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A Guide to the Diverse Types of Permaculture Plants

Oct 19, 2023

One of the many aspects of a permaculture landscape is the choice of plants that build a diverse ecosystem and meet the needs of both the land, and its human stewards. In this blog post, we’ll explore the permaculture system and how plants help to bolster sustainability, build soil health, and contribute to the Earth’s return to health. 

  1. Plant Communities: Permaculture encourages the cultivation of companion plants, which complement each other in growth and offer mutual benefits. For instance, planting nitrogen-fixing legumes alongside heavy-feeders like fruit trees helps enrich the soil and foster healthy growth for both species. This is why, when creating plant lists, we consider the whole – choosing plant communities, knowing that how they interact is just as important as each individual plant. 
  2. Perennial Plants: Perennials come back year after year, whereas annuals need to be replanted each year. The never-ending cycle of growth and rebirth make perennials a permaculture favorite because they add biomass, habitat, and require less work over the long-haul! Although they may be more of an investment upfront, they give back many times over. Perennials require less water once established, can be propagated, and provide habitat and food for pollinators year after year. 
  3. Polyculture Guilds: Instead of the conventional monoculture, permaculture designs rely on polyculture guilds. Polyculture Guilds involve growing multiple plant species in close proximity, which promotes biodiversity and resilience against pests and diseases. They are carefully curated groups of plants that interact synergistically to support each other’s growth and protect against potential threats. This is the foundation of building diversity and healthy soil
    • Dynamic Accumulators: Some plants, called dynamic accumulators, have deep roots that gather nutrients from the deeper layers of subsoil and bring them to the upper soil horizons when the leaves drop, benefiting neighboring plants by making those nutrients available to plants that have shallow root systems. An example of this is comfrey, which accumulates potassium and phosphorus.
    • Nitrogen Fixers: Leguminous plants (and a few non-legumes) are vital in permaculture as they form symbiotic relationships with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, effectively converting atmospheric nitrogen into a form that plants can utilize. This process naturally enriches the soil, reducing the need for synthetic nitrogen-based fertilizers. 
    • Lazy Lawns: Diversified open space areas composed of numerous low-growing, low-management grasses and groundcovers that reduce the need for mowing and create resilience against fungus, disease and pests. When we design and build open space lawns, our primary objectives are to diversify the number of species and choose plants that serve multiple functions and introduce nutrients to the soil. Meadows are great too
  4. Native Plants: Integrating native plants into permaculture systems is crucial for the ecosystem’s balance. Native species have adapted to the local climate and provide vital habitats for specialized native wildlife, contributing to the overall health and sustainability of the environment.
  5. Cover Crops: Cover crops are grown to protect and enrich the soil during periods when main crops aren’t growing. They prevent soil erosion, suppress weeds, and improve soil fertility by adding organic matter when they are later turned into the ground.
  6. Climbers and Ground Covers: Utilizing vertical space efficiently, climbers like beans and cucumbers offer shade to lower-growing plants, while ground covers like strawberry or clover protect the soil from erosion and provide additional resources for beneficial insects.
  7. Plants on the edge of their range: While the general trajectory of climate is warming, climate scientists predict more extreme swings in the process–lower lows and higher highs. One way we can build resilience in designed plant communities is by planning for species on the edges of their ranges – that is, plants where your climate might be a smidge too cold or a bit too hot 🌱It’s one way of hedging your bets, so to speak. For example, this past winter, we had a record-breaking cold spell, which completely decimated the loquats here in Atlanta (although they are mostly slowly bouncing back, but definitely not fruiting this year), but the cold-loving stone fruits were pleased (even though it’s sometimes a little too warm for them here)! Considering the extremes rather than the averages will go a long way in creating more resilience in our own gardens, our communities, and our regions.  

At Shades of Green Permaculture, we’ve identified 13 functions of plants within landscapes – permaculture plants are really about adding useful, native, and edible plants to your garden, like this home-scale food forest. Then when you’re building out a permaculture plant palette, you create redundancy and resilience through stacking functions. So every plant you add should have at least 3 of the 13 functions. If you want to learn more, we offer a free 1-hour class online about permaculture in action, so you can see a real-life example!

Permaculture is a celebration of biodiversity and interconnectedness in the world of plants. By thoughtfully selecting and combining various types of plants, permaculture practitioners can create resilient and self-sustaining ecosystems that thrive with minimal human intervention. Whether you have a large garden or a tiny balcony, incorporating permaculture choices into your plant selections can make a positive impact on the environment and inspire others to join the journey of regenerative agriculture and sustainable living.

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Permaculture 101, Uncategorized