Trees are a vital part of establishing permaculture systems. Not only are they highly productive sources of food, but they also perform many services in the pursuit of sustainability. They play a huge role in healthy ecosystems, even those plains that specialize in grasses, so it is no wonder that a system like a permaculture, which looks to nature for its agricultural guidance, values them. The old saying goes, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”
Undoubtedly, those of us concerned about the planet are lovers of trees, too. We appreciate the fact that they provide oxygen for us. We stand in awe of their beauty and admire their ability to stand, as they do, for centuries on end. As permaculture designers, that gratefulness reaches even grander levels. To put it mildly, trees are the lifeblood of permaculture designs, and their contributions far exceed the hundreds or thousands of pounds of food some trees can supply over a lifetime.
Food Production: Fruits, Nuts, and More
In the same space, it takes to grow a small patch of potatoes or enough cucumbers for the summer, we could plant a food tree that will need only be cultivated once in order to provide years of fresh produce. Even a dwarf apple tree can provide over 200 pounds of apples, chestnuts up to 100 pounds, and mulberries more than 25 pounds a year. There are even trees, including that mulberry above, that provide edible leaves. In other words, trees are crazy productive, and once established, they provide for years.
Energy Conservation: Shade, Firewood, and Windbreaks
Strategically placed trees can do a great deal in service of keeping our homes and spaces comfortable without requiring the energy to heat and cool them. Deciduous trees can provide shade for walls and windows during the summertime, but in winter, they lose their leaves to allow the warm sunshine through to provide heat. Some species can be coppiced (they are cut down and grow back) to provide sustainable firewood for heating and cooking, and windbreaks can be designed to block cold north winds for homes or funnel cool breezes through them.
System Stability: Protection, Fertility, and Hydration
Trees do a lot in the way of stability. They put down strong roots that hold soils in place, while at the same time, preventing erosive rains and winds — with their crowns — from hitting soils at full force. Trees also drop leaves, twigs, and branches that rot and feed soil life, providing nutrients to the entire system. Some trees, like nitrogen-fixing legumes, are actually cultivated to be pruned and fed down to the earth. As well, by absorbing the impact of rains and dropping the organic matter, trees keep landscapes hydrated. The rains do not drain away, but also trees pump water up from deep, clean it, and transpire it back into the atmosphere, enhancing rain cycles.
Secondary Products: Lumber, Crafts, and Saps
Most of us think of productive trees as food producers, but that limits their potential. Trees, of course, can be responsibly grown in spaces that have already been deforested to provide lumber for building homes, fences, barns, furniture, and all sorts of things. Other trees, like willows, are well suited for providing craft materials for making things like baskets. Then, there are also those trees, like rubber, maple, and pine, that provide secondary products with the sap in them.
Biological Diversity: Plants, Animals, and Fungi
Trees can be planted in bio-diverse groupings, but they will also encourage diversity around them. Many more species of plants, such as berries, thrive in the ecological niches created at the edges of where forests meet other eco-systems. Many animals, too, specialize in these edge systems, where they are afforded the protection of the forest and the open foraging or hunting grounds of clear areas. Plus, trees provide homes or home building materials for many animals. Fungi, our beloved mushrooms, also feed on the fallen, woody debris of trees, and forest floors are replete with an amazing array of species to process it all.
To be honest, we’ve only just begun to explore how useful trees can be. They can be living trellises for productive vines. They can create warming sun traps for crop fields and attract bees to them. They are great for picnicking under, holding tire swings, and providing pleasant aromas that will take over an entire backyard. Whatever our reasons may be, we know for certain that trees are tremendously valuable parts of natural, agricultural, and cultural systems, so we should plant them now.
Lead image source: Bernard Spragg/Flickr