Permaculture Plants Pt. 1. Plantin' Ain't Easy (Re-enchant The Landscape!)
A friend of mine once said that “peoplin' ain't easy”. Having spent more than a decade in the mental health field-boy do I know this to be true. I used to say I left my "real" job as a community counselor in order to work with plants because plants are easier.
I was wrong.
My colleague likes to remind me of a quote from the writer and permaculturalist Starhawk, that “permaculture is the art of relationships”. The more time I spend working with plants the more this idea is brought into focus. As a planter and grower, I am guilty of a Pollanesque botany-of-desire species selection in my own projects. What is the plant's function? Do I like the plant? And then there is still that question.
What IS a permaculture plant?
And why are we slow to provide plant lists in our courses? I can imagine biting BuzzFeed's style and using this blog for listicles with titles like "10 of the best perennials every permaculture student needs to know about." That would up our readership. Here is another "The Six Most Appropriate Plants For Your Permaculture Design."
Not only would these lists be wrong, but they would be arrogant, and not only would they be arrogant but they would be vain. In all things, permaculture included - arrogance is helpful until it becomes vanity - tip of the cap to my man Merwin.
As an educator, It can be a delight to hover in that ambiguous space of pattern and concepts with the hopes that anyone reaching for a plant list does some of the preliminary research and work on their own to start building plant knowledge and competencies. I can remember the first several years I really dug into the material, falling asleep night after night with nursery and seed catalogs splayed out on my chest until I had memorized all of them.
Then what do we do?
I turned to the elders of our discipline.
For example, Mark Shepards STUN (Sheer Total Utter Neglect) method of species selection is fun to write about but expensive once you ground truth it. I've spent thousands of dollars on plants that have passed into their next life.
And then there is Dave Jacke-straight up genius-his two-volume encyclopedia on the subject is an invaluable addition to what we do. On the other hand, that shit is overwhelming. I can remember dreaming of field grafting Korean nut pine onto all of my white pines after reading and confronting the shocking amount of information in his tome. Read, but plant simply when starting out. In the end, it’s not about lists, though that is a place to start. It’s about experimenting with what works on your site based on your goals, and then diving deep into the relationship.
But What DO you do?
below is a list - it's not exhaustive, it's sparse. It's based on our experience in our specific region - Shenandoah Valley - where winter temps get down to zero. More importantly, these are plants we have developed relationships with. As you make your lists for your own projects, take the time to get to know your species. "Plantin' ain't easy," but it's fun.
What makes a plant a permaculture plant? Just three things:
Comfrey - At some point, this plant might begin to be played out, but it’s so damn helpful and easy. Not only is it great for the soil and acts as a wonderful barrier plant but when mashed up and boiled becomes an incredibly healing poultice. I’ve had gigantic swollen elbows rendered healed from long soaks. I dream of one day taking a bath in the stuff to relieve the stiffening that is happening to my aging body. Another great use is boiling down the plant material and letting it cool to be used as a rooting agent for propagation!
Tulsi - Another favorite-It gets hot in the field in July. And nothing cuts the heat like a cold glass of Tulsi or Holy Basil. One of my favorite aspects of the plant is that it self seeds. Once it throws seed you never have to plant again. Just walk the patch in the spring and smell the unmistakable perfume of Tulsi wafting up from the soil.
Yarrow - natures bandaid-It’s an incredible resource for those too often moments when a harvest knife nicks a finger. Of course, follow up with some electrical tape around the wound-one must remember to not bleed on the food.
Elderberry - I could write a book about elderberry I love the plant so much. My journey with plants began with a passionate interest in the mystery of healing plants. Before learning to grow, harvest and use Elderberry I was enamored with the folklore around the plant and immediately promised myself to incorporate the charisma of the plant into my own system. One of my favorite poets Peter Lamborn Wilson likes to exclaim: “We must re-enchant the landscape!” and Elderberry does this. If one is to fall asleep beneath elderberry then a person dreams of fairies. I can remember the joy of watching my young daughter dance around the elder bush with fairy wings on. She was just playing, little did she know her play had aligned quite neatly with traditional folklore. Perhaps, however, the most practical of the old stories recommend planting the Elderberry among the healing herbs. The Elder, it is said, is the keeper of medicine and teaches the medicinal plant how to be themselves. On a less abstract note, the use of Elderberry is a true blue winter health elixir. The antiviral properties of Elder make for an excellent daily syrup to keep the sniffles away. And it tastes great! In keeping with the re-enchant the landscape theme I recommend the Black Lace Elder but make sure you pair it with an Emerald Lace Elderberry in order to have proper pollination.
For Easy Fruit
Pawpaw - A great joy of the early fall is trekking through the forest in search of pawpaw patches. When planting on your homestead we recommend great varieties like Shenandoah. Michael Judd has a pawpaw book coming out and we can’t wait to get our hands on it!
Persimmon - Most people cringe when we mention Persimmon, but I”m telling you they are super easy to grow. And some of the hybrid’s and Asian cultivars are excellent tasting. Nikita’s Gift is highly recommended.
Arkansas Black Apple - Apples are tough in the Mid-Atlantic region especially here in the Shenandoah Valley. There are many disease-resistant varieties like Liberty, William’s Pride, and Enterprise. However, My favorite tasting and the one that seems to be the toughest and lowest maintenance is the Arkansas Black.
Patio Peach - Peaches are a roll of the dice in our bioregion. From insect pressure and disease to the dreaded late frosts here in the Valley, the fruit can be finicky. The Patio Peach is not going to bring money into the system, but as a homestead peach for out of hand eating in July, it can’t be beaten. This tree consistently is loaded with peaches and has needed zero maintenance in my system.
Asian Pear - For productive fruit production in your homestead this is the way to go. Very little disease pressure and consistent fruiting. Shinko seems to be the most prolific but on wet years the fruit will split. You can go from counting on having all of those canned pears at harvest to losing 60% of the harvest after a big rain. Korean Giant and Hosui have been our favorites at the homestead.
Gooseberry - I put the gooseberry on here because it’s my children’s favorite. It fruits early and young and provides hours of entertainment for the kids while they surgically pick the berries around the thorns. Be careful with white pines in the neighborhood, however. White Pine Blister rust can take them out with the quickness - and Ribes like Gooseberry are often the culprit.
I include the above trees together under the firewood category for one reason. They are excellent when used in a coppiced hedge system. I like to plant either tree on 8 inch or one-foot centers. After about 3 or 4 years, the tree can be cut down only to resprout from the trunk. By planting close together and strategically cutting every third tree every year, one can have a continual hedge and a supply of great wood small enough not to have to split for burning. In addition, locust is nitrogen fixing and produces sweet-smelling edible flowers. Black Cherry is an excellent wood to have in the homestead for furniture making as the homestead ages.
To be continued.
Daniel Firth Griffith