Mimicking the synergies of nature
One of the principles of permaculture is to do the least amount of work for the greatest yield. Anyone who has gardened for an extended period of time is naturally on the lookout for easier ways of doing things. And it seems to me that over time, virtually every gardener, in their own evolution will gravitate towards the permaculture way of doing things in order to reduce their workload and increase their garden's yield.
No one wants to do more work than is necessary. This desire for maximum yield and minimal work reflects itself in the choices we make in our garden. For example: Will we till the vegetable garden bed before planting or will we use a no-till method of soil preparation? Will we plant annual vegetable crops only or will we also incorporate perennial vegetables as well? Will we bury our kitchen scraps directly in the garden, or toss then into the worm bin? Will we choose native plants which require little or no maintenance, or will we choose high maintenance non-native plants? Or a mix of both? The path which requires less work on our part eventually becomes the path most of us will choose.
The primary way to get the most done with the least amount of effort is to mimic nature by designing our gardens in such a way that allows nature to do as much of the work for us as possible. Nature is our ally in permaculture gardening. After all, nature designed the vegetation of the forests, grasslands, jungles, fields, riparian expanses, deserts and mountain meadows. Nature can and will help us design our own gardens if we will observe and follow her lead.
When it comes to designing our own gardens, if we ally ourselves with nature, we will have the wisdom and genius of eons of time on our side. Who, more than anyone else, would you possibly want on your side? Mother nature of course! In permaculture Mother Nature is at the center. This is not always the case with conventional gardening.
Permaculture places an emphasis on food producing plants, we want nature assist us as much as possible in the production of food. Let's take a look at the meaning of the word “permaculture.” It is an extrap[olation of: permanent agriculture/ permanent culture. Simply put, it refers to sustainable (permanent) ways of growing and raising food, emphasising a balance of perennial plants and self seeding annuals that create productive canopy, understory, vining plants and root crops.
In an urban setting instead of choosing plants solely on the basis of their aesthetic qualities solely for decorative purposes, a permaculturist might be inclined to use plants that are aesthetically beautiful AND produce food. Think of a pomegranate shrub (small tree) with it's gorgeous green leaves accentuated with splendid orange blossoms! We can obtain both beauty and food on the same plant.
The permaculture-minded gardener also is mindful of the synergy inherent in certain groupings of plants, sometimes referred to as plant guilds. Plant synergies occur naturally in the wild, and by mimicking this concept we can design a food-producing guild in our own garden.
In a plant guild individual plants are chosen for mutual benefit; some plants in a guild, known as nitrogen fixers (commonly Fabaceae, members of the bean family of plants), take nitrogen out of the air and fix it in the soil with the aid of Rhizobium bacteria. Excess nitrogen then becomes available to other plants in the guild. One master gardener I know of in Sierra Vista, AZ, plants peanuts as nitrogen fixers around her (tropical!) pineapple plants to keep the leaves of the pineapple plants green. Legumes are the most common nitrogen fixers.
Other plants in the guild might be chosen because they are especially good at attracting pollinators (bees, butterflies etc.). And still others might be useful for their ability to repel insects, suppress weeds, or sink deep roots, bringing up much needed trace minerals from well below the surface. Some larger plants, like fruit trees, might provide full or partial shade for smaller plants which might not survive under full summer sun and they provide a support structure for vining plants to climb.
Historically, and in modern times, native American groups planted guilds consisting of corn, beans, and squash (The Three Sisters). Beans fix nitrogen into the soil, benefiting not only themselves but also the corn and squash; corn provides a trellis for the beans to climb; and the squash forms a thick ground cover with its leaves that helps keep soil cool and moist while also suppressing weeds. These plantings have been so successful that they are replicated today.
The Three Sisters guild has been shown to require less fertilizer, less water, and to produce more food than if they had been planted separately. This can serve as an example of letting Mother Nature do a great deal of the work for us!
By observing nature, working with nature, and allowing nature to do as much of the work as possible, we can practice the permaculture principle of doing the least amount of work for the greatest yield. Food-producing plant guilds are a practical way of doing this.