Nothing is random in nature, and in a Permaculture design, the choice of elements should also be meaningful. In designing a system, an analysis of how individual elements work is essential but the relationship between these items is just as important. Modern life is typically characterized by segregation – everyone is separated along religious, political, and economic lines.
People's work lives tend to be kept very separate from their home lives. The young and old are estranged from one another. However, where there is cultural diversity, communities grow in surprising ways.
Like plants, people thrive best in supportive environments where they are fulfilling their purpose but also contributing to the greater whole. Attaining self-sufficiency is made easier by connecting with like-minded people to exchange ideas and share yields.
Each function of importance is supported by a diversity of elements, and you can design into systems resilience by having back-ups. An old survivalist saying is “one is none and two is one. If any one source fails, others will provide. This reduces the chance of malfunctions and breakdowns in each system.
Each element offers a diversity of functions, instead of one and done or one-off elements in a system it is necessary to maximize the use of all the distinct functions and yields of a given element.
Diversify Your Systems
For example, a rainwater harvesting system provides not only irrigation water but with proper filtration the water can be used for human consumption as well. The catchment area (roof) can also host solar panels to provide power for the structure. The downspouts and piping runs can be designed in such a way that they support vine plants like grapes or kiwi. The holding pond where the rainwater is initially stored becomes a rich beautiful bio-diverse addition to your garden. The vines can create shade and attract garden-friendly insects and birds. The knowledge of a reservoir of water on site for emergencies can manifest peace of mind.
Image courtesy of Michael Osterloh
Relative location is important to create solid links between various parts of a system, placement must ensure that this is accomplished as easily as possible. Examples include an herb spiral right outside the door, the tallest elements of a garden planted on the north side of the property to prevent overshading, or a well-designed kitchen with all the gear and ingredients you need within easy reach.
You are likely familiar with segregation; history is chalked full of examples. Although it’s not necessary to look backward to see examples of segregation looking back does however give us a perspective of its effects of it. Take for example the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. The enforcement of the ruling was bravely tested by nine black students at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in September 1957. From day one the students were met with vitriolic hatred and acts of violence from the white students and protesters. The National Guard was put in place to ensure safety, but things escalated so quickly that in just a matter of days President Dwight D. Eisenhower called in the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division to manage the Guardsmen and assist the students. Both remained at the high school for the year.
Unfortunately, the nine students were routinely harassed and were the recipients of repeated acts of horrendous violence. Other repercussions included one of the students being expelled for fighting back against the violence and another’s mother being fired from her job with the state for not removing her daughter from the school. Additionally, all nine were barred from participating in any extracurricular activities. Only one of the students managed to officially graduate making him the first black to do so from Central High. The other eight finished their high school careers via correspondence courses, at other high schools, or in the military.
In September of 1958, the governor closed the school pending a public vote on whether to keep the school intergraded or close all the city's high schools. Little Rock citizens voted in a crushing victory in favor of segregation and the schools were closed for an entire year and reopened in August of 1959.
The Little Rock Nine as they were to be called, went on to have productive lives and even in such distinguished careers as assistant secretary of the federal Department of Labor, deputy assistant secretary for workforce diversity in the Department of the Interior, and a reporter for NBC. In 1999 the group was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and all nine received personal invitations to attend President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009.
What a tremendous story, right? Can you imagine segregated schools as the norm today? The suffering these courageous people went through had an enormous ripple effect through the U.S. school system ultimately leading to the enforcement of desegregation across the entire nation. The U.S. school system is far from perfect, but most administrators, parents, and students now understand that strength comes from diversity. Schools are encouraged to cultivate diversity which leads to greater understanding and acceptance of other cultures.
Isolation Has Serious Drawbacks
It simply doesn’t work going in the other direction. Keeping people isolated from each other makes them suspect other groups that are not like them. On a larger scale, isolationism has yet to be a long-term form of governing that many countries have abandoned including Japan, South Korea, and China. If you’re unfamiliar with what isolationism is, it’s a form of government whose leaders asserted that their nations' best interests are best served by keeping the affairs of other countries at a distance. It’s not surprising that when a country shuts itself off from the rest of the world it suffers economic shrinkage and the arresting of its cross-cultural development. North Korea is a real-time, real-world example of the failings of isolation.
No matter how you cut it up segregation fails to produce positive results. We can see another example of the regressive effects of segregation within cultures themselves. Think about societies that don’t allow their women to fully participate in the creation of their culture. Those societies are missing out on 50% of the brain power they could be tapping into to solve challenging problems or the creation of life-changing innovations.
Plant guilds are an excellent example of integration. A well-known example of it is the planting of The Three Sisters (corn, beans, squash), traditionally practiced by Native Americans. The height of the corn plants provides support for beans which are climbers. The squash shades the ground around the other plants and prevents the growth of weeds. Each has a purpose and a yield of its own but also serves a supportive function for its “companions.”
Most experienced practitioners of permaculture are familiar with The Three Sisters guild so I want to provide other planting combinations that I have tried, or that I know others who have had success with. However, as with so many things with permaculture, embrace experimentation. Don’t be afraid to try stuff to see what works best for you in your region and zone.
First, let’s consider what desirable constituents we want to look for in a plant that will make it a good guild member candidate.
Root Profile: Roots that look for nutrients at various levels
Stem & Leaves: Stems and leaves that have dissimilar growth behaviors
Soil Builders: Plants that drop debris thus providing in-place composing.
Nutrient Accumulators/Nitrogen Fixers: Plants that can collect nutrients and nitrogen through various biological functions and distribute them to surrounding plants.
Pest Repellent: Plants that fight fungal diseases and insect attacks
Attracts Beneficial Insects: Insectary plants attract a large variety of insects that promote garden balance
I have had people request me to just recommend a “simple” guild that will work but I have found it difficult to recommend a grouping that has worked for me but that may not work for someone else. What I find more effective is to steer someone towards Principle #1, Observe and Interact which creates questions such as:
What is your main objective in planting a guild? (Build soil, attract beneficial insects, etc.)
Which plants do you like? Try to select plants that you like and would use.
What climate are they going to be grown in? Know your zone and how a species does in your climate.
Where on-site are you going to plant them? Location is important, consider the surrounding guilds' planting area.
What is the location’s soil like? Does any soil prep need to be done to help optimize each plant starts?
Only after you have obtained answers to these questions can you ascertain which combination of plants is the right one for the guild you want to build. I live in the Pacific Northwest of North America so the listing of plants I provide all grow well here. I highly recommend doing a little research for plants that grow well in your area and visiting a reputable garden center to discuss what you’re trying to do.
The following list of guild plants is in no way exhaustive but are plants that I have tried or know someone personally who has had success with them.
STEMS & LEAVES
ATTRACTS BENEFICIAL INSECTS
Queen Anne's Lace
Success with guilds takes a little experimentation buts it’s fun and educational. I recommend trying out different combinations and making observations as to how each plant does within a given guild. You can’t fail you will just learn what combinations don’t work for you and which ones thrive.
Why does integration work? Because of diversity!
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