By Steve Gabriel
In permaculture, the aim is to design gardens and farms for two things — the provision of human needs and the improvement of ecosystem health. When looking at any individual plant, animal, or structure, permaculturists consider first and foremost how it relates to the bigger picture.
Often I am asked, by those enthusiastic to the ideas of permaculture, "Where to begin?" My answer is always the same: take a class, and pick just a few things that excite you. Plant these the first season and observe, learning their habits and life cycle. Then add some more each new year.
Listed below, in preparation for the upcoming growing season, are a few of the many amazing multipurpose plants that should have a home in every garden. All of these plants are perennials — meaning you plant them once and they return year after year. They're easy to grow and propagate. Finally, they all offer benefits to human health as well as to the ecosystem they inhabit.
Many of our landscapes are depleted of nutrients and lack healthy soil communities. This can be addressed with the following plants, which can be cut and used as a living mulch, or soaked in water and applied as a nutrient tea to the garden.
Comfrey (Symphytum uplandicum): The hybrid variety, sometimes called Russian Comfrey, is recommended for its sterile seed, which keeps it from getting away from you. This plant accumulates minerals K, P, Ca, Cu, Fe, Mg and makes a great living mulch.
Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica): This is arguably the most nutritious green that can be grown in this climate. Harvest with gloves. The sting can be removed by steaming. Low-sting varieties are also available. Nettle has prolific, spreading rhizomatous roots. Eat it to control it!
Sorrell (Rumex acetosa): Prized for its great lemony edible leaves, this green accumulates K, P, Ca, Fe, and Na. The "Profusion" variety never flowers. Sorrell, too, makes excellent living mulch.
These plants provide nutritious vegetables year after year, with little or no maintenance required.
Good King Henry (Chenopodium bonus-henricus): A relative of spinach, this was a common sight in victory gardens in the UK during WWII. Young leaves are eaten raw, while older ones are cooked like spinach.
Groundnut (Apios americana): This is a native vining plant that provides a nutty, edible tuber and also fixes nitrogen into the soil. A traditional food crop of Native Americans in the Northeast, groundnut is easy to grow.
Sunchoke (Helianthus tuberosus): An extremely adaptable relative of the sunflower, sunchoke (aka, Jerusalem artichoke) can grow up to 12 feet tall and produces pounds and pounds of edible tubers that have a nutty and slightly sweet flavor.
In addition to the common fruits you're already familiar with, consider introducing these to your backyard.
Pawpaw (Asimina triloba): This fruiting tree is native to the region and produces in partial shade. Ithacans will appreciate that it is also completely deer resistant. By the third year, pawpaw will produce large fruits.
Honeyberry (Lonicera kamchatika): This easy-to-grow shrub yields highly nutritious berries, offering early summer fruit right around strawberry time.
Seaberry (Hippophae rhamnoides): A fast-growing shrub that's tolerant of poor soils, the seaberry (aka, sea buckthorn) is also a great nitrogen fixer. In late summer, enjoy its prolific fruiting of orange berries that are very high in nutrients and antioxidants.
Fungi play a critical role in decomposing organic matter and building soil health. They're incredibly tasty and nutritious too!
Shiitake (Lentinus edodes): Grown on oak, sugar maple, and beech logs, these mushrooms are high in protein, iron, and amino acids. Once inoculated, logs fruit for four years. They can be soaked to force harvesting.
Stropharia (Stropharia rugoso-annulata): This is a great mushroom for the garden, as it can easily be grown in straw or woodchip mulch. Once established, it fruits prolifically after heavy rains.
In permaculture systems, it is often said that "we don't plant plants, we plant ecosystems." This mimics the patterns found in natural systems: one never sees a fruit tree growing alone in an open field or a single plant occupying a space on its own. The idea of polycultures is to mix and match plants, mushrooms and animals to form beneficial connections and produce multiple yields from a single space.
There are many local opportunities to learn more about permaculture practices. I will discuss and demonstrate mushroom cultivation in a class called Mushrooms and Agroforestry on Wednesday, June 20, at 7 pm at GreenStar (for more details, see the class calendar on page 6). The Finger Lakes Permaculture Institute (FLPCI) holds programs throughout the year. On June 23, in Montour Falls, FLPCI hosts Jonathan Bates, owner of the permaculture nursery Food Forest Farm, for a talk and hands-on workshop on planting edible polycultures. July 27 – August 12, FLPCI hosts its tenth Permaculture Design Certification course, a two-week intensive training in the basics of permaculture through hands-on learning. This fall, over six Saturdays, in Norwich, NY, a program will introduce students to the design process and help them plan their sustainable landscape. More information on these programs can be found at www.FingerLakesPermaculture.org.
Steve Gabriel is an educator and forest farmer living in Mecklenburg, NY. He works part-time for Cornell Garden-Based Learning, teaches with FLPCI, and sells mushrooms and forest products through www.agroforestrysolutions.com. Contact him at
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