Strategies for developing a (Mediterranean climate) Permaculture Plant Palette — Part I
Most often the starting point for developing a set of plants for a permaculture will be to look at lists of useful and edible plants in regional permaculture or related books. Sometimes, however, there are few or no such lists available. Or, like me, you may have a perverse inclination towards first principles and wheel re-invention in the hope of small gains in understanding or the development of new possibilities. If either of these is the case, you will need some way of sifting through the many plant species of the world.
In this post we’ll look at strategies for determining the scope of a plant palette for your location. In the next post we’ll consider how to limit that scope so it is easier to work. We will leave the actual guild and site design phase out altogether — for now, we just want to get a set of plants with which we can approach the design phase. We will use the south west of Western Australia as a case study but most of what we discuss will be applicable to non-Mediterranean-type climates.
What are the main sets of plants which might form our plant palette?
Plants native to your area
It seems fairly obvious but it is certainly worth mentioning that plants native to your area are much more likely to be the most well adapted species to your site’s conditions. Native plants may not form the main set from which your main crop plants are drawn but there are a great many other ecosystem functions to be performed in a polyculture. Western Australian, for example, has an abundance of local nitrogen fixers.
Plants native to places within a similar climatic zones to your site
Native plants have developed adaptive strategies for the prevailing conditions of your area. One of the major influences on the development of those strategies is the climatic zone in which your site exists. We can consider other places which share than climate in the hope of discovering plants which possess similar adaptive strategies while providing aditional ecosystems functions — especially yields useful to people which are not easily gained from plants native to your area. I don’t want to go into too much detail in this post as I hope to address this topic in more detail at a later time. For now, I will try and make the briefest outline I can of this strategy.
A quick guide to finding places with similar climates is to find areas with similar latitudes and similar physical geography. For example, the broad climatic patterns of the south west of Western Australia are very similar to those of other places of mid-latitude on the western side of major land masses. We can now look to the native vegetation of major parts of:
- South Africa
- South Australia, and
- the Mediterranean Basin
to fill out our palette.
Plants that possess the adaptive strategies required for life in your climate
Each climate has certain conditions to which plants must be adapted if they are to flourish without significant external support. In a permaculture system we want to minimise external supports so we select (mostly) from plants which possess these adapatations. It may seem like I am repeating myself but this is a bit different to climatic adaptation. For example, if we consider drought tolerance, most plants of the areas we considered in the former section will have it as these areas share long, hot, dry summers. But so also will plants of more extreme dry environments (eg. deserts). Considering specific limiting adaptive strategies in this way is especially useful for developing a plant palette in anticipation of changes in climatic conditions.
Plants that provide the specific yields you require
“Nature has not given us a peach climate; but we get peaches.” — William Cobbet, Cottage Economy
Sometimes none of the former strategies will turn up plants which provide some of the yields we really really want. This ought to make us think about whether we really really need them. If we do, then these too are essential additions to our palette. At the design stage they will need to be placed in specific microclimates.
There is of course much more that can be said on this topic but hopefully that is enough to set you thinking. As you do, I’d love your feedback. Next post we’ll consider how to make this list a bit smaller without losing the most important species from it.