10 Permaculture Plant Roles

February 14, 2021
Category: Regenerative Permaculture

Permaculture means “permanent agriculture” and it is defined as working with nature to provide food, shelter, water, and everything else your land needs to provide for yourself, others and the earth. It is a holistic approach to gardening and goes far beyond just gardening. One important aspect of permaculture gardening is using plants that have multiple purposes, rather than just a single purpose. The ultimate goal is to use your land (however much or little you have) to create an organic garden or food forest that is regenerative. Try to incorporate as many of the plant uses below into your permacuture garden to bring regeneration to both your garden, plants, health and the earth.

1. Mulch Maker Plants

Plants that are mulch makers are those that can be used for composting – either in compost piles or with the chop and drop method. Benefits of mulching are varied – composting in place, moisture retention, soil cooling and habitat creation.

Good mulch plants have some common traits:

  1. Fast-growing plants, providing an abundance of organic matter
  2. Drought-resistance, non-competitiveness, and slow-spreading
  3. They don’t tend to be thorny or rough to touch, and they are easy to cut
  4. They break down fast, moving from mulch to soil so that those nutrients are available to plants

Some Mulch Maker Plants: comfrey, artichoke, cardoon, rhubarb, jerusalem artichoke, ferns, reeds, nasturtium, clovers, vetches, many grasses and grains (ie. oats, wheat, barley), mustard, crotoloaria, buckwheat

Some Living Mulch Plants: dwarf yarrow, thrift, Ajuga, wild strawberry, stonecrop, yerba buena, white clover


2. Nutrient Accumulator Plants

Plants that draw specific nutrients from deep in the soil and concentrate them in their leaves are called nutrient accumulators. Nutrient accumulators have deep taproots that dredge up important nutrients like potassium, mangnesium, calcium, sulfur and others. As these plants lose their foliage and drop, the nutrients that they have accumulated build up in the topsoil. The reason that they are such a beneficial part of a permaculture garden is because they keep nutrients cycling within the yard and reduce the need for purchasing fertilizers. Note: many of these nutrient accumulators are considered weeds.

Some Nutrient Accumulator Plants: comfrey, yarrow, chamomile, fennel, lambs quarters, chicory, dandelion, plantain, sorrel, strawberry


3. Insectary Plants

Plants that attract beneficial insects are called insectary plants. Almost any pollen-producing or nectar-producing flowers will lure our beneficial six-legged friends. Beneficial insects fall into 2 categories:

  1. Pollinators – needed for pollinating fruit and seedds
  2. Predators – insects that gobble up the bugs that much our plants

Some Insectary Plants: yarrow, buckwheat, lavendar, golden marguerite, bee balm, many clover types, celery, carrot, fennel, Queen Anne’s lace, dill, coriander, onions, lilies, sunflower, mint


4. Medicinal Plants

Naturally occurring, plant-derived substances, which are used to treat diseases, are called herbal medicines or medicinal herbs. Although botanical and herbal medicine is an art that has been practiced for thousands of years, it continues to gain interest and study today. According to the World Health Organisation, it has been recently estimated that around 80 percent of people worldwide rely on herbal medicines for their primary health care in one form or another.

Some medicinal plants (please research before using any of these): garlic, parsley, peppermint, rosemary, comfrey (external use only), lemon balm, chickweed, dandelion, lavender, chamomile, echinacea, elderberry, tulsi/holy basil, passionflower vine, yarrow


5. Spike Root Plants

When soil is compacted for contains a lot of clay, spike root plants can restore the tilth and fluffiness. An added bonus of spike root plants will add organic matter as their root systems decay. After they have accomplished their work, they can be cut down or sheet mulched.

2 ways of using spike root plants:

  1. Sow them into a future orchard or garden to work a year or two before the final planting
  2. Intercrop them among the beds or under trees to continually break up the soil

Some spike root plants: daikon, chicory, comfrey, artichoke, dandelion, mustard, rapeseed, alfalfa


6. Fortress Plants

Fortress plants prevent invasive plants from moving into more delicate areas of the garden. They are able to do this by producing a wall of thick growth above and below the ground that can shade out and/or physically restrain invading plants. They can stop grass, weeds, unwanted creeping vines. Some of them emit mildly toxi compounds that inhibit root growth and seed germination.

Some fortress plants: comfrey, jerusalem artichoke, lemongrass, red-hot poker


7. Nitrogen Fixing Plants

Anyone who has been gardening for some time is probably familiar with the term nitrogen fixers. These plants harbor bacteria or fungi among their roots that extract nitrogen from the air and convert it a plant-available form. These fast growing plants can be used for mulch or compost by slashing or trimming.

Some nitrogen fixing plants: peas, beans, ceonothus, mountain mahogany, buffaloberry, goumi, autumn olive, Russian olive, clover, black locust, alder, acacia


8. Soil Fumigants and Pest Repellents

Soil fumigants/pest repellents secrete compounds that repel certain pests that living either in the soil or on top of it. Pest repellent plants aren’t widely researched so plant with discretion.

Some soil fumigants/pest repellents: nasturtium, false indigo, elderberry, marigolds


9. Wildlife Nurturing Plants

Wildlife nurturers go far beyond bird feeders and salt licks. Choosing the right plants will bring rare birds, mammals and butterflies (not deer and raccoons).

Some wildlife nurturers: dogwood, elderberry, chokeberry, blueberry, native roses, hawthorn, ceanothus, wild cherries


9. Wildlife Nurturing Plants

Wildlife nurturers go far beyond bird feeders and salt licks. Choosing the right plants will bring rare birds, mammals and butterflies (not deer and raccoons). If we can attract birds, small animals, and insects to our yards, we not only increase biodiversity but make our gardens more balanced, disease free, and productive.

Some wildlife nurturers: dogwood, elderberry, chokeberry, blueberry, native roses, hawthorn, ceanothus, wild cherries


10. Shelterbelt Plants

Shelterbelters can create effective windbreaks to reduce harsh winds, keep out unwanted animals (such as deer), provide privacy and create suntraps for warmth. They are linear plantings of multiple rows of trees or shrubs established for environmental purposes such as protecting farmsteads and livestock areas, saving energy, and to enhance wildlife habitat.

Some shelterbelt plants: Maximilian sunflower, Jerusalem artichokes, bamboo, basketry willows, wildlife shrubs, berry bushes, Osage orange, hawthorn, native roses, Manchurian plums, gooseberries


The more we can incorporate these uses into our gardens and food forests, the more we can regenerate our soil, the wildlife and the climate. As you continue to incorporate plants with multiple uses, the more you will see a restoration in your yard/garden/forest. We would love to hear how you have incorporated these different plant roles into your space.



Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway

One Green Planet

The Spruce

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