This Article was recently submitted to the Devon Association of Smallholders for consideration for their monthly Update Magazine:
One of the principles that is key to putting together a robust permaculture design, especially for a garden or smallholding is ‘every element has multiple uses’. As I use a permaculture approach to continue developing Arcady, my smallholding on the edge of Dartmoor, I look to include more ‘star’ plants: plants that perform many useful functions, fitting in with and enhancing existing parts of the holding. In the last DASH Update I wrote about my use of willow as a drought-insurance fodder crop – here are a few more of my current permaculture ‘performance plants’, and some that I am looking to include from this year.
This is arguably the star performer: not only is it a productive source of high-protein (leaf) fodder for my sheep, cattle, chickens and pigs – it is also good for the fruit and vegetables: as a ‘dynamic accumulator’ it sends down a long tap-root to mine minerals (especially potassium) that might not otherwise be available. The leaves can be used as a mulch – especially around fruit trees and bushes that benefit from the potassium when developing fruit. It can also be used to make a compost tea or, as I do, a concentrated plant food that is particularly good for the tomatoes. If you put it on the compost heap it acts as a ‘compost accelerator’. It is also a bee attractant, and so helpful for tempting in the pollinators. If this is not enough, it has traditionally been used for healing – hence it’s alternative name of ‘knitbone’. What more do you want from a plant! Bocking 14 strain does not set viable seed and so will stay where you grow it.
I have used this as my main windbreak species – it is robust, fast-growing, an ideal form for an effective single-line windbreak (narrow conical) and also fixes nitrogen in the soil. I am experimenting with inter-planting these between apple trees in my orchard, and also around my soft fruit area. I will mange them in such a way that they might provide nitrogen to the fruit crops while not shading them unduly.
Really! We are partial to including these in a tray of mixed roasted vegetables and have not been troubled by their reputation for ‘digestibility issues’ – there are ways of treating them in any case if you are pre-disposed from suffering wind! The pigs have enjoyed them, and having discovered that their abundant green leafy stalks are a suitable fodder/forage for ruminants I will be planting them in my experimental fodder/forage polyculture paddocks. Alternatively, the stalks provide a good biomass for the compost heap. As they grow tall relatively quickly, they may be used to provide shelter for other crops. Remove them all if you don’t want a perennial bed of them as they will re-grow from any tubers left in the ground.
I have already planted several black mulberry in my ‘chicken scavenge paddock’ – as well as providing shade and shelter for the chooks as they grow, any tasty fruit that we do not harvest will be converted to eggs – the fruit do not ripen all at once so should provide chook-food over an extended time. The leaves, as well as being edible by humans (if treated properly) can reportedly be fed as 60% of a ruminant’s diet and it is claimed they will help increase a cow’s milk yield. I will be growing some white mulberry from seed this year to test its potential as leaf fodder – I will probably be coppicing it eventually for optimum leaf production.
The young tips of these are harvested as a ‘super-food’ – we use them as a nutritious alternative to spinach in a nettle and chickpea curry. We will be trying nettle beer or wine this year – I am not sure which yet. As another ‘dynamic accumulator’ – high in nitrogen – they can also be used along with/instead of comfrey when making compost teas or plant feed. The stalks can be used to make a hemp-like fibre (good if you are running a forest school) and there are a range of medicinal uses – there is evidence that preparations from the roots are of use for men suffering from prostrate problems. There is an art to picking nettles without gloves – but use some protection while you develop the technique.
Others Permaculture Plants
This year I am cultivating for trial a number of other plants that are especially valued in forest-garden/agroforestry set-ups (examples of permaculture approaches). These include: Tree Lucerne/Tagasastes (Cytisus proliferus) a high-yielding fodder crop, bee fodder, nitrogen fixer – as a fast-growing perennial evergreen it could also be used as a windbreak/shelter crop; Autumn Olive (Eleagnus umbellata) – as well as fixing nitrogen in the soil, the fruits can contain up to 17 times more lycopene than raw tomatoes – that’s a nutrient credited with many health benefits – the bushes can provide chicken-shelter and (it is claimed!) they eat the fruit enthusiastically; Siberian Pea Tree (Caragana aborescens) another nitrogen-fixing bee-fodder windbreak shrub that contributes food for humans and chickens. They may not all thrive on my land – but I won’t find out until I try them.