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Weeds or Wild Nature?

Reprinted with permission from the “Permaculture International Journal” (PIJ) (No. 61,
Dec-Feb 1997).

The world’s striving for racial tolerance doesn’t always extend to plants.

A key criticism of permaculture’s approach to building sustainable organic systems has been its perceived willingness to favour the introduction of exotic species.

Is it better to build systems that include exotics or should reforestation aim only to replace what has been taken away?

Is a rampant exotic a weed, or nature’s most effective first aid treatment?

It is a philosophical divide which has sparked heated debate within the permaculture community and strained relationships between groups that have otherwise much in common.

Bill Mollison, the co-originator of the permaculture concept is predictably blunt in his appraisal, he advocates fixing up the land first and worrying about the weeds later – they can always be mulched.

‘Eco-fascists’, he argues, should be more worried about monoculture-produced wheat, cotton, oats and other exotics we eat or wear every day. “We must look to new systems not to the past, because the continent has been so badly damaged,” he says.

Permaculture educator Ms Robyn Francis however, argues responsibility in plant selection is essential.

“We have to balance the fact we have to feed ourselves with the impact these plants may have on the local gene pool and ecosystem,” she says.
“A lot of permaculturists try to teach that where a native exists for a purpose, use that in place of an exotic.

“In a vegetable garden it is reasonable to expect that there will be more exotics and fewer natives while in outer zones, we should try to increase the ratio of natives to exotics. We should find a balance between exotics and natives to responsibly create the most productive systems,” she says.

According to Western Australian permaculture educator, Mr Ross Mars, the onus is on people practising permaculture to carefully avoid over-simplifying the solution to our environmental and food production problems.

“The belief in permaculture that natural systems and people systems have a capacity to recover from environmental degradation through the introduction of foreign species is apt, but not at the expense of losing genetic diversity or a host of other concerns,” he says.

“An appropriate management response would be firstly to define the remnant values of an area, inclusive of endemic species and the risk level of dispersal of an introduced species.”

David Holmgren, the other co-originator of permaculture, while not straddling the opposite camps, does suggest that both groups need to get together to clear up growing confusion on the issue.

He believes that “getting rid of all the weeds” without thorough investigation of the values of non-indigenous ecosystems is foolhardy if not a tragedy. Here he explains why.

The permaculture movement’s development since its origins in the 1970s has been closely connected to revegetation and Australia’s Landcare movement. Permaculture’s main aim since then has been to assist people to become more self-reliant by designing and creating sustainable gardens and farms.

The design principles which are the conceptual foundation of permaculture were derived from the science of systems ecology and study of pre-industrial examples of sustainable land use. They suggested agricultural systems needed fundamental redesign rather than fine tuning. A much greater role for trees and other perennial plants to stabilise the landscape and provide for human needs was one of the cornerstones of the permaculture strategy. From one perspective, permaculture is a revegetation strategy.

The initial permaculture vision involved forests of “useful” species planted in arrays to mimic natural systems. Although food species dominate the strategy for intensive systems around the home (zone 1 & 2), in more broadacre areas the “uses” of revegetation include, fibre, animal fodder and timber, and wildlife habitat. My revegetation manual concentrates on these broadacre landscapes and functions of revegetation. What identifies it as permaculture is the design system approach and the integration of the productive and environmental functions of farm landscapes.

Meanwhile, the Landcare movement in Australia has been concerned with the repair and restoration of productive land. Its origins were from diverse local rural groups which emerged simultaneously in the early 1980s in several regions affected by land degradation, most notably salinity and tree decline. Many permaculturists were, and still are, involved in these groups.

The solutions to salinity, erosion, acidification, tree decline and other symptoms of ecosystem breakdown demanded fundamental changes to agriculture. Revegetation with perennial and in particular woody vegetation has been an almost universal element in the response to rural land degradation.

Planting Trees One-Handed

At the same time, there has been widespread recognition that indigenous species have an important role for utilitarian, environmental and cultural reasons. Many extension workers and funding groups have gone further in suggesting only indigenous species are appropriate, and where farmers have little experience this view has been accepted as the “expert opinion”.

But the farmers with more experience in revegetation who are driving the landscape push recognise that new resource values must be generated by revegetation if it is to become an economically viable part of farming. Farm forestry and fodder trees are the dynamic expanding edge of landcare which is promising to generate wealth. In this context restriction to local native species is akin to trying to plant a tree with one hand tied behind one’s back. In urban areas people have been more protected from the direct effects of land degradation. However, increasing awareness of the loss of indigenous species and their under-estimated values has become a central issue for many urban environmentalists who are now campaigning against the destruction of indigenous ecologies by environmental weeds and spending less time fighting bulldozers and developers. The new focus on the concept of environmental weeds (invasion of non-indigenous species into bushland) has been helped by government funding. This State and Federal funding supports an urban Landcare model of recreating native ecosystems in public open space and urban wasteland. It has seen the rapid growth in projects involving the community as well as spawning an urban revegetation industry. The vision involves re-establishment of native ecosystems as the backbone of productive urban and rural landscapes.

Although well-intentioned, I see a major flaw in this vision.

Increasingly, government and community resources are being used to destroy healthy existing vegetation. The tragedy is that the considerable ecological and other values of this non-indigenous vegetation are not considered. In addition, the adverse impacts of removal methods (eg herbicide) are not properly assessed. The problems of pockets of indigenous revegetation surviving in isolation from surrounding land use are ignored or vaguely addressed by grandiose schemes to progressively get rid of “all the weeds”.

The Place of Wild Nature

Implicit in permaculture strategy is the acceptance that nature is an active designer herself and that it will be the co-evolutionary development of wild systems which may be the real keys to sustainability. Wild nature is evolving new ecosystems from a mix of self-reproducing species at an ever increasing speed.

This “ecosynthesys” is nature’s self-organising response to the disturbances since European settlement and follows patterns described by systems ecology.

In some areas, especially along streams, the ecosynthesis process is advanced to the point where forests of mixed native and exotic species are beginning to show systemic characteristics. Study of these advanced examples of ecosynthesis is conspicuous by its absence apart from a few informal permaculture inspired projects.

Recognition of the amenity values of these areas is begrudging at best while their hydrological and soil-building values remain undocumented. Any discussion of current or future resource values is dismissed as something irrelevant to economic well-being in a high-energy affluent society.

In a low energy future (which I believe is inevitable) this process is likely to be more important in stabilising resource degradation (erosion, salinity, acidification, eutrophication etc) and in generating economically harvestable resources (timber, fodder, food etc) than either our chosen crop systems or native vegetation.

Much of the criticism of permaculture has revolved around its potential to spread environmental weeds. The depth and intensity of criticism of permaculture by some environmentalists seems to revolve around the suggested use of plants which have potential to naturalise.

In fact mainstream urban and rural revegetation activities are major contributors to past and future plant naturalisation but do not draw such vociferous condemnation perhaps because this process is not an intentional outcome. In other words it is the “bad” intentions rather than “bad” results of permaculture which have attracted such negative attention.

In general permaculture has made little impact on public land management policies and actions because efforts to introduce more productive species have not been very successful. Proposed and actual plantings tend to divide into types which; require too much care and attention for public land or, naturalise (given the right conditions) and are therefore deemed environmental weeds.

Most permaculturists have focused on getting their own house in order, leaving the public land to others. Others have themselves adopted a segmented view of land use where small scale food gardens on private land would be surrounded by indigenous systems on public land.

However, permaculturists along with gardeners and horticulturalists, generally reacted strongly in 1994 when the Eltham shire in the State of Victoria, Australia, attempted to declare noxious, and demand the destruction of, an additional 54 species of plants on private lands. This led to a minor sectarian war between environmentalists of the permaculture and native persuasions.

Leading proponents of indigenous revegetation acknowledge that a legislated approach to environmental weeds will be ineffective and unenforceable but feel that the public education value overrides any adverse effects on people’s landuse rights.

Clearing up the Confusion

What needs to be done following this conflict is to set out clearly the fundamentals of the two conceptual frameworks. Unaddressed contradictions in both positions need to be worked through and practical strategies developed. These can then be applied be private landholders and managers of public land who find themselves in an understandable confusion.

Ecosynthesis is a reality which few ecologists would deny. From a permaculture perspective concerned with ecological sustainability, ecosynthesis of native and migrant systems is likely to provide the most effective solutions to land and water degradation. In addition, ecosynthesis will yield the information on which to base more deliberate design-based approaches (permaculture) to productive rural and urban land use.

In the process of dealing with both technical uncertainty and a range of environmental values and agendas, we need to accept that a diversity of approaches will provide the most useful results for the next generation to evaluate and use. Inevitably these will all be real ecological experiments on the edges of the gigantic experiment we call modern industrial society. Wild nature may turn out to be a critical fall-back resource for society in crisis and even contribute to new biodiversity adaptive to a planet changed forever by 10 billion people and the mining of 750 million years worth of stored solar energy.

If we are serious about reducing the environmental impact of our towns and suburbs then we need to focus a lot more on our unsustainable use of transport and home energy, and the need to produce more food in our backyards, and a little bit less on whether our backyard supports three or four species of honeyeater. After all, most of the plants we eat come from exotic species that take up vast areas of land and would be considered weeds by those strongly favouring native plants. Urban ecologists have done well in fighting to save native bushland but have made little impact on the structural basis of unsustainable urban development and consumption.

I believe the real reason that more people prefer to grow native plants is that it involves less work and skill than growing your own food and that food remains so cheap (while farmers go broke and the land degrades) that most householders can’t be bothered. For those of us committed to household environmental responsibility an apple is a better symbol than a gum nut.



  1. Wild nature may turn out to be a critical fall-back resource for society in crisis and even contribute to new biodiversity adaptive to a planet changed forever by 10 billion people and the mining of 750 million years worth of stored solar energy.

    I believe the real reason that more people prefer to grow native plants is that it involves less work and skill than growing your own food and that food remains so cheap (while farmers go broke and the land degrades) that most householders can’t be bothered. For those of us committed to household environmental responsibility an apple is a better symbol than a gum nut.

    These two simple statements sum it up for me, until we grow at least some of our own food and reduce energy we are lost as a ‘civilization” and doomed to failure. I choose to spend more time in the garden and then I spend in front of the flat screen.

    The really amazing thing is that we continue to live in ways that we know are wrong, our conditioning to work against nature rather than with nature is truly astounding.

    “think before you act but don’t believe everything you think, when in doubt look for balance, to find balance, look to nature”

  2. On our small urban block we grow as much we can. Even though there is to some, an obvious over planting, we enjoy the bustling randomness that is kind of like what happens in natural ecosystems (water and nutrients pending). Having started from a bare block some two years ago, there is plenty lush green now, and always something to eat. Natives (some with fruit) and edibles are what we shove in. There is no zoning of either (except little leafy greens are near the back step etc.). The ironic thing is in a garden where you like self-seeding to proliferate, that the dominant sprouters (or if you prefer “weeds” or undesireable plants) are a native that we chose to form a quick canopy, Macaranga tanarius (sp.). They are phenomenal. Birds love the seeds, I’m wondering if we can cook with them, and meanwhile grass runners and Maca’ seedlings are going through the compost heaps no wuz… If i feel guilty about weeds in the tiny bush areas around my suburb, I’ll go and do some weeding without the ‘landcare’ sign up (no disrespect intended). Symbols? Hmmph. Give me complex practicalities any day…

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