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Permaculture Food Systems

AGROFORESTRY  (Martin, Sherman & Motis) a system of land management integrating trees, plants, and animals in conservative, long-term, productive systems. Agroforestry systems make maximum use of the land; every part is considered suitable for useful plants.  Emphasis is placed on perennial, multiple purpose crops that are planted once and yield benefits over a long period of time such as construction materials, human and animal food, fuels, fibers, and shade. Trees in agroforestry systems have important uses such as nut and fruit bearing, holding the soil against erosion, coppicing, and improving soil fertility (by fixing nitrogen or bringing minerals from deep in the soil and depositing them by leaf-fall).  Furthermore, well-designed systems of agroforestry maximize beneficial interactions of the crop plants while minimizing unfavorable interactions.  This system of land management is possibly the most self- sustaining and ecologically sound of any agricultural system.  AGROFORESTRY PRINCIPLES by Dr. Franklin Martin and Scott Sherman, 1992 Revised & updated by Dr. Tim Motis, 2007

ALLELOPATHY (Chemicals or other means used by a plant to suppress growth of other plants, usually to defend against competition.  

ALLEY CROPPING (Jacke) an agroforestry system growing annual crops between widely spaced rows of tree or shrub crops.

AQUACULTURE -  an integrated polyculture for the breeding, rearing, and harvesting of plants and animals in all types of water environments.  

AQUAPONICS  particularly suitable for urban situations, aquaponics is a system which grows fish and plants together in one loop, enabling a large amount of food to be grown in a small area.  

BANANA CIRCLE a banana circle is a tropical climate mulch pit around which food is grown including fruit, root, ground cover, tropical grasses, and climbing vegetable crops such as bananas, paw-paws, cassava, taro, jerusalem artichokes, sweet potatoes, lemongrass, beans, etc.  The mulch pit is a natural, healthy way to clean grey-water.

BENEFICIAL INSECTS The three ‘P’s’ of beneficial insects are Pollinators, Predators and Parasites. Pollinators, such as honeybees, fertilize flowers, which increases the productivity of food crops ranging from apples to zucchini. Predators, such as lady beetles and soldier bugs, consume pest insects as food. Parasites use pests as nurseries for their young. On any given day, all three ‘P’s’ are feeding on pests or on flower pollen and nectar in a diversified garden. If you recognize these good bugs, it’s easier to appreciate their work and understand why it’s best not to use broad-spectrum herbicides.

BIOCHAR charcoal produced from wood or biomass which removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and produces water and nutrient retention when used as a soil amendment.

BIOMASS literally “life matter;” organic material produced by plants, animals, microbes, or other living things.

BUFFER PLANTS plants which live on the edge of two systems and create a buffer between 2 habitats.  Examples might be to reduce noise, glare, air pollution, erosion, storm water run-off,  potential for flooding.  Improving appearance.  To stabilize soil and slow, disperse and absorb stormwater runoff.  

CANOPY The topmost plant layer in an area, that provides cover to lower layers such as shrubs. It is usually continuous or close to continuous cover as in a forest.

CHOP AND DROP the action of cutting a plant which has valuable nutrients close to the ground and dropping the plant on top of the soil.  By this action, nutrients are returned to the soil, enriching both the soil and the plants growing in that soil, without the necessity of disturbing fragile fungi networks and the billions of microbiological bacterial connections and exchanges that exist in healthy soil.

CLIMAX the final stage of succession in a forest or other ecosystem, in which populations of plants and animals remain stable and exist in balance with each other and their environment, remaining relatively unchanged until destroyed by an event such as fire or human interference.

CONSUMERS Consumers are the second link in a food chain, comprised of several levels; primary consumers or herbivores (organisms that only eat plants), secondary consumers or carnivores (which eat the primary consumers), and tertiary consumers (which eat herbivores and carnivores) such as a wolf.  The fourth type of consumers are omnivores (such as bears and humans) which includes those that can eat plants and meat.

COVER CROP a plant, often leguminous, which naturally grows close to the ground and spreads across a wide area, planted to suppress weeds, help build and improve soil, slow and hold water, prevent soil erosion, and control diseases and pests.  Some examples are clover, bean, lentil, pea, etc.  

COPPICE  (Jacke, Wikipedia & online dictionary) “COP-iss” noun 1. an area of woodland in which the trees or shrubs are, or formerly were, periodically cut back to ground level to stimulate growth and provide firewood or timber. 2. the woody material regrowing from the stump or roots of a tree or shrub after it has been cut down. 3. a traditional method of woodland management, taking advantage of the fact that many trees make new growth from the stump or roots if cut.  
verb to cut back (a tree or shrub) to ground level periodically to stimulate growth.
adjective "coppiced timber"

CORM (Jacke) an enlarged, fleshy but solid bulb-like base of a stem, lacking the fleshy leaves of a true bulb; part of the stem serving as a storage organ.

DECOMPOSERS The last link in the food chain are the decomposers.  Whenever something that was alive dies, the decomposers get it, from leaves, to dog poo, to remains of higher life forms. Decomposers break down nutrients in the dead matter and return it to the soil. The producers can then use the nutrients and elements once it's in the soil. The decomposers complete the system, returning essential molecules to the producers.

DOMINANT SPECIES (Jacke) the dominant species of a community is that overstory species that contributes the most cover to the community, compared to other overstory species; dominance usually occurs when the species has a cover value of over 50%.  The term may also refer to a dominant species in a particular vegetation layer.  The community or layer is often named for the dominant species.  Many people object to the term “dominant” for political/ideological reasons. We use the term despite its problems because we want to maintain an interface with concepts from vegetation ecology.

EDIBLE LANDSCAPING landscape is all the visible features of an area of countryside or land, often considered in terms of their aesthetic appeal.  To landscape an area, one improves the aesthetic appearance of a piece of land by changing its contours, adding ornamental features, or planting trees and shrubs. Edible landscaping is the use of food‐producing plants in a landscape. It combines fruit and nut trees, berry bushes, vegetables, herbs, edible flowers, and other plants and trees into aesthetically pleasing designs.

FOOD FOREST one of the keystone concepts in permaculture, a food forest is a food production and land management system designed to mimic the architecture and beneficial relationships of a natural woodland ecosystem, substituting fruit, nut or other trees, bushes, shrubs, herbs and vegetables which have yields directly useful to humans.   Food forests are very rich in biodiversity and productivity.

FOOD CHAIN / FOOD WEB (Hawken)  the series of events that happen when one organism consumes another to survive. Food web is a more accurate term since every organism is involved with several other organisms. Cows might be food for humans, bacteria, or flies. Each of those flies might be connected to frogs, microbes, or spiders. There are dozens of connections for every organism. When you draw all of those connecting lines, you get a web-like shape. The sequence of a simple food chain is producers, consumers, and decomposers.

FOREST GARDEN see also Food Forest. “Forest gardening” is generally used to describe the practice, in an urban setting, of planting food in patterns similar to those found in a woodland or forest setting. Though the terms are interchangeable to some degree, food forest implies a larger system, over acreage.

GREEN MANURE a crop that is decaying or is plowed back into the soil. See cover crop

GUILDS (Jacke) Groups of species that partition resources or create networks of mutual support

  • mutual-support guild a group of species with different functions, or different trophic levels, such as chickens, trees, and ladybugs, which interconnect and interact in such a way as to support each other.

  • garden guild a guild of plants that can or must function with plants and other organisms, spread across more than one patch within a garden, habitat or neighborhood. For instance, a plant that is dependent for pollination upon a type of bee that lives in a different nearby ecosystem. Contrast with patch guild.

  • between patch guild a guild which does not require its plant members to grow within the same patch for the guild to function.  

  • patch guild a guild that can function as a guild only when the plants or other organisms live or grow within the same patch. For instance, nitrogen fixing bacteria and nitrogen fixing trees. Contrast with garden guild.

HERBACEOUS LAYER  an understory of plants with soft stems as opposed to bushes (woody stems). Herbaceous perennials sometimes die back each year.  Examples are asparagus, rhubarb, chives. Annuals would include basil, arugula.

INVASIVE VS OPPORTUNIST- Invasive describes a non native plant whose aggressive characteristics can alter ecosystems drastically. An example would be water hyacinth which clogs waterways to the point where they cannot be traversed by boat and other plants cannot grow. Severlely invasive plants are sometimes outlawed at state level. Opportunist is a more neutral word for the same type of plant. It is described as a plant that, in certain ecological niches, is able to use resources more effectively and reproduce more rapidly than plants previously occupying the system. Opportunists are sometimes very useful plants with multiple economic uses and in some cases, it is possible that jobs could be created by harvesting them out of ecosystems and marketing various products created from them.  Invasives or opportunists often find a foothold in environments degraded by mankind or where artificial edges have been created by mankind such as along roadways. These edges and degraded areas encourage aggressive species that have a harder time getting a foothold in a mature ecosystem. 

INTEGRATED PEST MANAGEMENT (IPM)- a multi-pronged approach to pest management that focuses on natural, non chemical handlings such as attracting pest predators, using compost teas to increase plant resistance, creating diversity in the system, using chickens or cover crops to break the pest life cycle, and using detractants such as cayenne pepper. It can also include using mild insecticides such as soaps or Neem on a spot basis only (where pests are found).

LEGUME / LEGUMINOUS plants which are part of the pea family such as bean, lentil, lupin, pea and alfalfa. Many cover crops are leguminous. This family is unique in that all of the species in it set pods, are typically high in nitrogen and can often provide the required quantity of nitrogen for crop production. For instance, clovers will mine great quantities of nitrogen out of the air via a symbiotic relationship with bacteria. These bacteria convert gaseous nitrogen into a form available to the clover, and exchange this nitrogen for sugars given by the clover. When the clover dies or is cut down, the green matter breaks down and releases the nitrogen into the soil in a form that other plants can access.

MICROCLIMATE (Jacke) the climate of a small site, area, or habitat when conditions are essentially uniform and significantly different from the overall climate and neighboring microclimates. A microclimate can be as small as the size of a kitchen table or as large as the side of a mountain.

MINERAL ACCUMULATOR (aka “dynamic accumulator”)  plants that gather micronutrients, macronutrients, or minerals from the soil through their roots, that are not generally bioavailable to other plants, and store them in their leaves. These minerals are now bioavailable to other plants via leaf drop.These plants can be used either for detoxifying soil or for gathering a certain nutrient or mineral from an area.  

MONOCULTURE - the agriculture practice of planting one species on acreage.

NICHE (Jacke) a general term denoting “ecological space”

  • Community niche (Jacke) an ecological role within a plant community, e.g., “canopy foliage herbivore,” “late succession understory tree,” “lignin* decomposer”; community niches can be filled by many different species. [*lignin is an organic substance binding the cells, fibres and vessels which constitute wood and the lignified elements of plants, as in straw. After cellulose, it is the most abundant renewable carbon source on Earth.]

  • Environment niche (Jacke) a suite of ecological conditions within which a given species can exploit an energy source effectively enough to reproduce and colonize similar conditions.

  • Species niche (Jacke) the relationship of an organism to food and enemies; its core strategy for surviving, and its multiple inherent needs, products, characteristics, functions and tolerances.

NITROGEN FIXER a plant which is able to access nitrogen from the air, and deposit and hold it in the soil.  See legume and cover crop.

NURSE PLANT an adult plant that provides shade or other protection allowing plants of its own or other species to germinate and survive.

PERENNIAL A plant that lives from year to year rather than living only one season, seeding and dying (which is an annual). Short term perennials live only a few years, while long term perennials can live for decades or longer. 

PEST PREDATOR ATTRACTANT Attractants are plants known to attract beneficial insects that prey on damaging garden pests. These insects eat both pollen and pests - usually the adult eats pollen and the larvae feeds on pests such as caterpillars. For a quick guide to the top 10 beneficial insects (including illustrations of each) and lists of plants that attract them, see Enlist Beneficial Insects for Natural Pest Control and 19 Plants Beneficial Insects Love chart.

PIONEER SPECIES the first plants to colonize a new site or to begin the change from one successional stage to another; pioneer trees are the first to invade a grassland for instance.

PLANT COMMUNITY - groups of plants that occur naturally together in the wild on a regular basis. An example would be pine trees with an understory of plants that do well in somewhat acid soils such as wild blueberry. By observing plant communities in the wild and their patterns, permaculturists can gain understanding of what plants will work best in plant guilds in food forests.

POLLARDING cutting a woody plant that will regenerate from the cuts high enough so that livestock cannot consume fresh growth. This technique is also used to harvest leafy crops such as moringa for human consumption, or leucaena for animal fodder.

POLLINATOR  Pollinators, such as honeybees, fertilize flowers, which increases the productivity of food crops ranging from apples to zucchini.

POLYCROPPING/POLYCULTURE  the agricultural practice of planting several plants together in groups or rows, that support one another. These operate as plant guilds, though do not always have a complete support network there. An example of a polyculture would be the “three sisters” that many native Americans grew of corn, beans and squash. Some Native Americans used a fourth or fifth sister, such as bee balm, as a pollinator.

PREDATORS such as lady beetles and soldier bugs, consume pest insects as food.

PRODUCERS  plants (such as fruits and vegetables) at the beginning of a simple food chain, making nutrients for other organisms to eat. Using photosynthesis, plants are at the beginning of every food chain that involves the sun, both on the land and in the ocean.

RIPARIAN of, relating to, or situated on the banks of a natural course of water.

RHIZOME (Jacke & Wikipedia) a continuously growing, horizontal, underground, main stem of a plant that puts out lateral shoots and roots at intervals. If a rhizome is separated into pieces, each piece usually will be able to give rise to a new plant. The rhizome is used as storage for starches, proteins, and other nutrients by the plant.  Examples of plants that are propagated this way include hops, asparagus, ginger, irises, and certain orchids. Some examples of rhizomes that are used directly in cooking are ginger and turmeric.  

RHIZOSPHERE  the thin layers of the soil next to roots where microbes and other soil life interact with plants via their root systems.

ROOT NODULES legumes have small nodules on their roots which house rhizobial bacteria. These bacteria convert biologically unavailable atmospheric nitrogen gas (N2) to biologically available nitrogen (NH+4) through the process of nitrogen fixation.

SILVOCULTURE / SILVOPASTORAL SYSTEMS Agroforestry systems integrating tree crops with grazed pasturelands.  The trees provide food, fuel, fiber, fodder, and fertilizer production, as well as benefits such as wind reduction, soil salinity control, humidification of the air, shade, and improved grazing-animal weight gain due to microclimate improvements.

SUCCESSION (Jacke) the progressive change from one ecosystem or habitat to another by natural processes of soil and community development and colonization.  In the eastern United States it usually refers to the transformation of bare soil or disturbed lands back to forest.

SUN TRAP A location that faces the sun, and is sheltered from cold winds. This creates a microclimate that can increase the growing season and protect from freezes in a cold climate.

TERRAQUACULTURE the practice of multi-crop farming, often with rice as a core crop, through the use of terraces and an extensive, sustainable, cooperative and complex irrigation system that slowly flows through terraced fields. It is a sustainable traditional farming system of the Asia-Pacific region where it has been practiced for thousands of years. Terraquaculture is natural farming without imported energy, agro-chemicals or irrigation infrastructure.                                                

TRAP PLANT A trap crop is a plant that attracts agricultural pests, usually insects, away from nearby crops and can be used as part of an integrated pest management (IPM) program. This form of companion planting can save the main crop from decimation by pests without the use of pesticides. Trap crops can be planted around the circumference of the field to be protected, or interspersed among them.                                                                                              

TROPHIC LEVEL (Jacke) one of the different levels of the food web, e.g., producer, herbivore, carnivore, and so on; trophic literally means “nursing” in Greek; each species on the same trophic level operates on a common feeding path.                              

UNDERSTORY (Jacke) any layer of vegetation underlying the canopy of overstory. Ecologists also use the term to describe a specific ecological niche of trees adapted to grpw and reproduce in the shade of the canopy, e.g., “understory trees.”