Forests, Gardens, and Forest Gardens

You can spend your whole life traveling around the world searching for the Garden of Eden, or you can create it in your backyard.”​ --​Khang Kijarro Nguyen

What You Will Do

  • Understand the many different ways plants fit into an ecological design.
  • Create companion plantings and perennial guilds that interact with each other in multiple layers in time and space.
  • Identify special needs plants and learn how to design for them.
  • Determine which types of garden beds to use in which microclimates, and which plants to grow together in those beds, for optimum success.
  • Learn how to get plants for free.
Heather Jo in her front yard

Food Not Lawns

​Free your lawn, and your a– will follow…

This section by Heather Jo Flores

If you’re familiar with my work at all, you probably know I am staunchly opposed to wasting good soil on a lawn. In fact I think they are a disgusting display of privilege and waste of natural resources, and if you’re fortunate enough to have access to fertile ground, there is a myriad of ways to use it that are all WAY more creative and WAY better for the planet than having a lawn. 

A before and after pic from part of Heather Jo’s garden

I’ll spare you the long sermon but if lawn removal is part of your project, check out these resources:

  • Get the basics about lawn removal techniques, here.
  • Learn how to make sure the neighbors don’t have a fit, when you turn the front yard into a farm, here.
  • Read the entire text of my book, Food Not Lawns, How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden and Your Neighborhood into a Community, here.
  • Join the “official” Food Not Lawns facebook group, here.


Forest, Gardens, and Forest Gardens: Intro

​Survival necessitates reforestation.

Whether you live on a farm or in an apartment in the city, you need plants. Plants provide almost all our food and vast amounts of our fuel, fiber, and medicine. Plants filter the air and water and help bind together the cycles of the earth. 

Learning about plants inspires an instinctual, natural awareness that leads to increased creativity and mental and physical healing. Plants provide opportunities. The more diverse the plants, the more diverse the opportunities. 

Yet, the average person in the United States knows over a thousand corporate logos but only ten species of plants. What do you think could happen, if we were to ditch the corporations and learn how to integrate more fully with the species around us? Could we then increase our capacity to steward the land, provide for our needs, and nourish the other species on Earth? You can reap great rewards by growing and knowing just ten species of plants—imagine the benefits of knowing and growing a thousand. 

In nature, you will rarely find more than a few square feet of just one kind of plant. But in conventional agriculture, and many home gardens, large patches of just one species, also known as monocultures, are the status quo. 

The tragic Irish Potato Famine in the mid-1800s occurred because only two varieties of potatoes were growing in the whole country—both susceptible to potato blight, a disease that devastates crops. Both crops failed when the blight hit hard one year, leading to major food shortages nationwide. Farmers did not know or think to diversify their fields—they thought only of the potato that would allegedly provide the best yield, and as a result they lost it all. Ironically, just across the sea hundreds of potato varieties, many of which were probably blight-resistant, were growing all over North, Central, and South America. 

There are many lessons to be learned from this type of tragedy: Don’t grow just one or two varieties of anything, don’t grow the same thing every year, and don’t base your food security on just one, two, or even fifty species. If we embrace biodiversity—and more, seek out and perpetuate it—we will directly increase the longevity and quality of our own lives and those of our species. 

By encouraging an ever-widening array of plants, insects, and micro- organisms, we can design and create gardens that are beautiful, diverse, functional, and teeming with life. Conversely, if we pillage the gene pool until only those species with immediate economic value remain, then we may destroy our chances of long-term survival on planet Earth. 

The importance of diversity in our lives and gardens is apparent in everything we do, and by maximizing plant diversity in our own back- yards we enhance the diversity of our ever-connected planet.

….I wrote the last few paragraphs almost 15 years ago, in Food Not Lawns, back when lawns covered 40 million acres of land in the USA. Now, they cover 80 million and since then, the human population on this planet has increased by almost 20%, and the amount of forest ecosystems on the planet has continued to decrease by millions of acres every year.

As such, we have arrived at the point where reforestation, on whatever scale we can possibly manifest, is absolutely central to our survival as a species, and yes, your food forest, however small it may seem, matters!

more from Heather Jo’s garden

​How are our gardens different?

We get this question/set of questions a lot, so here’s a quick rundown of the different types of agriculture we come across in the “sustainability movement,” and a few notes on what makes each technique distinct from the type of agriculture we’re teaching in this course.

This is hardly an exhaustive list of ecological agriculture methods–I just focused on the ones that seem to come across the table most often.

  • Organic Farming and Gardening tends to focus on fruits, vegetables, flowers, and other plants with economic value. Being “organic” doesn’t necessarily mean there aren’t unsustainable practices, and many organic farms have large patches of monocropping, huge piles of plastic sent to the landfill every year, and even some highly questionable labor practices. In an ecological system, these social and ecological discrepancies would need to be addressed.
  • Natural Farming is the term given to the style of farming made famous by Japanese rice farmer Masanobu Fukuoka. His techniques and perspectives were radical and revolutionary, and certainly a huge inspiration, but not applicable in most climates, at least not if you want to obtain a substantial yield or prevent the neighbors from calling your completely unmanaged “natural farm” into the city! An ecological system can and should include some wild and unmanaged areas, but unless you live in a maritime climate with steady access to flood irrigation, Fukuoka’s specific techniques might not work out.
  • Biointensive Agriculture was developed by John Jeavons, and is famous for the “double-digging” style of preparing garden beds so that they can support very dense plantings. This technique is absolutely applicable to many types of plantings, especially if you have a limited space. But a patch of double-dug beds and a steaming compost pile don’t make a whole-system design.
  • Biodynamic Farming (not to be confused with biointensive, above) is the preferred approach to farming taken by the Anthroposophical communities created by Austrian scientist and psychic Rudolf Steiner. Along with Waldorf schools, Camphill communities, and a global network of homeopathic health clinics, biodynamic farms contribute to a spectacularly successful example of what a whole-system design could become. And while biodynamics and related pursuits are hyper-spiritual and perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea, data shows that biodynamic techniques tend to work really, really well for producing an ethical, ecological food supply. Advice: even if the woo-woo stuff repels you, it’s worth checking out the soil-building techniques and formulas biodynamics offers, (and that’s why we included them in the soils module!)
  • Community Gardening generally refers to parceled-out sections of a city-owned piece of land, where each gardener gets access to her plot for the duration of the growing season, but is not allowed to plant perennials. If you live in an apartment, becoming part of a community garden is a wonderful way to add the plants layer into your ecological design!

Truly, you could include any or all of these approaches in your system, but none of them, standing alone, would constitute a “whole-system design,” because they aren’t connected to and interacting with the bigger system, as a closed-loop. You can certainly spend most of your time working with plants, but as a permaculturist, your imperative should include also pulling energy, transportation, human relationships, the built environment, and your livelihood into the design.

​PSST! Plant the water first!

​When you say “garden,” most people think first of plants, but all gardens ultimately depend on the quality and quantity of soil fertility and clean water. I don’t recommend planting anything while you’re still designing the water flow through your garden. It makes so much more sense, for so many reasons, to design your water systems first, then group the plants according to their water needs, than it does to put in vast gardens and then try to design an irrigation system to accommodate it. 

Repeat: design the water first. Next, learn how to find and create microclimates. Then, learn as much as you can about what grows, easily, where you live. THEN start planting. That’s why we put this gardening module so far down the list, and why we ask you to do so much other work in the course before you even get here–because it’s super important. You’ll save time and money, spare yourself a lot of frustration, and kill way fewer plants if you heed our advice on this one!

​Vision for Transition: Integrating with Our Own Agriculture.

Here’s a short artistic visioning of an organic farm, juxtaposed into a suburban neighborhood where neighbors have collaborated together to integrate many types of gardens into their community.

Integrating with our agriculture: a Food Not Lawns evolution!

​Types of Gardens on a Permaculture Site

There are many different types of gardens that can interconnect in your whole-system design.

Here’s a list of the most common:

  • Kitchen garden. A kitchen garden is a place to grow vegetables and herbs so ideally it’s in a sheltered spot, near the house, where you can nip to get fresh ingredients when you’re cooking a meal.
  • Orchards. Although orchards don’t need much attention once they’re established, and so workwise could be in a distant zone, don’t forget there will hopefully be a lot of fruit to carry! This is why even on a large farm the orchard is usually near the house. The flowers on fruit trees are vulnerable to wind and frost so some shelter is needed.
  • Pollinator gardens. Flowers and shrubs grown specifically to attract pollinators. This is both to help pollinators who are struggling, thanks to pesticides and diminished habitat, and also because gardens need pollinators.
  • Field Crops. Beans, grains, and seed stewardship projects tend to need larger growing areas, managed in straighter lines than you might use for interior gardens. 
  • Wild areas. Create and nurture habitats for wildlife: make a pond, a log pile; grow wild flowers.
  • Zen gardens. Space for relaxation and meditation.
  • Children’s gardens. Space for children to play in the dirt, learn to grow food, explore the world of minibeasts, and get out of your hair for a minute!
  • Accessible gardens. Gardens designed to be accessible are crucial for gardeners with disabilities. Thinking about accessibility is important in any garden. When friends and family visit, having at least part of the garden that is accessible means no-one is left out. 
  • Hedgerows. Regional definitions of this term varies widely, so in ecological design terms we’ll define a hedgerow as a perennial polyculture planted along an edge. A well-designed, multifunctional hedgerow can provide food, shade, privacy, habitat, firewood, and much, much more. Hedgerows can create microclimates, redirect strong winds, and shelter large areas of tender plants that might not otherwise thrive in your area. We could (and probably should) do an entire module in this course, just about hedgerows! For now, just realize that a hedgerow is not AT ALL just a bunch of bushes–plants in every layer can make up a hedgerow, and a hedgerow can solve a lot of design problems.

In the yearlong course, we have a mini-class focused on hedgerows. Check it out.

This multi-species, multifunctional hedgerow near my house provides food, shade, fencing, and habitat for a cacophony of birds!

​Guilds, Companion Plants, and Polycultures: How to Grow a Paradise Garden

Our goals is to creat elong-lasting, low-maintenance perennial gardens that stack plants in time, space, and function–the polar opposite of a monoculture, a well-planned polyculture will yield year-round, providing food, seeds, and compost crops for people, wildlife, and microorganisms alike. Because they are so diverse, polycultures yield more and are less susceptible to disease and insect infestation.

Because the result of this type of agriculture is a lush, abundant oasis, teeming with fresh fruit and birdsong, and also because of my deep respect and admiration for the work of Joe Hollis, I call this type of agriculture “paradise gardening.”

Everything you need to know about gardening, or quite possibly everything you need to know about life. You can learn from the plants.

Every time you interact with a plant, whether it’s a microscopic one or a giant ancient tree, you learn something about the planet, you learn something about yourself, and you learn something about how to bridge the gap between what we currently call humanity and the potential for a sustainable future as a coexisting symbiotic species here on the planet in the global biosphere.

As gardeners with our hands in the soil, we have the opportunity to create a legacy that we can see immediate results from our own lives, and we can see reverberations as we move through the garden over the seasons and over the years.

Artwork by Kt Shepherd

Gardening gives us immediate feedback. The plants are able to exhibit evolutionary traits very quickly, because their life cycles turn over so much more quickly than ours. So, we can learn from them about how changes in the biosphere, changes in microclimate, and even tiny changes in the way the wind blows can have profound effects on the success or failure of an organism and the community that organism is connected to. We can use the natural forest as a model for building guilds that layer functional niches within niches in space and time. When we plant several of these guilds together the result is a multifunctional, polycultural garden that thrives in low-maintenance perpetuity. 

To understand this, think of the way a forest looks: small plants and debris cover the ground so that no soil is bare. Larger plants and shrubs grow up against small trees, and tall trees fill in the gaps to create an overstory canopy that is rich in bird and animal life. Vines wrap around the trees and drip across the skyline. Something is always sprouting while neighboring plants die or go dormant for the season, and some kind of food is always available. ​The entire forest remains moist and cool even on hot days, yet cold winds and killing frost rarely penetrate the dense growth, so the interior of the forest remains temperate, while sun loving plants crowd the edges where there is more light. Every nook and niche has something to offer and is home to something or someone, so that every square foot reeks of life and diversity. 

​We can view the layers of a polyculture in three parts: function, space, and time.

Growing Plants Together: Guilds, Companion Plants, and Polycultures in a Permaculture Garden

Here’s a quick rundown of niches the plants in your garden could occupy, to create layers of function, space, and time.

Layers of Function

  • Edibles. Most edibles also serve other functions, and indeed, you will find that there is much crossover among all of these layers. Plants like to stack functions, and so should we. Most annual vegetables are easy enough to grow; also try perennial edibles such as fruits and berries.
  • Medicinals and Aromatics. It is quite possible to grow and process all or most of our medicine with just a few carefully selected plants. We can grow remedies for colds, headaches, muscle pain, toothache, allergies, and stress, as well as fill our homes with wonderful smells!
  • Ornamentals. There is no such thing as a plant that is strictly ornamental. Every plant fills a function other than just being beautiful. It may, for instance, create shade, wildlife habitat, and forage opportunities. Still, don’t be afraid to choose to grow something simply because you think it is beautiful. Some gardeners become obsessed with “practical” function and forget to include beauty and inspiration as essential components. Don’t let it happen to you! Fiber Plants. 
  • Fiber plants add functional diversity to the garden, as well as providing opportunities for money-making craft projects. Some fiber plants, such as bamboo, can provide stakes and trellis materials, while others are better for making baskets and sun hats.
  • Nitrogen Fixers and Detoxifiers. Your garden should have a few areas in cover crops at all times to ensure that we give back what you take from the soil. You should also include, in each garden guild, at least one nitrogen fixer. 
  • Mulch plants/bioaccumulators. There are many perennial plants that accumulate large amounts of leaf mass, which can then be harvested as mulch for neighboring plants. Include several of these in your overall garden design, but because they grow so big and so fast, give them plenty of room so they don’t overwhelm smaller plants. Comfrey is the go-to plant for this niche. It is easy to grow from just a small root cutting, it can be cut down several times a year for mulch or compost, and it will grow back within a few weeks. Here’s a list of dynamic accumulators and the nutrients they collect.
  • Habitat Plants. In the interests of giving back to nature and nurturing species other than our own, I encourage you to include a healthy dose of habitat plants in your garden design. Habitat plants provide shelter and forage for wildlife and are often best placed in the outer edges of a garden, where they can delay and nourish any hungry critters who might otherwise eat your primary crops. It is also a good idea to create habitat within the garden: places for songbirds to nest, and places for snakes and toads to hide before they come out to eat slugs at night. The more lush and diverse your garden grows, the more it will become a natural ecosystem of its own, with you, the gardener, as just one of the many living species within. 
  • Insectaries. ​Many gardeners have an inclination to eliminate every insect from the garden. However, if we strive instead to encourage a healthy and diverse insect population, the insects will mediate one another, and the garden as a whole will benefit. Many plants attract or repel some sort of insect, which means you can choose which insects to encourage or discourage in your garden. Insectary plants could be plants that attract beneficial insects, plants that repel harmful insects, and/or plants that attract pollinators.
Opportunities to obtain a yield at every stage during the life cycle of a plant. Artwork by Marit Parker.

Layers in Space​

  • Tall Trees. Tall trees are the slowest growing and longest living layer, with some species living up to five thousand years. Be sure to plan for their size at maturity; grow herbs and vegetables in the space the trees will later fill. Tall trees provide wildlife habitat, lumber, erosion control, food, medicine, firewood, and windbreaks and create the essential canopy that helps shade and mulch the forest/garden floor.
  • Small Trees. Here we find many of our large fruits, some of the nuts, and plants that supply countless other products, such as shade, mulch materials, wood, and wildlife habitat. Small tree crops are the heartbeat of permanent agriculture, and every garden should have at least one, if not several. Most small trees take several years to fruit but will usually outlive the gardener who planted them, providing food for many generations to come. 
  • Herbs and Vegetables. Many plants in this layer need partial to full sun, so design plenty of sunny edges around the garden to accommodate them. Most herbs are perennial and can live twenty years or more, but most veggies are annual or biennial, taking up space in the garden for only a short time. This makes them an excellent choice for planting next to perennial plants that are still young and small. The annuals will shade the ground and provide food for you but will die by the time the perennial needs the elbow room.
  • Shrubs. Trees and shrubs require less maintenance than annual vegetables, and some can produce hundreds of pounds of food each year, with almost no labor once they get established. Most will benefit from regular mulching and pruning. Many of the fiber plants fall into this category, as do most small fruits and berries. Establish shrubs when the trees are still young, because many of them need sun to get established. Once established, most shrubs will be relatively drought and shade tolerant and will help filter the wind through the low parts of the garden. This is important because though trees provide an excellent windbreak, if there are no shrubs, then the open space creates a cold wind tunnel, which can be rough on tender herbs and vegetables. (Again, see this mini-class about hedgerows–it’s an important, stand-alone topic within this study.)
  • Vines. Vines add a jungle-like feel to the garden and help maximize vertical space, which is especially good for cramped urban settings. The long stems can be used for basketry. If left un-trellised, some vines will make a good ground cover. Or use the trellis to create a microclimate by placing it to reflect sun, block wind, or both. You can prune back vines every year or let them climb wild, toward the sun. Most vines are shade-tolerant but will flower and fruit toward the top, where they can reach the light. Vine brambles make great habitat for spiders and other beneficial insects. Many nitrogen-fixing legumes are climbers, which makes them good choices for the vine layer.
  • Ground Covers. Ground covers provide a living mulch over soil that, if exposed, would dry out or cover itself with weeds. It is good to get ground covers established when the taller plants are still young and the sunlight still reaches the ground. Once established, most ground covers will spread readily and can be extended to other areas of the garden. It is quite possible, and highly recommended, to establish a semi-permanent ground cover over most of the perennial garden. 
  • Roots. All plants exist in the root layer, but some are grown primarily for their fleshy, edible roots and tubers. Some have shallow roots, while others penetrate twenty feet or more into the soil. As a general rule, assume there is at least as much growth below the soil as you can see above ground. Try to space your plantings so that roots don’t compete for elbow room but instead stack together as they grow down like the layers of branches and foliage above. 
  • Water Plants. If you have water features, you’ll need water plants to cleanse and aerate the water and provide shade, food, and habitat for fish, waterfowl, and humans. Water plantings could even occupy seven MORE layers, under the surface!

Layers in Time

Sure, summer is the peak season for most gardeners, but in many climates you can have food and flowers year-round, and you can also design plantings to succeed each other, over the many years to come. Use niches in time, combined with niches in space and function, to deepen and diversify the productivity of your garden.

Tips for using the time layer:

  • Choose plants that you’ll harvest at many different times of the year. For example, most nut and fruit trees yield in the autumn, when summer vegetables have finished, and brassicas (broccoli, kale, and their like) and salad greens grow well in the off-season, when deciduous leaves have fallen and summer shade gives way to cool winter sun.
  • Plant annual flowers and veggies in the spaces between young trees and perennials.
  • “Undersow” cover crops into the soil between almost-finished existing crops, to avoid that period of bare soil (and lost time) between plantings. 
  • Include plants that will perpetuate themselves by either dropping seeds in the garden or spreading underground, and include their future offspring in your long-term vision. 
  • Extend the growing season for tender vegetables by using greenhouses and cold frames to protect plants from frost. We’ll get more into this in the season extension module (next!)

P.S. Diverse doesn’t mean crowded!!

Always be sure to give each plant plenty of room to grow. Clotted areas provide the moist, sticky conditions many harmful pests need to thrive, and when plants are too crowded they compete for nutrients, which weakens them and makes them vulnerable to insects and disease. So water, weed, mulch, and prune when necessary. The most common mistake gardeners make is planting things too close together— remember how big the plants will be at maturity, and make sure they have the space they need.

Here’s an article, with a few specific examples of garden guilds that have been successful for me.

​Types of garden beds and when to use them

There are all sorts of different designs for garden beds. Some are designed to suit particular climates and geographies, and it’s important to know when and where to use these, and when not to.

A note about keyhole beds:

Most eco-gardeners you run into will tell you they are familiar with and regularly use “keyhole beds,” which are an excellent way to maximize bed space and minimize paths when ground is limited. What you won’t hear as often is that the original idea and design for keyhole beds comes from Lesotho, in Africa, and is quite different from the way they are usually seen. In Lesotho, the keyhole beds are raised much higher, and the hole in the middle is a compost heap, rather than an access path. The compost pile is watered, rather than the bed itself, and often has a roof.

In the diagram below, the keyhole bed drawing is based on a hybrid of the African version and the “permie” version: the hole in the middle is an access path and the compost pile is build right in the bed. You shouldn’t feel obliged to copy indigenous techniques exactly as they were designed—innovate according to the needs of your site–but please do try to acknowledge the sources of your methods, wherever you can, in part to honor those peoples, but also so that those who learn from you can also learn where to go for the lineage of information.

​Plant origins: where do popular vegetable plants come from?

This section by Marit Parker

What’s your favourite meal? Mapping a meal to find out what conditions the different fruits, vegetables and herbs prefer can be quite an eye-opener.

For example, one of my favourite meals is leek and potato soup. It’s one of the national dishes of Wales and leeks are our national vegetable. Leeks and potatoes grow well here, along with the third ingredient, onions.

But are they Welsh vegetables? Nope.

In fact, leeks are originally from the Middle East, onions are from Asia, and potatoes of course are from the Andes.​

I dove deep, did a bunch of research, and made this map for you. Use it to learn where your favorite foods come from, and to learn what foods come from where you live:

Where do your favourite foods come from? Graphic by Marit Parker

Can I grow this here?

This is probably one of the most common questions in gardening forums! The first thing is to find out more about the plant, and about your garden. If your garden provides similar conditions to what the plant needs, then it will probably grow happily in your plot.

If not, then it becomes a “special needs” plant (see below), that will consume more resources for less yield. The question then is can you and do you want to cater to these? Making sure plants are in the right place means they are more likely to look after themselves and not need a lot of nurturing. Thinking ahead when designing can save a lot of time, work, and headache later.

​Equality begins in the garden: another perspective on weeds, exotics, and invasives.

This section by Heather Jo Flores

If you’ve done any gardening at all, you’ve encountered weeds. Whether you pull the weeds and compost them, mulch over them, or both, removing the competition so your selected plants can thrive is a huge part of agriculture, and needn’t be a struggle. However, some plants grow a little faster, and can earn labels like “invasive.”

Weeds, “invasive” plants, and exotics that are struggling to survive in a climate they haven’t evolved to endure all have something in common: they’re growing in a place that is inappropriate for what that plant needs in order to thrive in easy harmony with the plants around.

Special needs plants.

Identifying the potential “special needs” of certain plants, whether already onsite or on their wish-list, means designers can more adeptly decide where to place those plants, or whether to bring them onsite at all.This approach sidesteps the “invasive” argument altogether and simply assesses whether or not the gardener is willing to take responsibility for the needs of the plants she brings into her garden.​

What is a special needs plant?

  • Plants that need to be weeded, pruned, and monitored so they don’t “invade.”
  • Plants that need a ton of water and/or nutrients.
  • Plants that are extra tender and not suited for natural climate where garden lives, and thus need special microclimates to thrive.
  • Plants that are poisonous or psychedelic and need to be kept away from kids and creatures.
  • And more….​

There are 11 categories of special needs plants in this illustration, and some plants will fit into several at once. The more plants you have that could be called “special needs” plants, the more maintenance your gardens will require. Also, for each type of special need, you will need to learn special skills such as providing extra water and nutrients, protecting from extreme temperatures, hand-pollinating for fruit production, learning how to create and make best use of microclimates, and more. And, while these pursuits are often part of an ecological gardener’s life in general, and can surely be super fun and fascinating, it’s essential you consider these details while developing your whole-system design.

​Creating your plant list

It’s time to create your plant list! You’ll need to do lots of observing and, in some cases, asking around.

You should probably go on some site visits, too. This is all part of the design process.

Use this list of questions to help you:

  • What’s growing there now?
  • What grows there in other seasons, and in other gardens nearby?
  • What could grow there, with some small changes to the soil, water system, microclimates? 
  • What do you already eat, and can you grow that? 
  • What do you want to eat less of, and can you grow something to replace it? 
  • What special needs plants are you willing to care for?

Once you’ve got at least a draft of your plant list, use this chart to help you work out your guilds. 

The chart here is an example from one of my own gardens; the functions are listed down one side, the layers in space listed across the top, and my plant list occurs at the intersections.

Check out the example and then download the blank PDF version to try for yourself. The chart can help you see which niches of plants you might be missing as well, so don’t wait until you’ve got your “perfect” plant list to try it!

​Plant Propagation: how to get plants for free

This section by Kelda Lorax

Plant propagation falls into two categories, sexual and asexual reproduction.

Sexual reproduction is about seeds, pollen/flowers, swapping of genetic material and inviting in slight variations and newness. Some plants are wildly “untrue to seed” because parent material was a crafted hybrid. Some plants are very tidily true to seed, in form and taste very much like their parents. Those are the ones that easier to save seed from. In general, plants from seeds, and plants which create seeds, are more ecologically resilient because they’re quicker to adapt.

Pros: quickly adapts to your site, easy to store & share, culturally important to be part of the genetic diversity maintenance & process.

Cons: can cross into duds, observation needed when flowering (so no interference), new plants will need more time.

Asexual reproduction might not sound as exciting as flower sex, but hey, it really helps grow a lot of exact plants fast. In most situations that is just fine. If you have a whole food forest understory to populate, than having pots of mint, yarrow, strawberries, oregano, thyme, bee balm, chives, etc, all propagated through asexual means is what can do the job fast (and fragrantly and deliciously)! Think about all the time it would take to start and baby tiny mint plants that are who-knows-what smell and taste? Asexual reproduction wins.

These techniques are all variation on cutting a plant apart to start new ones. You can divide, literally with a serrated kitchen knife, replant runners (like strawberries), or encourage other plants to have stems make roots (through “layering”). You can cut parts of the plant to make “cuttings” or “clones” that root on their own, or with some plants “live stake” cuttings straight into the ground. Many plants take better to one technique than another, and if you’re unsure ask google “what’s the easiest way to propagate ____?”.

Pros: faster, exact flavor and type, bigger plants.

Cons: needy to get rooted, pots/potting soil infrastructure needed, not as resilient ecologically.

Grafting is a method of combining two plants in order to get the plant we want. This is usually done with fruit trees because growing fruit trees from seed won’t result in the same variety. A twig or scion from the parent fruit tree is grafted onto a rootstock. The rootstock needs to come from a tree in the same family. There is often a choice of rootstocks; different ones result in larger or smaller trees. The scion and rootstock are carefully cut so that the cambium (green growing layer) of both fits together. A graft is successful when the scion and rootstock have fused and become one plant.

Pros: great fruit, great structure, can plan for diversity of sizes (from dwarf to standard).

Cons: weaker plants, may not live as long, more expensive.

​A bit more about learning to garden in your local area:

You’ll have a hard time avoiding the need to research and seek out garden advice specific to where you live. It’s fun! Hop on the Googles, join a local garden club, and if at all possible, find a local mentor. Find several. Place yourself in service of the older and more knowledgeable gardeners around you, and also in service to the plants themselves. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes but don’t keep making the same mistakes again and again. Help them, ask them questions, work hard, and listen. You will learn more about the plants that way, and by making plant work a part of your daily practice, than from any book or course.

There is no better substitute for connecting with knowledgeable people who are familiar with your local climate and terrain, but a second-best option would be to research gardening tips specific the type of climate you’re working in.

  • Here are a few resources we recommend, from members of our PWG faculty:
  • Kareen Erbe lives in Montana and teaches cold climate gardening among other things.
  • Maddy Harland’s channel has a TON of excellent videos. The series about how to make a temperate food forest starts here.
  • Sarah Wu has a BUNCH of excellent videos all from her tropical food forest in Costa Rica. This one is about chinampas!​

Also, this is not from our faculty, but it’s a solid resource on dryland agriculture, so if you’re in the desert, check it out.

Tips for Permaculture Gardeners


Questions for Review

  1. What will you grow? Why?
  2. Which types of gardens are appropriate for your site? Which are not?
  3. How will you take care of “special needs” plants? 
  4. What kinds of beds will you use, in the varied microclimates on your site, and why? 
  5. How will you learn more about gardening locally?

Recommended Hands-On

  • Go for a walk in a nearby forest and observe. Can you find layers in space, time, function?
  • Take that preliminary plant list you made during the module, and begin the process of finding sources for everything you want to grow.
  • Develop the garden layers of your design project. Create a multiphase plant list that shows which functional, spatial, and successional layers each plant will occupy.
  • Identify places, both on your site and in the extended community in which you live, to grow plants for the sole purpose of healing the Earth.
  • Create at least 3 phases of garden layers for your design: 1 year, 3 years, 5 years. Use the chart above to design your polycultures.
  • Set up your propagation station and nursery zone.
  • Never, ever stop making plants a big part of your daily life!