and the health of a system.

Some examples of stacking functions are to grow grapes and hardy kiwifruit up an established tree or to plant red currants and mint underneath an apple tree. Fences and walls also provide a great opportunity to grow vertically in an urban permaculture design, and it is common for a border garden to feature 5-7 different layers.

Succession

A permaculture garden evolves over time. Annual crops are harvested, perennials change with the seasons and the herbaceous layer becomes less productive as the overstory tree layer establishes itself and casts shade over the garden.

Nature will always strive to cover bare earth. Typically, exposed soil is covered by annual plants that are quick to establish and ‘heal the wound’. We call a lot of these annuals weeds. They love the sun, are fast growing and will typically have large leaves.

These weeds can be a great indication of the type of soil you have as well as how compact it is. I get a lot of dandelions on my lawn because the earth is heavily compacted by cars and the occasional tractor. Dandelions have a tap root that is well suited to compacted soil as it can penetrate deep into the ground, extracting minerals that are then deposited on the surface when the leaves die at the end of a season. This process can be used to our advantage and certain plants such as comfrey are a popular choice with permaculture designers for being a dynamic accumulator.

Annual plants then give way to herbaceous perennials, and systems can stay in this state for long periods of time if we continue to ‘mow the grass’ or allow livestock to graze. Once we give up on mowing, nature is then allowed to express itself with shrubs and the first pioneer trees. A young forest may include raspberries and young spruce or birch trees. Given enough time and the right conditions, a system will climax in a mature and stable forest with an overstory of trees and a shade loving herbaceous layer. This process of succession can take many decades, even longer in some climates.

Rather than going to war against nature, we can look to work with natural succession by designing a system that matures as nature intends. We can start a garden by planting young fruit and nut trees and growing annuals such as leafy greens in the abundant sunlight. As the trees develop, we can plant bushes and herbs under the trees. We can then plant vines into the system, and finally, we can run livestock through an overstory of mature trees, which is known as agroforestry.

Intelligent permaculture design works with the needs of the client and the restrictions of the site to include certain layers and leave out others. For example, with an urban permaculture garden, we can plant dwarf fruit trees so that there is no overstory layer, allowing us to get more production out of the herbaceous and shrub layers. In this example, the system can climax and really pop with vibrancy in around 5 years, becoming very resilient and self-perpetuating. A good design can provide all the fresh food a family needs with only a few hours of maintenance each week.

No-Till / No-Dig Gardening

Whether by tilling the soil with a tractor or digging up a garden with a spade, disturbing the soil should be avoided where possible because of the inputs involved and because it destroys soil fertility.

Typically, the only time soil is exposed in nature is when a tree is uprooted or when there is a small disturbance such as an animal digging in the soil. By observing nature, we can see that in stable ecosystems large-scale disturbances such as landslides and erosion are much less common.

Exposed soil can be blown away by the wind or washed away in times of heavy rain. If nature allowed this to happen the build-up of biomass would not occur and landscapes as we know them would not exist.

Digging up the soil requires large amounts of inputs including time, effort, money, and fuel. The more inputs we use to establish a system the less efficient it becomes.

Furthermore, digging up the soil destroys the soil’s natural fertility and the web of life that supports all living matter. We pay for this loss of fertility through the need to subsequently use chemical fertilizers; an inadequate, unhealthy, and expensive alternative to a process that nature would otherwise be providing for us free of charge! By choosing to till, we are working against nature, rather than observing natural processes and using them to our advantage.

Importantly, concepts such as ‘don’t dig up the soil’ are guides and not dogmas. It will often make good sense to dig up the land at the start of a project to build a series of swales or terraces or to establish a dam. By using machinery and other technology with intelligence, we can improve the efficiency of a system and significantly speed up the establishment of a system. For example, by digging a series of terraces into the side of a mountain with large machinery, we can speed up the work and hence minimize the risk of a landslide. Heavy machinery can often do a much better job and do it faster than a team of motivated permaculture students. If we stick to the dogma of only using hand tools, we can end up creating more work for ourselves or possibly even give up on a project altogether.

What can I grow if I don’t dig up the soil?

Permaculture design looks to use perennials rather than annuals for the most part, and when growing annuals, it is encouraged to use organic mulch to cover up any bare soil in a way that imitates a forest floor.

When growing annuals, there is an entire movement in the gardening world centered around no-dig gardening, and through the work of gardeners such as Charles Dowding it has been shown that not only does a no-dig approach involve less work, it increases the yield and the nutrient density of the crops because the soil maintains its natural health. The great thing about no dig gardens is that they can be set up nearly anywhere, including on basketball courts, driveways or on an existing lawn. Because annuals typically require a lot more work than the rest of the garden, permaculture design looks to place them close to the house in what is known as zone 1.

As explained earlier, the only natural systems that feature annuals are typically young and often damaged. Growing annuals requires additional inputs such as time and money through weeding or by laying down mulch to keep an annual garden healthy and productive. Mulching helps regulate soil temperature and retain moisture by preventing evaporation.

Aside from the veggie patch, perennials such as berry bushes are a great alternative to annual crops, and there are several perennial leafy greens that can be grown, for example, I have a healthy crop of perennial kale that I pick at throughout the season.

Diversity

Diversity is one of the most important concepts in permaculture and is not simply the number of different elements or plants in a garden, as this can often be nothing more than a collection. Diversity is a measure of the number of niches that are filled.

A Niche

A niche is an element’s function in a system in relation to other elements. For example, with an animal, it is the total of the animal’s relationships with other elements in a system. It includes what the animal eats, what eats the animal, the climate, environmental factors that the animal can tolerate, its habitat and so on.

The niche of an apple tree may be:

Height: 1-3 meters

Pollination: Insects and bees

Season of flowering: spring

Season of fruiting: September-October

Sun exposure: Full Sun

Soil type: Loamy

Soil pH: Neutral

Hardiness zone: 3-8

The characteristics of different elements show how relationships can develop. For example, shade-loving and low-growing mint can occupy a niche under an apple tree.

By observing nature, we can see the key to diversity is for species to avoid direct competition with each other by using a different mix of resources to coexist within a system. This is an important concept to grasp when applying the lessons of nature into your designs.

For example, a business based on permaculture principles can look for a new niche that is currently available in the marketplace. By using a different mix of resources and avoiding direct competition with established businesses, a new start-up can grow to fill a niche, whilst keeping a keen eye on its triple bottom line.

Diversity can be achieved in the garden by identifying potential niches and filling them with appropriate elements. This is where designers can get creative and design using all 4 dimensions. By filling different niches across various dimensions of a site, we can increase diversity as well as the yield of a system.

The Edge

Typically, the most diverse and productive area on your site will be where two ecosystems meet and/or overlap. This is known as the edge effect.

The edge between two ecosystems is where life is at its most abundant. Whether between the land and the sea or the forest and farmer’s meadow, it is at the convergence of two systems where plants and animals have the greatest access to resources.

For example, along the coastline, coral reefs will typically have the largest diversity and abundance of life in the ocean, while above the low tide mark the merging of the land and the sea can create a mangrove, a unique and productive system that provides certain niches that are not seen anywhere else on the planet.

Using the edge effect in a permaculture design can be done in several ways, however, the most common technique is to avoid straight lines. Instead, we can design garden beds, paths and other key elements that curve through the landscape to maximize their surface area.

Keyhole gardens are a great way to maximize growing space using the edge effect, and a series of keyholes can be created to form a mandala garden, a design that looks fantastic and maximizes growing space.

The edge effect can be utilized along the edge of fields or meadows, especially when they border onto woodlands. For example, mushrooms can be grown in the shade of the forest, tender crops may benefit from the wind buffer of the nearby trees, gaps in the overstory can provide a niche for sun-loving species that would struggle in the forest and deer can benefit from the shelter of the forest to then enjoy the open space of the field to frolic, eat and catch some sun. By allowing nature to flow onto your property and to share in a small percentage of your system’s yield, you can provide a much-needed habitat for the local wildlife and get immense pleasure in return.

One further example of designing productive edges is when we dig a pond or a dam. Very little can grow on a steep bank, so by designing a water feature that has at least one gradual edge, we can use this shallow water to grow productive crops such as watercress, and to provide a habitat for fish. The abundant access to water, light, and soil makes shallow water the most abundant ecosystems in the world, even more so that tropical rainforests! Generally, semi-aquatic ecosystems are the most productive in any climate, for example in the tropics mangrove swamps will be more productive than rainforests, and in temperate climates, reed beds will be more productive than forests. As designers, we can observe that shallow water has abundant access to natural resources and then use this to our advantage.