We often think of plants as singular entities, selected for those virtuous traits we admire about them, like beauty or flavor. In the permaculture garden or any ecological design, we need to think of the relationship between plants (and/or other elements), not the individual elements.
You know that saying, it takes a village to raise a child? The same is true in the garden space. Each neighboring plant plays a role in the development or detriment of the neighboring plant. Understanding how these plants function can help you place them in roles benefiting their neighbors.
It can be as simple as inter-planting strawberries with carrots (the two exchange essential micro-nutrients and never compete for macro-nutrients, sunlight, or water at the same time/depth) or as complex as introducing animals and additional plants into the scene to maximize yields and resources, while reducing inputs.
Determining those elements which may be stacked or overlapped to increase efficiency can be time-consuming at the start, but will create far smaller feed-back loops in the long run allowing for better management of a farm or outside project.
The chickens on our farm quickly adapted to life within the confines of the alpaca enclosure at night, because predators craving chickens had no interest in going to battle with a fully grown and enraged alpaca. The alpacas benefit by having natural pest control in the barn. Both animals create a rich manure which can be applied to neighboring garden beds. And egg collection now happens as I take care of alpaca chores in the barn (they’ve chosen to lay behind the barn door, the safest place in the barn).
We must also nurture our relationships withing the larger community. The perfect pairing may be great for wine or marriage, but there are other important relationships we must foster for the sake of maintaining our own sanity in the larger picture. Not only are these relationships important in helping us stay grounded, focused, and supported, but we can hopefully pass along some of the information that has been lost to time in the last 50 or more years, while gleaning other tidbits from those we know and love.
In the end, nature teaches us to surround ourselves with those elements that play an essential role in supporting and nurturing us. It also highlights the need for us to take a kinder approach to how we treat others, whether it be our neighbor or the land. I’ve often wondered what is whispered when the wind stirs the high canopies of trees. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s these two words repeated: “Be kind, be kind, be kind.”