Permaculture Design follows the natural laws discovered by its founder, Bill Mollison, an Australian guy, now passed on a few years ago, who spent 4 years observing nature in the outback of Australia. He was looking to understand how nature maintained itself without or in spite of human interaction, and these tenets or basic laws became Permaculture Design.
One of the tenets (law or principal) is that ‘every element in a design must have more than one function or yield’. And corollary to that is ‘all needs have multiple solutions or elements’.
Some gardeners will put an element in a landscape that is just pretty or smells good. Those aspects are considered a yield in Permaculture. But if there aren’t any other yields, that element would be passed over for a more productive element – like a plant that did more things or could be used for other things.
Here at Hillside Gardens, in Auburn, Ga., which is a demonstration garden, I have put a lot of thought and research into every plant and element in this 100 bed and food forest environment. What I have discovered has been mind blowing to say the least. Every plant I consider planting, or in the case of wild plants, allow to stay in the garden, has been studied and researched – well over 600 species of plants.
At first when I was an ordinary organic gardener for about 45 years, I’d have a standard garden with beds and paths, a few trees, and a set number of kinds of plants I wished to grow. Mostly they were annual vegetables and about 40 perennial herbs and trees, and some flowers or flowering shrubs. Everything else got pulled as a ‘weed’.
When I came to Georgia 14 years ago, being in a totally different growing zone and ecological environment than Southern California, I tried to grow the same way. But the soil was different, we have 4 seasons as opposed to ‘cool, and warm to hot’ of So. Cal. and very hard red Georgia clay. California had alkaline gray clay, ours is acidic. It was a big learning curve.
Gradually I learned to break into the clay with an adz after 3 days of rain, added organic material and compost, and grew what I thought would grow here. But I didn’t really design anything, I just had some beds at first surrounded by rocks and built to handle the very steep hill our land is comprised of (thus our name Hillside Gardens, it’s no joke).
But I hooked up with a great group of people who were interested in sustainability about 2 years into being here, and ended up taking a walk in the Appalachian Mountains with a well known herbalist – Patricia Kyritsi Howell – with that group up in the high mountain area. We walked along this trail thru the woods and meadows and Patricia pointed out plant after plant naming it and giving its medicinal and edible properties. I was astounded to discover that about half of the things I thought were weeds in my garden she was describing as powerful medicinal and edible plants.
I bought her book “Medicinal Plants of the Southern Appalachians” and a couple of field guides for identification (her book doesn’t have pictures, only information) and the adventure began.
When I was in California I realized that many of the plants and herbs I was growing did have medicinal value and often I’d make up tea or eat things for various needs, and shared them with my friends, and I had good results for minor problems. I grew about 40 different herbs. My life at that time was running a business so my time for this was very limited, and my garden and whole property, plus house and driveway, etc. was only 5000 sq. feet. The plants I was using were all cultivated, not wild.
When we bought our house in Ga. on .7 acres, with a woods in 1/3 of the back of the property, it seemed huge to me. And the whole area in NE Ga. is so much greener and abundant in plant life, I was enthralled. So as I started my garden in a small way, I had so much to learn. After the walk with Patricia Howell, I started also to study and research after ID’ing every plant in the space. I realized I needed to respect the plant life here, which was much more beneficial and varied than anything I had encountered in California. Plus this is a rural area as opposed to the tightly suburban place we had there. There is so much more to see and understand.
Patricia stated that the Cherokee people were masters of herbal medicine and environmental understanding, and they had isolated, ID’ed and used over 1500 (not a typo) species of plants in Appalachia and foothills surrounding it.
Instead of just pulling anything I didn’t recognize or had planted like before, I’d let the un-identified plants stay until I could identify them and see what they had to offer.
When I got to 500, I quit counting. I actually have no idea how many plant varieties I grow or allow to grow here but it’s massive. And also wonderful and magnificent, and mind boggling the treasures of plants that grow here.
So at first I only concentrated on things medicinal or edible. That seemed enough to keep me busy for the rest of my life. Because after so much study, I started to take classes in herbal medicine, another from Patricia, but others. And I put a lot of time in on thoroughly researching the medicinal plants here, my cultivated ones, and the wild crafted ones.
I have an internship program for Permaculture Design and organic gardening here that is in its 10th year this year, and one of my early interns, Stephanie Coile, is a certified herbalist and wise woman*.
She learned from me how to grow the herbs she uses, and I learned how to process them into medicinal applications like tinctures, salves and ointments, teas, powders and capsules, etc. So gradually with her inspiration and that of Patricia, I have added to my knowledge. As a result my knowledge of the plant life and its uses in this area has grown and I am surrounded now by a garden that is so rich in medicinal and edible plants (and some mushrooms) that people come for tours, sometimes classes, and my internship program. My intention is to share this wealth of knowledge and to inspire people to understand the world we live in, be more self-reliant, and respect nature.
So, as I have studied these plants and with the above tenet about multiple uses and yields of every element in the garden, the yields of the garden have taken on other dimensions.
I am a fiber artist, a traditional artist, a basket maker, a living historian of the late 1700’s (a time in which in this area people had to know how to use natural resources to survive), and I have a real love of nature. So, as I have studied all these plants I have discovered many other treasures they provide. I see the plants around me as a terrific resource for creative endeavor and play.
Did you know that many of the plants in our region can be made into dye and ink? Poke berry, black walnut hulls, and a number of flowering plants can and have been used historically and currently for coloring cloth, decorating homes, and to communicate. During the Revolutionary and Civil Wars the soldiers made their own ink writing home to their families, from these plants. They also used the black walnut to stain furniture and dye clothing, as well as other plants coloring their creations.
But Black Walnut is also a powerful parasite cleanser for people and animals when made into a tincture. Multiple uses again.
Poke berry juice can be made into four kinds (and colors) of ink; fermented, iron gall, vinegar based, or alcohol based versions. I have made them all and love the colors from almost black to a vivid purple. Here are some of the recipes: http://www.fountainpennetwork.com/forum/topic/225870-pokeberry-ink/ However it isn’t a strong long lasting dye for clothing. It looks nice at first but fades to a dull gray. The ink eventually fades as well, usually to gray or sepia, but it is beautiful. The original documents of our country were mostly made from these inks, though India Ink was also known and used, just more expensive and having come from far away.
Baskets can be made from so many of the plants that grow here either wild or cultivated. I have made beautiful baskets from green briar (aka smilax), iris leaves braided to form strands, grasses, long pine needles, curly and straight willow, Japanese honeysuckle, native grape vines, and other flexible tree and bush branches. We really don’t have large native bamboo, though there is a small version that looks more like tall grass that is native here. But people grow the oriental versions of bamboo in groves and they are often easily accessible, which also can be used for basket making. Some barks have good basket making properties and even strips of thin wood. The Appalachian people have made basket weaving an art in some areas from all these native plant sources.
Fibers for fabric and other uses can be gleaned by more than just flax (linen), and cotton. Hemp when grown for the fibers makes wonderful soft fabric. One very nice thing about hemp for fiber is it doesn’t take a lot of equipment to process it. It’s a great homestead based fiber. https://youtu.be/7Q68945QDuA Video for the home processing of the fiber. https://morningchores.com/growing-hemp/
Dogbane, Nettle and Milkweed to name a few are also valuable and can be harvested to make fine fiber.
Fibers can be useful for a number of other applications besides making cloth, and can be grown (or foraged in nature). https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/ethnobotany/fibers.shtml
Here are a number of plant sources: Western Red Cedar, Broadleaf cattail, Paper Birch, Banana Yucca, Stinging Nettle, White Spruce, American basswood, Small soapweed, Alaska cedar, and Indian hemp. Of these and other fiber sources come:
- Textiles: clothing, sewing material
- Brushes, brooms
- Mats, rugs, bedding
- Building materials: roofing, caulking materials (usually between logs in log buildings called ‘chinking’).
Many of the things that we take for granted because they are commercially created for us and can be purchased in a store used to be made by people in our earlier history. One of my favorite is cordage. I took a class one year at a Permaculture gathering in North Carolina by my friend Zev Friedman (a master forest agriculturist). We made very strong cordage out a number of plants – probably the best one was the basswood – which would have been used as string and other handy uses but still can be made handily just sitting someplace and using your hands once the fiber is processed. But many of the plants in my garden can be used to create cordage.
Another favorite of mine is the making of paper. Besides making it from wood fiber as commercial paper is made, it can be made from a number of sources of plant material. Here are three sites which you may find creatively interesting – making paper from plants, weeds, and even invasive weeds. How cool to turn lemons into lemonade. Paper from plants: https://www.paperslurry.com/2014/08/20/hand-papermaking-with-plants-illustrated-infographic/, paper from weeds: https://psmag.com/environment/a-new-leaf-making-paper-from-weeds-4194 , and from invasive plants: https://makezine.com/2015/04/16/making-paper-invasive-plants/ . I find it particularly interesting because many of the plants used are found right in my own garden.
Who would imagine gathering a bunch of spent iris leaves could make a basket, some cordage, or some paper. Besides being a beautiful flower, and the darker flowers can be made into colors for paint and other uses. Again, multiple uses.
Being a lover of history, especially the 1700’s in this area of Georgia, I find it fascinating how the people solved the problems of living. Containers are always needed to store things, transport or hold things made on the homestead or by an herbalist or artist. They might have had some glass containers in the form of bottles, but that would have been expensive and hard to transport. Instead they made baskets, pottery from the Georgia clay, wove bags from fibers grown or foraged, or another of my favorites. Gourds!
I grew some ‘Bushel Gourds” a couple of years ago that would hold 2 to 3 gallons of liquid (if lined with bees wax or pine tar), or half a bushel of grain or dried food. Smaller gourds when dried and processed correctly can hold what a quart jar would hold now. Using bees wax or pine tar, they could have even been sealed for long term storage. There are a number of handy shapes of gourds which can be crafted into bowls for eating or storage. And one variety actually is grown to make bird houses – called appropriately “Bird House Gourd”.
The native people used gourds for cooking. They would drop a hot rock into a cooking gourd filled with water and soup makings instead of holding the container over a fire. The rock would be replaced with another hot one a number of times until the cooking was complete.
In the pumpkin patch it’s easy enough to grow a few different sized gourd seeds, harvest them in the fall, dry them out, and in the winter clean them up inside and out, and drill holes in them for stoppers, cut them into bowl shapes and decorate them if it suits, use some leather straps to make a canteen out of one for hiking, or any number of uses. These are crafty uses but could easily be incorporated into a little business, an art form, a survival use.
We have gatherings of living historians at Fort Yargo State Park in Winder, Ga. every spring. One of my favorite living historian camp sights feature these gourds with big corks or beautifully crafted bowls and scoops instead of spoons, all made from what he grows in his garden.
Another amazing property of some plants is the ability to attract beneficial insects. Butterfly bush, milkweed (Aeschlapius tuberose), flowering plants all bring in pollinator insects which benefit plants by pollinating them. But there are other plants that support insects that do other amazing things like kill off bad bugs and other things. Here is a great site naming them. https://www.permaculturenews.org/2014/10/04/plants-attract-beneficial-insects/?fbclid=IwAR3XYsxXVnwe0oZrg4Sjc7QZpwgHoWEcnPbs6gIg1SwUE8nvRKWAeL9cjxE
When planning a garden for greatest yield and protection from pests, in Permaculture we combine plants that help each other in a number of ways. This adds to the ‘yield’ because by combining ‘companion’ plants, it cuts out a lot of hard work by the gardener. It also cuts out the necessary use of chemicals which are toxic and kill the predatory insects which are needed to keep the bug population under control.
By planting nitrogen capturing legumes near another plant, this lessens the amount of fertilizer you need to put in the soil. The plant gathers nitrogen out of the atmosphere, deposits it in little nodules on their roots, where other plants can utilize it when the original plant dies and the roots break down in the soil.
By adding some plants that gather nutrients deep under the top soil and bringing it up into the leaves, this further feeds the other plants as the plant matter containing these nutrients break down. One of my favorite such plants is comfrey. It’s loaded with minerals. It grows quickly to 3 or 4 feet tall, and can be harvested by ‘chop and drop’ where the upper parts of the plant above one foot above the soil are cut off and placed around the roots of trees and vegetables. It also can be added to liquid fertilizer making (see compost tea below). It’s also a terrific medicinal herb for ointments and salves because of it’s bone healing qualities (it’s also known as “Bone Heal herb”).
Interestingly enough, another one of these kinds of plants which bring minerals and nutrients up from deep under ground (as much as 30 feet) is the humble dandelion. Dandelions were originally intentionally brought to this continent from Europe because it has so many edible and medicinal uses. It kills me to see people spraying their lawns with toxic chemicals to kill off these beauties because they are considered ‘weeds’. They are some of the first plants in spring to feed the endangered bee population. Their flowers when soaked in olive oil for a few weeks and strained out make a wonderful massage oil for sore muscles. The leaves make a great mineral rich salad or ‘pot’ herb (for soups). The milky substance in the stems when applied carefully over time will get rid of warts. And the tough roots break up hard clay. Even the roots themselves when roasted make a delicious coffee substitute. It’s even used to combat cancer. I let it grow big in my vegetable beds and when they are big and healthy, I harvest the roots and leaves. Talk about multiple yield and uses. Dandelion roots were used during the Civil War when they couldn’t get coffee so it’s even historically significant. And delicious.
A guild is a gathering of various kinds of plants which are mutually beneficial when planted close together, and is a technique used in Permaculture to alleviate a lot of extra work, letting the plants help each other.
One such component in such a ‘guild’ of plants growing as companions is bug repelling or protection some plants give to others. Marigolds protect, from under the soil, pathogenic microbes affecting tomatoes, potatoes and others in the ‘nightshade’ family. Nasturtiums attract aphids which otherwise would attack vegetables. The nasturtium plant is considered a sacrificial plant because once it is overrun with bugs, you gently bag it and throw away the plant and bag, and replant. There are several such plants but my favorite is nasturtium because it’s pretty, attracts bees, and can be eaten in salads if not covered in bugs.
Borage and tarragon can be grown around the garden to in general help the growing process of many of the plants, improving flavor and in general helping the health of the environment as well as being edible herbs. Borage flowers added to a salad add a beautiful blue color of decoration. Tarragon added to stews and soups improve the flavor as well as being very healthful medicinally. Pot Marigold, aka Calendula, is a bee feeding flower, is beautiful, and is one of the best herb for the skin in ointments and salves. It also has been used as a tincture in alcohol for many healthful benefits. When planted in beds of vegetables it also brings in the pollinators, and protects the plants nearby.
There are many such relationships in plants that help each other, all adding to the solutions of a better more productive garden. Basil when planted next to tomatoes improves the flavor for example.
Weed Tea – We make our own fertilizers to make healthy nutrient dense food from the plants we grow. We don’t use commercial chemical fertilizer here because it kills off the vital micro organisms in the soil ecology. But we make our own using what is at hand and re-purpose otherwise low use organic matter.
We save the weeds we cut, that have gone to seed, in big barrels with rainwater, where we let the plant matter soak for several weeks until they rot the seeds which would otherwise go into the compost, only to grow weeds in the garden beds when used as soil building. The ‘weed tea’ water can be used directly as it is loaded with the minerals and nutrients in the weeds, but it also goes into other bins with bags of compost and manure with some molasses and with a bubbler (like found in pet stores for fish tanks) for a couple of weeks to make great liquid fertilizer. Nothing gets wasted. Once the weed tea is separated out, the spent plant material goes into the compost piles and feeds worms. We call this Compost/Manure Tea and it can be sprayed on the leaves of plants to be absorbed directly, or used in the soil around the roots.
We save the cuttings from trees and bushes, run them thru a big chipper, and make our own mulch. We save the tall dried stems from the Jerusalem Artichokes (aka Sunchokes) for starting winter fires in the fireplace – makes great kindling. And we use small branch tree cuttings and prunings likewise in the fireplace.
Organic matter is a key element in the success of a garden and is critical for the holding of moisture in the soil, and the feeding of vital earth worms. Unless organic matter has been contaminated in some way chemically or otherwise, we try to make use of it either as compost, mulch, fire starting, or in the case of branches, as supports for climbing plants.
We also make our own charcoal from dried wood chips from the chipper to make biochar which greatly increases the fertility of our soil. We take the liquid fertilizer above and soak the activated charcoal, ferment it under some compost for a couple of weeks, then dig it into our beds to greatly increase the beneficial microbes. No use in burning all the wood material for heat.
And lastly, is the concept that you can grow your own trees for wood, buildings, furniture, boxes, and all the lovely things that we use wood for. Even bamboo in the right hands can be made into marvelous things.
Resources for living can take on a new meaning if you think outside the box. I have been totally amazed at all the uses I have found for the things I grow in this little .7 acre piece of land.
From it all is a restful and happy garden where I find peace and tranquility from a crazy world. I give bees, butterflies and other pollinators a safe place to do their buggy duties. The birds find food in seeds and the fruit I leave for them and don’t harvest all of for ourselves. Besides the usefulness of having about 150 medicinal plants growing of which I make medicine for myself and my husband, my cats and upon need could help friends, many of them are also spices and flavorings for the food we eat. We drink tea from delicious plants I dehydrate in our dehydrator. We flavor kombucha tea and water kefir with the aeromatic herbs like Perilla, various sweet mints, oregano and thyme, and even some of the flowers growing here like Japanese honeysuckle or elderberry blossoms. We grow about 300 kinds of edible annual vegetables and fruit as well as about 40 fruit trees for elderberry, pears and a bunch of other goodies.
Biodiversity of plants is in itself a kind of yield because on a planet going through a climate change, growing a large variety of plants with various temperature and ecological needs will find some that will survive even if some don’t. We started out last century with a rich diversity of edible plants. We have lost 90% of them to industrial farming and poor management. It’s the little gardener who saves seeds and keeps a number of them viable who will eventually save the day. When we share those seeds and have seed swaps among other similar gardeners, we have a future for food varieties. Besides, seed grown heirloom varieties are so much better tasting!
I make baskets from a number of the native and cultivated plants here where I display them in my house as art or usefully for harvesting and transport of things. I have a spinning wheel and a drop spindle for the fibers I spin from plants. From the yarn I knit and crochet or weave fabric or make garments.
I have the capacity to make paper from the plants and by extension books or other uses for paper. I haven’t made paper yet but it’s in the future. I have made books from scratch before and love hand writing with the inks I make.
We protect the beneficial insects and birds with the plants we grow, and promote protection for endangered butterflies like the Monarchs, by growing milkweed. We purposefully grow lots of flowers that feed these insects throughout the year as much as possible. Insects are highly beneficial for plants and vice versa. It’s a symbiotic relationship.
We make containers with gourds. We save the hollow stems from Jerusalem Artichokes and Milk Thistle to make homes for the native bees in Mason Bee houses. https://blog-yard-garden-news.extension.umn.edu/2018/04/building-better-bee-home.html
All these solutions from what is grown go way beyond just picking the tomato or snipping some oregano for the spaghetti sauce. That’s the beauty of being curious and doing a little research. I would say I’ve gone down the rabbit hole here in this rich bio-diverse space in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. But if I had known what I know now, I would have been doing this in California when my garden was producing all kinds of known and unknown plants. And I would have had a much richer life as a result.
All eco systems are inter-related with the plants, animals, birds, insects, microbes, and can be learned like an encyclopedia because without these interaction nature would not survive as long as it has for billions of years, through changes in the climate, the location as the earth moves, and all the other visitudes (changes) life on planet earth challenges life forms with. Somehow things have kept living thru all of that. It’s awe inspiring to me. The more I learn, the more I am in love with this planet.
I encourage you to check out some of the books that have inspired me.
Patricia Kyritsi Howell’s book Medicinal Plants of the Southern Appalachians is just one of some other great books. My favorite publisher of books related to these subjects is Chelsea Green Publishing – https://www.chelseagreen.com/?s=permaculture&post_type=page , but other publishing companies include Storey Publishing, Botanologos Books – botanologos.com, and New Society Publishing – https://newsociety.com/products/9780865716667 . And of course there is the wonderful resource of the internet. I love Gaia’s Garden https://www.amazon.com/Gaias-Garden-Guide-Home-Scale-Permaculture/dp/1603580298 , The One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-one-straw-revolution-masanobu-fukuoka/1111615945 , and Permaculture In A Nutshell – https://www.amazon.com/Permaculture-Nutshell-3rd-Patrick-Whitefield/dp/1856230031 .
I wish for all of you to revel in the rich resources of nature, utilizing but also protecting our world for your own survival and that of others. When we waste nothing, we want not.
Diann Dirks, Certified Permaculture Designer, 50 year organic gardener, artist, educator. Auburn, Ga.
A Wise Woman: a designation of herbalists who work and learn together many of them tied to Patricia Howell and Susun Weed and other master herbalists of Appalachia and Traditional Chinese Medicine – most of the medicinal herbs being the same as in the mountains of China, since geologically they all were part of the same continent millions or billions of years ago.