Permaculture – Indicators and Function

In my Permaculture Design Course (PDC,) my mentor (Geoff Lawton) mentioned that if you take a patch of ground, and you mark it into quarters, then damage each quarter a different way, you get different seeds that germinate based on the needs of that damaged ground.  These pioneer “weeds” are what pop up to repair the damage.  That is their “function.”  In his example, he said in the quarter that we burn, plants like bracken fern would pop up.  These are pot ash (potassium) accumulators that thrive in low potassium environments, and gather it from deep in the soil.  When they die, they provide that potassium back to the soil for other plants to use in succession.

The “over-cropped” patch would have legumes pop up.  Plants like peas, beans, lupines, and vetch produce nodules that interact with soil bacteria, and provide nitrogen to the soil.  When animals come along and graze on these, those nodule fall off inside the soil for a burst of nitrogen that also invigorates the plants around that legume.

The “loose” soil patch would have plants that have a hair root system spring up to help hold the soil in place, stabilize it, and rejuvenate it over time.  These plants prevent erosion from wind and rain.

Finally, the one I wanted  to talk about today, is soil compaction.  When soil is heavily compacted, and possibly clay heavy, it makes things difficult for most plants to take up residence.  The water hits this compaction and runs off as a hard surface, and roots struggle to gain a foot hold.  Plants that pop up here are things like dandelions, wild carrots, and other deep tap root plants.  These plants help break up the compaction, and when they die, it creates carbon pathways for soil life to get in and interact with other plants that come along in succession.

The reason I wanted to talk about indicators today is I wanted to share an example of how true this theme holds.  A couple of years ago, we tore down a small shed in our back yard that we deemed hazardous since it had severe roof damage, and was not worth the cost of repair.  The ground under this shed was heavily compacted, clay like material.  We went ahead and tried to aerate it a bit before we planted some hazelnut shrubs in the location.

Today, I went to check on my hazels, and the area is lush with plants.  It’s the most lush area of the yard, probably because we did add a large layer of organic compost to the spot before planting the hazels.  This year, about fifty percent of the space is taken up by wild carrots.  The soil is too compacted there, and I am ecstatic to find these “weeds” in my grow space.  They will help break up that clay heavy compaction, aerate the soil, and given the lushness of the other plants that have found a foot hold, the ground will maintain a good level of moistness through the summer months, because it is a thick mat of natural ground covers in with those wild carrots.

The hazels all have healthy buds, by the way.  That was the purpose of checking on them, so I thought I should share since people might want to know.

Knowing the indicators that plants provide helps determine what is going on with a patch of soil, without having to try to dig there first.  Learn the indicators, and you can see at a glance what’s going on with your property.

I’ll be sharing some of these indicators over time.  Until next time…

Thanks for reading!

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