Early Planning

After getting our first design from our landscape designer, local permaculturist, I started to really research permaculture and plan what would go into our yard.  The landscape designer figured out where our trees, bushes, pond, porch, raised garden beds, and lawn areas would go, but he wanted me to start thinking about the smaller plants that would fill in the gaps.  Permaculture is all about filling in the gaps.  You’re filling in the physical gaps, because vacant space means a place for pioneer plants, aka weeds.  You’re also filling in the gaps within your created ecosystem; you’re finding plants to fill each of the seven niches.  Now you may ask, what are the seven niches of an ecosystem.  Well, here they are:

1 Canopy The tallest trees in the forest, providing shade and protection from harsh elements for all other species
2 Understory These are the fruit trees and other relatively short-growing, flowering trees
3 Shrub These plants are not quite trees, but they are still woody plants. These provide habitat for small animals including birds, insects, small mammals and many other creatures who fill important roles of their own within the forest, including predation on pest species.
4 Herbaceous Small, nonwoody plants providing flowers, berries, medicines and other sustenance for all manner of creatures living in the forest. They also provide nutrients and medicines for other surrounding plants as well.
5 Ground Cover These small plants often spread by creeping across the ground where the soil has been disturbed, helping to keep the soil in place and reclaiming damaged ground.
6 Vertical These plants climb as vines on the other plants, filling vacant niches from ground to canopy within the forest.
7 Rhizosphere Full of plants which grow from bulbs beneath the soil and provide edible bulbs and tubers during seasons in which food may otherwise be scarce. They also keep the soil rich with nutrients and alive with worms and other creatures who help to enrich and aerate the soil.

Our landscape designer took care of the canopy, understory, and shrub layers, but we would need to figure out the other four layers.  These layers would be added later, as things grow in, and should fit our preferences.  As my husband would say is the norm, I went into full research mode to start coming up with ideas for these four other niches.  The first step was identifying what criteria each of these plants needed to meet:

The plant needed to fit at least one niche, but the ideal would be that it would meet more than one niche.

More than one niche, I say?  Yes, I really mean that.  You don’t need to find seven plants for each ecosystem group, which is actually called a plant guild.  Some plants can fulfill more than one.  One example is a plant that many of us are familiar with in the grocery store, but perhaps not in our yards – horseradish.  Horseradish has quite the root.  It is the root after all that we consume.  So, it fits the Rhizosphere niche.  However, it is also quite invasive, so it can cover bare ground quicker than other plants and serve as ground cover.

The plant needs to contribute something to the yard.

Our landscape designer gave very clear instructions when I started on this research journey.  He told us to only look for plants that would provide a benefit.  What he meant by this is that it either needs to provide something edible for us or provide some kind of service to the yard.  Finding edible plants makes sense, but what did he mean by providing a benefit to the yard?  Well, a huge cornerstone in permaculture is creating a system that needs little interference from you.  That means that you want to create a system that needs less watering than each plant would need alone and less fertilization.  Fertilization is a service that other plants can provide to a yard.  I know, right?  Plants fertilizing plants?  It’s amazing and it’s true.

You may have already heard about nitrogen fixing plants, such as peas, beans, vetch, etc.  You typically hear about them in regards to cover crops.  However, there are perennial nitrogen fixing plants out there as well.  I found this great handout on another website, www.homesteadandgardens.com that not only outlines the different nitrogen fixing plants, but also what USDA zones they grow in.  You can find the handout here.  They also have a pretty comprehensive list of nitrogen fixing plants on another handout.  Nitrogen is one of the major nutrients plants need, so it is great that we can design our yards in such a way as to provide it.  Nitrogen fixing plants do work with specific microbes in the soil to fix the nitrogen, so if these microbes are possibly not in your soil, you’ll also want to consider an inoculant.  Inoculants can be purchased in many different garden stores and websites.  Just make sure that you’re buying one that works with the specific plant you’re going to grow, as different types of plants need different microbes.  I get my inoculants from Peaceful Valley Farm Supply.

Another service plants can do for your yard is attracting beneficial insects.  This can mean attracting pollinators, such as bees, with flowers.  It can also mean attracting ladybugs and parasitic wasps.  A great “hit it out of the ballpark” plant for permaculture is the groundnut (Apios americana).  It takes care of the ground cover and rhizosphere niches, provides edible tubers and beans, and attracts pollinators, parasitic wasps, and lacewigs.

The plant needs to be successful in my climate.

Obviously, I am going to want to choose plants that will do well in my yard.  I don’t want to waste time with plants that I’ll have to devote extra time in order to get them to flourish.  That is completely counter to the idea of permaculture.  For a plant to do well in my yard, it needs to meet the following criteria:

  • USDA climate zone – the USDA climate zone is based on your frost dates and helps you to determine what plants can handle your seasons.  You can find your USDA climate zone here.
  • Water needs – we live in a semi-arid environment, so I want to pick plants that can handle the heat, lack of humidity, and drought conditions.  Well, they need to deal with that at least until my yard grows in.
  • Sun requirements – this will vary with the plant’s location in my yard, but I do need to keep in mind that currently my yard is barren, so everything is in full sun.  I can only start to consider partial sun and shade plants when our vegetation has started to grow in

It can also help to consider native plants.  I personally love utilizing the Prairie Moon Nursery website to find plants native to North America.  They also provide maps with each plant, so that you can see if it is native to your area.

You can find my plant lists through the links below: