Conventional agricultural practice prescribes the cultivation of plants for a single purpose; a plant is either edible, like corn, ornamental, like roses, or it’s a weed. In a permaculture system, on the other hand, plants can and must serve multiple functions. For example, white clover, considered a weed by most conventional growers, is embraced by permaculturalists for its multifunctionality; not only does it serve as a groundcover to prevent the spread of other weeds, but it also fixes nitrogen (making the nutrient available to other plants) and has many medicinal properties.
Plants may also be used in place of pesticides, fertilizers, and other synthetic additives. Certain plants, such as marigolds or chives, can repel or confuse pests, while other plants, like anise hyssop, attract beneficial insects to the garden. Some plants, called dynamic accumulators, build nutrients in the soil. Other plants serve structural purposes, as when beans are planted with corn and allowed to climb the stalks. Thus, one plant such as chicory can attract beneficial insects, enrich the soil by accumulating nutrients and fixing nitrogen, and break up compacted soil with its roots—plus, it’s beautiful and edible, too!
At our Berkshire garden site, the remediation properties of plants will prove important during the first few years. The soils on site are nutrient-poor and extremely compacted, while the water cycle has been disrupted to the point that water runs over the surface instead of infiltrating into the soil. But rather than tilling the soil and adding fertilizer to prepare the soil for planting, or sending excess water down the storm drain, we as permaculturalists prefer to remediate the land the natural way. We can use the regenerative properties of plants to enrich and decompact the soil, infiltrate water, prevent erosion, and heal the land. Plants with deep tap roots can forge the way through compacted soil, while dynamic accumulators like comfrey can collect nutrients deep in the soil and bring them to the surface. More aeration in the soil means better infiltration of water, as well as less runoff and less erosion, and hydrophilic plants can help by drinking up excess water. The vision we have for this garden is one of a system healing itself the way nature intended—with the regenerative power of plants!