Every now and then I encounter some committed permaculturist who earnestly wishes to educate me about planning guilds (functional plant groups) in my garden. I just don’t think this way. It seems to me that, if you love to grow food, have a fairly high chaos tolerance, and live somewhere  long enough, you will naturally and accidentally discover what thrives in groups in your area, as well as what you really like to eat. Take the large pot above, which has been next to my back patio for four years. It is a microcosm, or micro-cosmos, of my interests over the time since it was placed. In it you can spot the gorgeous leaf lettuce Merlot that I’m growing this year, chickweed that I planted three years ago and which is self-seeding nicely,  moringa that I started experimenting with last year (which, incidentally, wintered over in a pot that isn’t watered in the winter and survived a very cold winter,) Shirley poppies from four years ago when this pot was placed, and wild lettuce which seeds itself all over at my house and which I tolerate because I like it in cooked greens. My planned combinations haven’t come out nearly so well. Everything in this pot is edible; yes, even Shirley poppy leaves are fine in cooked greens. But it all happened through planting things, not weeding too assiduously, and seeing what happened. If you have a poor memory and are prone to planting things in spots where you already planted something else and then forgot about it, some further felicitous combinations will occur.

A linden planted for its edible leaves has a bird-sown wax current bush growing in its shade, bearing more heavily than its siblings in full sun. Bladder campion seeds itself into the shady north corner under the linden. Siberian elms, self-sown all over, can be coppiced for free goat feed. A bird-sown mulberry nearby can be coppiced for tender edible green shoots to use in cooked greens. Stinging nettles, struggling in the baking desert sun, root their way into the shade of the elm and mulberry coppices and begin to flourish. Stems of oyster mushrooms, dug into garden beds in the fall, produce a few nice oyster mushrooms in the shade of lettuce the following year. A single lambs-quarters is allowed to seed, and late-spring crops of mild and nutritious greens show up all around your intentional plantings for years.  A Russian olive that grows smack in the middle of a garden bed despite years of cutting it back and cursing it, can be pruned into a support for climbing snow peas. A really poor clump of garlic at the base of a tree, left by the last owner, turns out to be indestructible through baking summers and perfect for green garlic. Scorzonera and wolfberries make some good food out of baking unimproved spots where you can’t get anything else to grow. A local non-edible legume, the desert bird-of-paradise, springs up and offers light shade to the wolfberry, giving it a new lease on life and more tender leaves that you can toss into greens mixtures.  None of this is especially tidy, and the straight-row sort of gardener would never tolerate it. But for those of us who love a bit of natural mess and take our vegetables and our epiphanies where we can find them, it works.


4 responses to this post.

  1. As far as permaculture relates to gardening, it is ideally based off observation of nature’s tendencies, and aims to achieve the most harmonious, efficient system by consciously using those observations. So although permaculturists utilize the ‘soft’ plant science for design before creating or moderating a system, it is plants that in any situation provide hard facts. If they like it, leave it, or moderate it to better utilize the good pairings at work.

    Plants suiting themselves trumps the harmony and energy efficiency of any concept designed system, and quite often stands in defiance of the learned concepts. As Bill Mollison says in permaculture ll “it is a good thing plants cannot read!”

    I think you’ve got a more permaculture mindset than your said friend in this situation.


  2. Posted by wooddogs3 on May 27, 2015 at 3:20 pm

    Thanks, Mortaltree. The Mollison quote reminds me of something I read in a 70s-era garden book and never forgot: “Plants are resilient survivors, and ingenious methods of abuse are often mistaken for cultivation secrets”
    I think I have a permaculture mindset, but most permaculturists would not consider me one of the gang because I like annual vegetables and do dig over my annual beds, often several times per year when I am succession-cropping. I get a lot of production out of my beds and find that the veggies do best if I incorporate fresh nutrition throughout the root zone whenever I replant. I have heard this called “soil murder.” My observation is that the vegetable plants grow best that way and the soil continually improves, and so I continue to do it.
    The perennial vegetables that I’ve experimented with have not been the growing powerhouses that the annuals are. They are a pleasant addition to my line-up but don’t put all that much food on the table. Weeds, now, that’s a different story…


    • A very good quote to explain the cultivation of ground for annual vegetable gardening. In the permaculture texts by Mollison, there are many statements equating the tillage of soil with any number of horrendous actions –“soil murder” a more mild one. What a lot of permaculturists don’t notice is this is for large areas, in which case a lot of problems come about that on a small scale with high fertility just can’t unless greatly neglected. In fact, Mollison, and more recent writers such as Toby Hemenway, recommend the most intensive zone 1 gardens to be tilled and to receive all the compost and food scraps they can be given. I know in my food forest I have planted many annual vegetables such as annual mallow and found they would self-seed but only grow a few inches tall compared to several feet in tilled beds. Turkish rocket and other perennial vegetables though grow fine on this poor soil and don’t show much appreciation if grown in tilled beds. So again, it’s suiting plants to the situation they most prefer, and I think you have a very good method of achieving this.


  3. Posted by wooddogs3 on May 27, 2015 at 6:14 pm

    I didn’t take in the advocacy of tillage in zone 1, perhaps because I read it through a tinge of guilt, since I had already experimented extensively with permanent mulch and knew that I was going to dig.
    Your knowledge of both the letter and the spirit of permaculture is most impressive. Anyone interested in permaculture should have a look at Mortaltree’s blog at


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