When I first began practicing permaculture, I was inspired by my teacher, Keith Johnson, and his love of and connection to plants. He made it seem very easy to create beautiful, artistic gardens which provided massive amounts of food and beauty. While I had grown up gardening and foraging—even helping to plant and tend 200 trees and shrubs on our two acres my senior year of high-school: I still didn’t think I was very good with plants. In fact, I killed most house plants, and every year my community garden bed was a tangle of weeds by August. I didn’t know any Latin names, and if asked about pest solutions, I would have drawn a panicked blank.
Despite my lack of confidence with plants, just working the systems of permaculture design changed almost all of the above (house plants are still a challenge with two active cats in play). Moving the garden close to home, thinking about guilds and niche relationships and building soil really helped me to see success in the garden. Using the plants I was growing for basic herbalism and seed saving or propagation helped me over the past ten years to be more interested in (and therefore more successful) in learning Latin names. I’m better today than I was a dozen years ago, and there’s still so much to learn.
When homeschooling my daughter, we went through fifth grade botany together. Learning the story of the development of plants on the Earth helped me to appreciate the big picture. Plants provide such service and diversity in support of life on the planet. Their capacity to mediate soil and atmosphere; regulate water cycles; and partner with fungi and bacteria drive life on the planet. Our civilization has desperately challenged their capacity to do that work effectively.
In the same curriculum, I discovered a beautiful book, New Eyes for Plants.The book helped me to see the tiny details I’d missed to that point. Tiny details in flowering and the flow of nutrient through the plant make all the difference in its shape, color, and nutrient-holding capacities. Learning the parts of plants and how to recognize the identifying characteristics became a game or puzzle. Plants are AMAZING! That year only reinforced for me the power of appreciation and the need to work with plants by using them well. It reinforced for me that the way forward for humanity is to embrace the paradigm shift from a mechanical/industrial mindset to a post-industrial/post-modern world that embraces the biological foundations of life. *
Learning plants becomes a beautiful duty to ourselves. Do you eat habanero peppers? Try growing them in really good soil that you made from kitchen compost. Challenged to compost in an urban environment? Learn to build a bomb-proof composting system. (Maybe bokashi?) This kind of system development will help you to re-skill and take control of the means of production in your life. Along the way, you’ll find plant allies that can really give you a boost.
I grew up gardening the typical Indiana summer diet: corn, green beans, tomatoes (I didn’t hear of a roma until I was an adult), potatoes, peas, cucumbers, and small fruits (raspberries, blueberries, and grapes on trellis). If we were feeling adventurous we would try a small amount of something else. I can remember black eyed peas, cotton, cauliflower and broccoli, cabbages—only green—carrots and radishes if we got the garden out early enough in the spring.
In my garden now, there is horseradish, lamb’s quarters, kale, ground cherries, garlic (just partially harvested), onions, carrots, asparagus, and on and on and on. This has been a busy year for travel and so much of the spring and summer garden are either perennials or self-seeding volunteers this year. Fall crops are germinating, but even with very little input, there have been harvests to gather. That’s one way to work with a permaculture system.
By learning which plants grow or self-seed and by maintaining a seed bank, I can benefit from plants doing what they do best. I had to learn which ones will work in my area. And how to put plants into relationship with each other so that they can provide fertility and pest support to each other. I learned to give some consideration to how the light reaches the taller ones (at the back) and how the spreading vines cover the ground to shade and cool the roots of all of the other plants.
From year to year the mix changes. I have a lot of purple coneflower this year. After the flowering and seeding time, I’ll pull some of it to tincture for immune support. Next year, the spaces left open will be filled with something else.
Food is a high priority in my garden, but fiber and craft materials and fuel-wood for occasional fires are all important yields from a system. I’ve prioritized nettles because I have the space for them and they provide food, medicine, and fiber for our home—as well as enriching compost piles for greater fertility. Not everyone is (or perhaps should be) so tolerant of such a prickly companion. Hazelnuts are another prize for both the nuts (and bluejays and squirrels are ferocious competitors for them), but also for craft wood to build wattle fences and other craft wood.
Whether you are in a suburban garden like me, or an urban or rural landscape, we have a great deal of regenerative work to do with plants. We are moving toward a biological world—as seen in the growth of sustainable agriculture and small farms and the growth of gardening. If you live in the city, your window-sill, your deck, your roof, your sidewalk and hell strip, your corner pocket park are all places to begin working with plants to cool and beautify your landscape. Re-imagining the landscape with small farms everywhere and supporting people with real food are the next step in weaving a more resilient, more just world in support of all life. Will you join me?
* If we take the interpretation that much of the modern project of science and civilization has been the distancing from the biological world because of the horrors of the Black Plague in Europe which moved us toward scientific reductionism and fractured the Christian religion into a hundred splinters, then there are further thoughts to explore here. Embracing a biological view which reintegrates humanity with that natural (read “living”) world means also healing the ancestral trauma and civilizational scarring of that time in the 13th century. The need to “torture nature for her secrets” (and also people ?) can come to an end. We can move forward—not by controlling nature (ala genetic manipulation)—but by caring for it and living within the natural limits fostered by a healthy biological world. If we don’t draw the conclusions in the biggest frame of the story, we will fail to make the right choices.