Can Permaculture and Good Science Coexist

Several years ago I posted a four-part discussion about permaculture and my concerns with the blend of philosophy, science and pseudoscience that it contains. (Here are links to Parts 12, 3 and 4.) So I was pleased to be part of an Extension tour group that visited an established permaculture farm in the San Juan Islands earlier this spring. This gave me an opportunity to see whether there was any perceptible shift in the permaculture community towards practices based on applied plant and soil sciences. Specifically, I chose to look for invasive species identified as noxious weeds that many permaculturists cultivate rather than eradicate.

Bamboo may not be a listed noxious weed in Washington State, but the yellow archangel beneath it is.
Bamboo may not be a listed noxious weed in Washington State, but the yellow archangel beneath it is.

Our spring came early this year, and the islands were blindingly yellow with the Scots broom that runs rampant there (and throughout the West). This species is a Class B listed noxious weed in Washington State and has been mandated for control by San Juan County. So I was surprised and disappointed to see it and other related broom species not only present at this farm but used actively as nitrogen fixing species.

Other brooms were actively blooming and setting seed.
Other brooms were actively blooming and setting seed.

The practice here is to plant broom or some other nitrogen fixing species right next to a fruit tree as a “companion plant.” While the idea is logical, the choice of species is not. There are many other plants, including legumes and alders, which grow well in our area and would provide the same benefit.

Scots broom (a class B listed noxious weed in Washington state) used as a “companion plant” for a fruit tree (both are encased in wire).
Scots broom (a class B listed noxious weed in Washington state) used as a “companion plant” for a fruit tree (both are encased in wire).

There is nothing that can excuse the deliberate use of a listed noxious weed that’s mandated for control by local government. Permaculturists should endeavor to be good citizens and not infringe on the rights of their neighbors who don’t share their philosophy.

English holly is on the noxious weed monitor list for possible listing.
English holly is on the noxious weed monitor list for possible listing.


WSDA noxious weed listings for species mentioned in this post:

Scots broom
French broom
Spanish broom
Yellow archangel
English holly

Is “lasagna gardening” really worth the effort?

This week I got a complimentary copy of Urban Farm, dedicated to “sustainable city living.”  The cover story is Lasagna Giardino – follow this recipe for a lasagna garden that grows perfect plants – Italian or not.

This is not a new idea, but was popularized several years ago as a way of preparing soil for planting.  The article relates the steps:

1)  Prepare the ground by mowing the lawn
2)  Dig up the first 12″ of soil (double digging)
3)  Place a layer of “noodles” (paper and cardboard are popular) – the low nutrient material
4)  Place a layer of “sauce” (the green material)
5)  Repeat as often as you like and “let it cook”

I like the first step of this.  But my second step would be:
2)  Add a thick layer (12″) of arborist wood chips and “let it cook.”

Double digging the soil 12″ isn’t necessary: we do it because it’s hard work, and we think we need to put elbow grease into the project.  Making layers of noodles and sauce isn’t necessary: we do it because appeals to us -lasagna is a tasty comfort food.

There’s a lot of damage that this “recipe” can cause.  Double digging the soil 12″ destroys soils structure. Don’t do it. The layers of noodles and sauce (especially the sauce) can create an overload of plant nutrients. Furthermore, the “noodle” layers – the sheet mulches – impede water and air movement.  They’re not needed to keep the grass from growing through. Wood chips do this just fine on their own.  And don’t worry about that initial 12″ of chips.  Within a few weeks it will settle to about 8″.  Let it sit for several weeks.  Then pull aside some of the chips and take a look.  If the process is done, the grass and/or weeds will be dead and decomposing – a natural compost layer.  You can then plant whatever you like.  Reuse the chips somewhere else in your garden.

It doesn’t look like lasagna, but it’s a heck of a lot easier and more closely mimics a natural mulch layer than lasagna does.

Permaculture – my final thoughts

We’ve had some good, vigorous discussion about permaculture, specifically around the book Gaia’s Garden.  I’ve pointed out some problems with the author’s understanding of relevant plant and soil sciences and will wrap up this week with a look at the glossary and bibliography.


The glossary contains a number of scientific-sounding words and phrases with unscientific definitions; for example:

“Buffer plants: Plants placed between guilds or between allelopathic species. They should be compatible with the trees in each guild and should have a positive effect on one or both of the guilds to be linked.” (“Buffer plants” is a phrase legitimately used in ecological restoration where plantings separate wetlands or other natural areas from human activity.)

“Guild: A harmoniously interwoven group of plants and animals, often centered around one major species, that benefits humans while creating habitat.” (The term “guild” is ecological and refers to groups of species that exploit the same types of resources.  It has been hijacked and redefined for permaculture.)

“Narcissistic: Plants that thrive on the leaf litter of members of their own family, such as the Solanaceae, or nightshade family.” (In this case, this is an unscientific term given a scientific-sounding – but nonsensical – definition.)

“Polycultures: Dynamic, self-organizing plant communities composed of several to many species.” (Polyculture is an agricultural term referring to the planting of multiple crops. It’s a cultural strategy in Integrated Pest Management.)

“Sectors: Areas where outside energies such as wind, sun, fire and so forth enter a site. These energies can be mitigated, captured, or otherwise influenced by placement of elements in the design.”


There are only two books I would consider scientific; one soils textbook from 1996 and the other is Odum’s classic text Fundamentals of Ecology (1971). I’m disappointed in how scarce and dated these references are, given the wealth of more recent articles and books that are both relevant to urban gardens and scientifically sound.

The bibliography also includes many books on design and I’m not including them in this critique. Of those that remain, the bulk are nonscientific and in many cases pseudoscientific. Examples of the latter include The Albrecht Papers (Albrecht, 1996), Weeds and What They Tell (Pfeiffer, 1981).

And this last criticism embodies what permeates much of Gaia’s Garden: pseudoscience. In the glossary, we see scientific-sounding terms or definitions that are ultimately meaningless or incorrect. Furthermore, we see scientifically legitimate terms such as guild used incorrectly. Both of these practices are characteristics of a pseudoscience.

I think this is unfortunate. I’ve mentioned before that I agree with much of the philosophy behind permaculture. But dressing up this philosophy as science both misleads nonexperts and alienates scientists.

So here’s a challenge – why not write a new book on permaculture and collaborate with a scientist? (I know a few who are writers!)

Permaculture – more concerns

One of the gardening topics I’ve researched extensively is the use of landscape mulches.  (You can read a literature review I did a few years ago here.)  So I was more than a little frustrated to see one of the worst mulching techniques – sheet mulching – extolled in the book Gaia’s Garden (pp. 85-90).

Sheet mulches, like newspaper and cardboard, can be used successfully as a temporary weed control measure (i.e. a few weeks before planting a vegetable garden).  Long term, they are not a sustainable choice and often cause more damage to the system than the presence of weeds.

The two-dimensional structure of sheet mulches functions as a barrier to not only weeds but to the movement of air and water as well.  While this may initially increase soil water retention since evaporation is reduced, over the long term they will create soils that are unnaturally dry.  This condition is worsened on low-maintenance sites,where neglected sheet mulches easily dry out, causing rainfall or irrigation water to sheet away rather than percolate through.

In contrast, wet, poorly drained soils will become even more so as layers of moist paper or cardboard restrict evaporation and aeration.  Moreover, this condition encourages root growth on top of the sheet mulch, which can injure desirable plants when and if the sheet mulch is removed.

There are other disadvantages as well.  Exposed newspaper and cardboard mulches are easily dislodged by the wind, animals and pedestrians and often provide food for termites and shelter for rodents such as voles.  Combined with a somewhat marginal ability to control weeds compared to other organic mulches, sheet mulches are arguably one of the least attractive or effective choices for a sustainable landscape.

Sheet mulching proponents will argue that newspaper and cardboard are only part of the mulch structure – that organic materials such as compost and wood chips need to be added as well.  To which I respond – then why bother with the sheet mulch?  Why not just use deep layers of coarse organic materials?  That’s exactly what forest duff layers consist of.  It’s been repeatedly demonstrated that thick layers of coarse organic materials are the best and most natural choices for mulching.  (See, for instance, my  Ecological Restoration article on using a foot of arborist wood chips to suppress blackberry and enhance native plantings. )

The appeal of sheet mulching is its formulaic structure and logical approach – it’s like making lasagna (the name of yet another nonscientific approach to mulching).  Unfortunately, sheet mulching is neither natural nor particularly effective.

Permaculture – the discussion continues

We’ve started a robust discussion on the topic of permaculture, especially as applied to home gardens.  Let’s continue looking at some of the advice provided in Gaia’s Garden targeted towards home gardeners.

The book contains several lists of plants suggested for specific functions.  For brevity’s sake, I’ll just mention two:

“Host plants for Beneficial Insects” (pp. 157-159)
This list is prefaced in the text with “many of these florae are very attractive and can (and should!) be included even in the most formal garden bed.”  With this strong endorsement, the author then presents an unsourced list of plants, several of which are identified as noxious weeds in many states in the country.  They include Washington noxious weeds false indigo (Amorpha fruticosa), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), toadflax (Linaria vulgaris), cinquefoil (Potentilla recta), sulfur groundsel (Senecio vulgare), and tansy (Tanacetum vulgare).

“Dynamic Nutrient Accumulators” (pp. 131-134)
We are told “certain species draw specific nutrients from deep in the soil and concentrate them in their leaves” and given an extensive table of these plants and exactly which nutrients they accumulate. The references for this table are not scientific, and in at least two cases are mystical in nature (Cocannouer’s Weeds: Guardians of the Soil and Pfeiffer’s Weeds and What They Tell).  As in the previous table, many of these plants are designated noxious weeds in Washington or other states and include nodding thistle (Carduus nutans), Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), toadflax (Linaria vulgaris), creeping thistle (Sonchus arvense), and tansy (Tanacetum vulgare).

As readers of this blog know by now, we GPs are not “plant purists.”  But it is highly irresponsible to encourage people to plant listed noxious weeds in their gardens.  Even the author seems to understand this, and states (on page 15) that “it is foolish to deliberately introduce a species known to be locally opportunistic.”  It’s mystifying, then, that he does exactly that in these two tables.

The inclusion of the table of “dynamic nutrient accumulators” demonstrates that this book tends to wander far afield of the philosophical roots of permaculture.  It is an excellent example of pseudoscience, as it creates a scientific-sounding phrase (“dynamic nutrient accumulator”) and misleads non-experts into believing a scientific claim (nutrient accumulation of specific minerals) without providing actual supporting data.

Permaculture – beginning a discussion

Among other things, part of my job involves reviewing educational materials for use in WSU’s Extension programs related to urban horticulture.  One of the books is “Gaia’s Garden: a guide to home-scale permaculture” (T. Hemenway).  It occurred to me that my review might also be of interest to our GP readers.

I’ve created a fairly extensive review and I will break it into separate posts over the next few weeks.  So let’s start the discussion off with a topic we already know is inflammatory:  invasive species.  To be clear, we are not talking about the many introduced species, plants and animals alike, who appear to be well-behaved in our country.  Here’s my take on “The Natives versus Exotics Debate” (pp. 12-17):

The author, with no formal training in biology past his bachelor’s degree, states that “calling a species ‘invasive’ is not good science.”  This will come as news to researchers in the field of invasion biology.  He blithely disregards the real environmental and economic damage caused by invasive species and erroneously believes that invasive species selectively appear only as a result of human-caused environmental disturbance.  Apparently natural disturbances (from fire, volcanic eruption, flooding, etc.) don’t open themselves up for invasion (again, a notion that is incorrect and refuted by a number of obvious examples, such as the 1988 zebra mussel invasion of Lake St. Clair and the subsequent colonization of many freshwater habitats).   The author seems not to understand that there may be unfilled niches in certain ecosystems that can be exploited by invasives, endangering native species whose niches may overlap; there are obvious lessons from Hawaii, Australia, and other parts of the world.  In any case, the author’s naive tolerance of invasive species is a poor example to follow and certainly not based on current, mainstream science.

So, fans of permaculture, what do you think?  If permaculture is a legitimate science-based practice, how do we reconcile the very real issue of invasive species?  If you disagree with me, keep in mind one of the hallmarks of pseudoscience: attacking the motives or character of anyone who questions the claims. The arguments should contain content, not insults.