rich/ July 9, 2007/ Permaculture/

I’ve finally gotten around to reading the May issue of Permaculture Activist…longtime readers will remember my article there a while back.

Michael ‘Skeeter’ Pilarski has a great article about weeds and their role in a permaculture system. From his website, it’s reproduced below.

It’s a subject pretty close to my heart, since I spend a lot of time managing weeds. Scotch broom and canada thistle dominate the list, with bindweed (morning glory), blackberry (but oh so yummy), and tansy ragwort rounding out the big 5. As Michael mentions in the article, it can be an unwinnable war (hey, not so different than the war on terror), but you can choose your battles to reduce the negative impacts in your more productive zones.

Native Plants, Non-Native Plants and Weeds in Permaculture Zones 1 through 5
by Michael Pilarski, Friends of the Trees

February 22, 2007 Version

The following article is my personal interpretation. There will be differences of opinion among other permaculturists; and there will be always be exceptions to these generalizations. This is a brief introduction to a wide-ranging topic and is meant to stimulate further discussion and elucidation.

Michael Pilarski is an inter-disciplinary, plant enthusiast who combines the perspectives of permaculture, native plants, native habitat restoration, agriculture, agroforestry, forestry, ethnobotany and wildcrafting.

Permaculture is a wholistic design science for creating sustainability with objectives such as: producing food locally with minimal outside inputs; healthy ecosystems; building soil; housing based on local, renewable resources; ending pollution and erosion, etc. Permaculture is site-specific and client specific so every system will be different. There is no blanket formula.

The invasive plant question in permaculture.

There exists a wide range of opinion within the permaculture movement on the topic of planting potentially invasive plants (or known invasive plants). Some people would say we should never plant them, others would use them with care and monitoring (and control if necessary), others would encourage plants, or other organisms, to go feral if they felt they were useful additions (for human use) to the local ecosystem. Discussing this question is one of the reasons for holding the Native Plants & Permaculture Gathering at Lost Valley Center. This article is meant to bring up some of these issues to help create a context for the gathering. They are points to discuss, not a proclamation. .

I believe that permaculture people should be well informed about invasive species in general and local, invasive species in particular. If we are going to plant or recommend planting new species in our systems we should do so from a position of knowledge. We might choose not to use species that are currently invasive in our region, or which have gone invasive in similar climates elsewhere in the world, or which research indicates could go invasive.

Another reason to know invasive species is that we may have occasion to detect an early infestation of a new species and can lead the effort to eradicate it before it gets well established. The easiest time to get rid of a new weed is soon after its initial appearance.

Zonation is considered one of the primary principles in permaculture. Zone analysis, design and management can be applied at all scales. I have used this permaculture zone principle for design at the following scales: inside a house, yard, homestead, small property, large property, town, city, county, island and nation.

Inter-penetrating corridors.

Zones are not necessarily linear, i.e. adjoining each other in order. Zones can be irregular, discontinous and out of order. Penetrating corridors from zones 3, 4 or 5 can reach into the lower zones, sometimes following riparian zones or topographical features.

Permaculture Zone 1

Characteristics: This is the most intensively managed area in the landscape. It usually encompasses part or all of the home, yard, urban business areas and sometimes along well-traveled routes of foot traffic. e.g. between the garage and the house. Zone 1 is usually irrigated and intensively planted with a wide diversity of food, medicinal and other useful plants. Two other major themes are: a) aesthetics (beautiful as well as productive); and, b) environmment amelioration, both for the house and outside environment, e.g. shading and cooling the house in hot parts of the year; windbreak; and reducing house heat loss in cold periods.

Non-Native Plants: Usually a majority of non-native plants. High value plants. Marginally tender plants are usually found in zones 1 and 2, but tender plants should only comprise a small component of the system.

Native Plants: Native plants are often, but not always, deliberately included. Usually to meet production or functional uses as outlined above. But some clients’ main goal can be to create native plant habitats.

Weeds: Few weeds are allowed due to the intensity of careSome people may prefer to allow some useful weeds such as dandelion for edible greens and/or medicinal roots.

Permaculture Zone 2

Characteristics: Usually adjoins zone 1. On the personal homestead scale it is the area of the vegetable crop staples, berry/fruit production and some small livestock production. This is generally where most outbuildings, barns and chicken coops (if present) are located. In larger settlements it corresponds to the intensive, market-garden areas adjoining (and feeding) urban areas. It would usually include some livestock production (eggs, milk, meat) because permaculture systems integrate livestock into food cropping systems. Zone 2 can also include small parks and well-maintained areas in urban landscapes. Zone 2 is visited frequently by humans and is only slightly less intensively managed then zone 1. It would also include lawns. Note that permaculture would replace 80 to 90% of lawns with more ecologically and economically productive plant systems. Lawns used for playing, lounging and social interaction should be sized to fit real needs.

Non-Native Plants: As in zone 1 there are many non-native food and ornamental plants.

Native Plants: Native plants should always be incorporated into zone 2 systems for products, aesthetics, landscaping and functional services. Permaculture encourages the increasing use of native foods. Replacing non-native plants with natives. The degree of non-native vs/ native plants will vary depending on the individual practitioner and the client(s)’ desires. Some people will want most, or all, of their zone 2 to be native plants. Sometimes for habitat restoration and sometimes for the goal of native, low-input, low-maintenance landscaping.

Weeds: As in zone 1, intensive management controls non-wanted weeds so there are few weeds. Weed control is not as absolute as in zone 1 because of the larger areas involved.

Permaculture Zone 3

Characteristics: At the homestead scale this is the area of extensive field crops, animal grazing and intensive woodlots. It is farther away from the house. It may be discontinuous and may or may not be adjoining zone 2. Management is less intensive. Some areas may not be visited for weeks at a time. Generally there are fewer inputs such as fertilizer and irrigation. At the community level this is the more extensive agricultural systems past the market-garden area. In urban areas this would also include less frequented areas of larger parks.

Non-Native Plants: A large proportion of the crops would usually be non-natives,Permaculture emphacizes well-adapted, hardy crops with a reliance on perennials. Some of these hardy, well-adapted non-natives have the capacity to propagate and persist with low inputs and maintenance. Such crop species are sought by permaculturIsts. Some of these low-maintenance species are, or could be, invasive. This is probably the point of most contention between native plant enthusiasts and permaculturists. To their credit, permaculturists make a point of observing ecosystem and species changes in all the zones and would usually observe any invasiveness quickly. They may, or may not, consider a desired plants invasiveness as something to be controlled.

Native Plants: Native plants and native habitats need to be much expanded in this zone. Permaculture promotes planting native plants as crops such as elderberry, chokecherry, trailing blackberry, and camas (in the Pacific Northwest).Native plants are very important for their ecological services such as habitat for beneficials. Maintaining healthy native plant ecosystems in zone 3 is important for the healthy checks and balances of the web of life – mammals, birds, arthropods, soil micro-organisms, fungi, etc. These all contribute to overall ecosystem stability including the crop areas. This reduces pest impacts overall. Permaculturists would add many more native planting when adapting current agricultural practices, i.e. we would take some ag land out of production and plant it to natives for the long term. These native plantings would often follow natural riparian zones, slopes, fencerows, roads, etc. Existing native remnants would be given enrichment plantings of additional natives to increase biodiversity, health and extent of these wild areas.

Weeds: Some weeds are tolerated, i.e. not combatted. Where weed control is desired, it is by hand, mechanical, livestock or cultural control. Some permaculturists use judicious application of herbicides for weed control, while others are totally against herbicide use. Permaculturists are trained to look for economic uses of weeds. “Turning the problem into an opportunity”.

Permaculture Zone 4

Characteristics: Zone 4 at the homestead level is lightly managed forest and grazing areas and natural areas left to their own devices with some wildcrafting. Wildcrafting is an important production of this zone. Most of zone 4 has had various levels of disturbance. Restoration and production are both goals in zone 4.

Non-Native Plants: Little planting of non-natives is done in this zone. Almost all, or all, plantings would be native plants.

Native Plants: Native plants is the basis for this zone including the peservation and enhancement of natural habitats. If not already pre-existing, then increasing native plants is a major theme. Light-touch management. Livestock grazing, if allowed, is carefully watched so as not to overgraze. Sustainable forestry practices are observed. Habitat restoration is a desired goal in zone 4 for most permaculture systems.

Weeds: Weeds are discouraged. Control is by non-herbicide methods as outlined in zone 3. If weeds are already a major problem on the site, then thoughtful and inexpensive methods are primarily used. Permaculture usually focuses on getting zones 1, 2 and 3 under control before doing much in zone 4. Weed control in zone 4 areas is seldom cost effective and most landowners would need to be subsidized by volunteer labor or public funds.

Permaculture Zone 5

Characteristics: This is the wild, unmanaged zone. It is to inform us of the benchmarks of what is truly native. Ideally this area would have no harvest for products including no wildcrafting. It is the equivalent of wilderness, natural research areas and botanical preserves. Preserves need to be set up at all scales of the landscape. All landowners are encouraged to set up a zone 5 part of their yard, farm, homestead or property. This may need to be planted from scratch or the wildest existing part of the property is set aside. If starting from scratch or in a heavily impacted system, then work will be needed for years to establish a healthy native plant community (and associated organisms). This is the zone where permaculturists and native plant restorationists are most in agreement.

Non-Native Plants: Non-native plants are never planted in this zone.

Native Plants: Existing native plants are encouraged. Additional native plants are planted or seeded in. Emphasis is on what would naturally grow there and using local genotypes for planting. Careful observation and study of native vegetation literature is called for.

Weeds: Weeds are controlled or eradicated where possible using non-herbicide methods.

More thoughts on weeds

* Weeds (non-native, invasive plants) are just a sympton of the real cause. The real cause is ecologically-destructive, land-use practices by humans.

* The cure for weeds is not herbicides. Herbicides only compound the problem as well as being harmful to the ecosystem.

* The cure is more humans tending the landscape. Hand control of weeds in conjunction with utilizing nature’s successional pathways as well as other non-herbicide controls.

* Some methods used to control various kinds of weeds: A) Pigs. B) Grazing. C) Browsing. D) Mowing. E) Smother crops. F) Clean cultivation. G) Flame. H) Hand hoeing. I) Hand pulling. J) Digging. K) Cutting off crown. L) Persistent cutting back. M) Organic mulch such as chips, bark, hay, straw. N) Black poly mulch. O) Opaque poly mulch (solarization). P) Weed Fabric. Q) Irrigate. R) Flood. S) Dry out. T) Change soil pH. U) Biological control.V) Organic herbicides. X) Chemical herbicides (not recommended).

* New weeds with small numbers are much more liable to be controlled then widespread abundant species.

* There is a huge amount of restoration work needed pretty much everywhere. This includes planting lots of native plants.

* Many weeds have economic uses. Harvesting them for economic uses can be part of the control strategy.

* Destroying weeds is usually futile unless they can be replaced by more desired species, usually natives, but in some cases by more useful, less noxious non-natives. To kill a weed and not replace it with a desireable plant means that nature will fill the disturbed niche with the same weed or a worse one.

* Many restoration projects and weed control projects do not allocate enough resources to follow-up to ensure success. Not only does replanting with desired species usually need doing, the new plants have to be given proper follow-up care so that they will succeed. Better to treat 10 acres properly and give follow up care so a desired planting replaces undesireable weeds, rather then killing 100 acres and having it all revert back to weeds.

* Permaculturists plant a wide diversity of useful plants some of which are capable of naturalizing and some of which already are in that locality. Permaculturists have a responsiblity to not introduce new plants that are likely to become a new noxious weed.

* What is a invasive plant in one climate may not be invasive in another. We need a master database of plants which have become invasive and in what range of habitats. As well as a ranking of their degree of noxiousness.

* Many weeds are doing useful ecological services and these should be recognized. Examples are feeding wildlife and birds, slowing erosion, building soil, etc.

* We should recognize that some non-native plants which are doing good ecological services should be allowed to remain in some habitats, generally those close to human habitation. For instance, wild plum and apple trees around towns.

* In many cases, complete eradication of a weedy species is not possible and must be lived with to one extent or another.

* Particular weeds are indicators of certain soil conditions. They have use as “indicator plants”.

From a permaculture approach, weeds (invasive, non-native plants) are indicators of ecological change, present opportunities, and in some cases are controlled. Weeds are taking up valuable real estate. How can they be replaced with species that are more beneficial to humans and/or more beneficial to the ecosystem? The problem with a lot of weed control is that it is mostly about “kill’ and not enough about “replace”.

* Weeds should not be hated but instead understood. Even as we try to control them (limit them) we should also try to benefit from them. One permaculture saying is “Turn your problems into resources”.

Perhaps I am a weed. Subsisting outside the formal economy. Filling a beneficial role but not fully understood by “The System”. A thorn in the side of The System. Not native, but now living here and reproducing.

Michael Pilarski


  1. Hey, having just pulled another ton of bindweed [does the stuff thrive in over 80+ and no water, yes!] I’ll check it out. The dog fennel in the horse pasture , bad. We gotta get over there to check out the prodigy. Soon – after heat.

  2. yay, skeeter!

    i look forward to reading it.

    just ran into a photo of his old house in chelan in a permaculture book last week. some of our good friends were neighbors of his out there (they’re still there), and that’s where we had our first hands-on farming experience! good memories!

Comments are closed.