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The Pro’s & Con’s of Perennials

One of the benefits of going with perennials is that they’re largely a one-time investment. Some may only last a handful of years or a decade, but most will give us 20-50 years or whole lifetimes of production once they get started.

The flip side of that is that most perennials require at least a year or two to establish, many 4-10 years, and fruit/nut perennials could need 10-20 years before they start producing a reasonable yield. A lot of the fruiting perennials are one-offs per year, as well. There are some with longer harvest seasons, but it’s not like an annual garden where in some cases we have the potential to plant four different things in a space per year, and tree and shrub fruit isn’t usually like lettuces or spinach that we can repeatedly harvest from the same plant.

On the other hand, once they’re established, most perennials don’t really need us a whole lot, unlike annuals, and trees need us even less than smaller shrubs and perennial plants. Perennials can be highly multi-function, with additional roles such as nitrogen fixation that can improve soils around them, soil stabilizing roots, pollinator habitat and food sources, livestock fodder or forage in the form of green limbs and leaves or tree hay, and medicinal value. Some can be coppiced or selectively pruned to provide us with kindling, rocket stove fuel and mulching chips.

Here I’ll stay away from trees like apples and plums that are so commonly grafted and are super susceptible to diseases and pests. They tend to need us, and they tend to be pretty recognizable. Instead, we’ll look at some other options. Most of the ones I’ll recommend are largely free of pests.

I’ll come back to the ones that can be a little less obvious as food production in another article as well. Right now, here’s a look at my top five perennials preppers should consider, selected as such due to their climate versatility, ornamental aspects, health, versatility for all stages of preparedness, and highly multi-functional landscape and production roles: pea shrub, oak, willow, wild plums, and crabapples.

Pygmy peashrub can easily fit into even small urban and suburban gardens and homes.

Pea Shrub

Pea shrub is one of the more controversial plants that we increasingly see due to permaculture’s spreading interests.

Many types of livestock can consume the leaves and pods of pea shrub, providing a fodder or forage plant that can sometimes be lacking in the cooler climates. It’s also a habitat builder for small game and small birds, and beneficial predatory insects. Because it can survive in some pretty gnarly climates and ugly soils (thin, compacted, stripped out) it’s an excellent nurse crop or soil retention and rebuilding crop for mismanaged lands, drylands, and cool or cold climates. As a nitrogen fixer, it’s ideal for production alongside trees and larger shrubs with high needs, especially those that can use the N boost later in the growing season (it takes part of the season for the legumes to start producing excess nitrogen, even the perennials).

Peashrub offers great variety in use, tolerant of manicuring to a shaped hedge or blending into a freeform native patch – both hiding food or resource production in plain sight.

It’s happier in part shade than in full sun, which makes it an excellent addition for base shrubs against a northern or eastern wall and alongside established trees.

It’s one of the few where instead of a cold-hardy ceiling, we’re bounded instead by heat. Siberian pea shrub can handle zones up to 8 if there’s water, but many varieties will only go up to 6 or 7.

Warmer areas (7-8, sometimes 6 by variety) will find less flowering with some varieties, which means fewer of the pods we can consume and feed livestock green, the tender green seeds, and the dry peas. Shaded areas can help combat this. Even at its warmer limits, it produces foliage well, with that foliage an excellent addition to our tree hays as well as nutrient-rich mulch that we can use to overwinter strawberries or cover our garden beds.


Oaks produce acorns, although there’s more to that story than some might think. Acorns come in a number of sizes and shell thicknesses, which increases and decreases their ease for human consumption or the livestock and wildlife that can make use of them. Oaks also tend to produce in cycles, although the cycles can vary widely, from those that grow and mature the nuts in a single year, to those that might take 2-3 years to drop harvests. Some have the same boom-bust cycles found in other nut and fruit trees.

There’s an oak that can be found for every zone, 3-9 at least, with most zones having multiple species native or compatible. Oaks also cover a wide, wide range of soils and precipitation. This site http://www.wildlifegroup.com/shop-for-hardwoods/ is a sale site, but I keep it handy as a reference for oak types, from their size to their zones, soil and climate needs, to production cycles.

Oaks come in a huge variety, from leaf shape to acorn size and shape, to the climates and conditions they’ll thrive in and their cycles of production.

Oaks can create some challenges due to the jugalone they produce and the high-tannin highly acidic leaves they drop, as well as the dense shade they produce, but there are plenty of native fruits and nuts in oak forests, and even some domestic crops and ornamental edibles that can share space with them, from blueberries to paw-paw. We can also mow the leaf drop annually to mulch over annual gardens and berries that like acidity, or create leaf mold.

A number of yarrows, reed grasses, lilacs, wild-type buckwheats (Californian, coastal, Suzi’s red), woodland and mock strawberry, lavender, lupines, Californian coffeberry/buckthorn, verbena, sages, sorrel, bunching fescue-type grasses, and others can grow in close association with oaks. They allow us to create a naturalized setting or a very ornamental one, with food production for humans as well as medicinal and herbal plants, and pollinator and nurse plants all in the same area. With tailoring, they can create managed free-range grazing for birds raising their own nests, goats, and other species; small game or game bird habitat for increased hunting in cities, suburbs or rurals; and harvested-fodder from grains to soft legumes to fruits and foliage for livestock.


From the ability to make small-batch or large-plot propagation-rooting and garden-transplant boosting “tea” to the ones that can help with pain management, willow is a pretty well-known function, resource, and survival tree.

We can use its leaves as medicinal feed for most livestock, or regularly supplement with it for goats and rabbits, even chickens, and turn it into tree hay. Wands can be woven for window covers and floor mats, baskets and chair seats, and used as natural ties in some forms of construction, from plant trellises and cages to fish traps and boxes. Its rapid growth enables us to turn it into living fences and hedges with relative speed and ease. We can even use some species to help us “mop up” seasonally or annually boggy areas to allow other plants a better shot at growing.

Willow is adaptable to trimming and pruning to hedges, domes, arches, living fences, and small shrubs, increasing its versatility in small lots as well as large homesteads.

Overhanging ponds, creeks and rivers, willow creates excellent habitat for game birds as well as fish, and it can help stabilize banks. As with use in open yards, it can help create a flood and high-rain buffer, soaking up incredible amounts of moisture, especially as a coppiced hedgerow backed by larger trees. Willow’s absorption powers can also help create a buffer between waste-generating systems like livestock manure, outdoor kennels and pet wastes, overflowing septic systems, and runoff from composting toilets or outhouses, and nearby veggie patches or waterways (look up algal blooms for the impact on fishing and waterways).

Willow makes an excellent resource and function tree, creating shade and habitat, fodder, and wands for various uses.

Bees and other pollinator and predatory insect species use its pollen extensively. The catkins (flowers) provide a very early season nectar flower for pollinators when not much else has started blooming.

As with oaks, there’s a willow for nearly every climate. Some willows excel in a few key functions far more than others, so some research into variety can help us.

Crabapples come in a variety of sizes, flavors and textures, with varying degrees of palatability.

Wild Plum & Crabapples

Chickasaw is by far my favorite wild plum, but it’s somewhat limited as to region. Like oaks and willows, in most of the U.S. and Canada – as well as Europe – there is a wild plum that is native to our area, or from a region that very closely mimics our conditions. Those will almost always be more successful than something we’re trying to force into our conditions.

Chickasaw plum

Wild sandhill plum

Wild plums are highly, highly variable. Not only do varieties change hugely in fruit size, texture, and flavor, those fruits can regularly change tree-to-tree, climate-to-climate, season-to-season –even within a small yard’s space, due to microclimate. Some make larger fruits that, while pretty tart, are readily consumed raw and have enough fruit around the pit to be worth it. Some produce tiny fruits. Some really have to be juiced and turned into jelly with lots of sweetness added.

Crabapples tend even further toward the “needs processing” side of the line, but sometimes a hybrid or cultivar can be found that isn’t too bad fresh or only baked, or can be aged in cool storage like a Braeburn apple or mayhop to totally sweeten the flavor and soften the texture.

Wild plums and crabapples have a number of uses even with the drawbacks.

They tend to be hardier and a little more resistant to the diseases our domestic rubus fruits face. In some cases they might act as a carrier for pest and disease, but in many cases, the wild cousins can actually help us by forming a “windbreak” of sorts, except for pests. Pests and disease carriers hit them, and the wild fruits keep the disease or insect from jumping from apple to peach to plum to roses to berry brambles.

Wild plums and crabapples tolerate heavy pruning and pleaching, providing the potential of food, fodder, and cross-pollination for domestics in any environment.

They can also regularly serve as cross-pollinating partners for domestics. Wild cousins tend to also be broken into early, mid and late seasons, but they regularly have much longer flowering seasons. As a result, if we lose an ideal partner, our wild cousins may be close enough to fill that role not just for one cultivar, but for several.

Wild plums are highly variable in fruit size and flavor, with a long flowering period that results in longer harvest periods.

The extended flowering translates into extended fruiting as well, whereas domestics tend to have a 2-4 week window for harvest, by variety. Wild plums and crabapples can be ripening for as much as a 2-3 month period. That can let us spread out the workload, help cover gaps if we missed the harvest season due to injury or a travel, and it can allow us to harvest some of the later fruits or earlier fruits, and run livestock under them for the rest.

Just like domestic apple and plum limbs can be fed in small amounts green or larger amounts when cut and dried for hay, so can wild cousins. The cousins tend to be lower, bushier and even faster-growing, which can increase the ease and amount of fodder harvests.

Some wild plums are thorny, like pea shrub can be, and the woody trunks and branches have the ability to form living fences with the bonus of harvests.

Crabapples share the hedge-tolerant and woody growth advantages. Both also create habitat for edge-dwelling wildlife like quail and rabbits, increasing hunting capabilities whether we’re using a pellet gun in the ‘burbs or a low-load saboted .30-06 on a large spread.

Mixed crabapple hedge

Perennial Foods

There can be some huge benefits to creating a food forest and forage meadow around our homes. Even if we don’t own homes or don’t own much land, we might consider picking up a hardhat and road guard vest, and putting in some perennial shrubs and trees near us, or indulging in some seed bombs (do NOT throw invasives like bishop’s weed or kudzu anywhere; in fact, stick to wild edibles that are native to your area or the habitat-building natives that increase edible wildlife).

In many cases, the plants we choose can be beautiful and provide other services like shade and pest insect reductions, while giving us a resilient, permanent backup food source should we need it. They can provide feed for livestock, or they can create habitat and food sources to increase our game populations. Whether we’re rural or renting, increasing game means increasing food sources.

Planting natives is becoming ever more popular, so they’re increasing in availability. To fill in the areas around these perennials – and any others – look to not only the native species around you, but also to some of the nostalgia fruits like gooseberry, chokecherry and garden huckleberry that fewer folks recognize these days, and natives from similar areas or foods from Africa, Asia and South America that put up with inclement climates and are equally less known such as teff, amaranth, Asian yams, and quinoa. They tend to have fewer U.S. and Canadian pests, and can help make sure we’re the ones harvesting, not passersby.

The Pro’s & Con’s of Perennials One of the benefits of going with perennials is that they’re largely a one-time investment. Some may only last a handful of years or a

Something that can be of value to any prepper at any stage of development, even urban preppers in tight dwellings, is planning. Permaculture’s sectors and zone maps are two of the most powerful tools for developing a plan, both for assessing risks, identifying resources, and developing efficient plans for a site.

Usually sectors gets covered first. I’m going to cover Zones instead. I highly endorse doing a search for “permaculture sectors” – that’s where risks and resources are going to be found. Research it with an eye for defensive and evacuation potential as well.

Zone mapping in permaculture is where we define areas by our presence, using activity and energy input level. By consolidating things that need the same amount of interaction, or even each other, we can greatly increase our efficiency. With a map that actually shows our patterns, and our goals, we can move or site things to maximize that efficiency.

Permie Zones

Permaculture zones are abstract geographic areas delineated from the other areas of our property – or our habitual paths – by the amount of time we spend in that area. The zones are based on access, not geographic nearness to our homes and beds. Many zone map examples are shown in concentric rings, but actual zones are drawn and defined by our energy and presence, not distance.

Permaculture universally recognizes 5 zones, in ascending order based on the time we spend there. Sometimes there’s a Zone 0 for the self or the home. The primary-activity and most-visited zones are Zones 1 and 2.

1 Very intensive presence – Most active, usually multiple trips/passes daily

2Intensive use – Active, possibly still multiple visits per day, but not quite as frequent as Zone 1

Zone 1 is where your paths most frequently take you. It’s based almost entirely on our human environment.

Things like kitchen herbs and table gardens that need irrigation or are harvested from daily, pets and livestock that are visited daily for care or entertainment, and daily waste and composting areas are located in Zone 1.

Our kitchens and bathrooms are pretty automatic on a household/apartment level, although in permaculture, most will automatically stick the whole house in Zone 0-1.

I don’t, because I have a front stoop I almost never go in/on/through, a spare bedroom I’m only in one part of the year, only pass through my den, and on a daily basis, I usually only poke my head into the living room if I’m looking for a person or a dog. On the other hand, my father spends far more time in the living room. He rarely uses his kitchen porch, whereas my mother and I are on ours ten to fifteen times a day for access to the yard, gardens, or letting animals in and out.

The inclinations between the back and kitchen doors and-or time spent in different rooms change the views and the opportunities our presence offers. For us, it matters. For others, maybe not as much.

Zone 1 sometimes includes livestock, or sometimes they’re bumped to Zone 2, even if they’re livestock we bed down and release, milk, collect eggs from, or feed twice daily.

Zone 2 includes those areas that may not see quite as much human interaction. Regularly permies will include things like perennials with longer seasons between harvests and less daily and weekly care needed, and some livestock like foraging cattle or meat goats.

Zones 3 and 4 see increasingly less human interaction and fewer human inputs (or will, once established).

Zone 3 is larger elements, usually – the bulk foods like grains and orchards, animal pastures, ponds. They are things we may only see weekly, monthly or quarterly.

Zone 4 gets even less interaction. Usually this is managed land, tailored for foraging, livestock fodder and crop trees, timber, and longer-term grazing.

Zone 5 is an area that humans largely leave alone. Some will define this as an entirely wild area. Some will define it as a managed wild area.

To some, it’s for nature and only nature – left as a green-way – while to others, periodic hunting or foraging in this area is expected. For others, Zone 5 might be brush piles, frog houses, owl and dove and bat houses, little native patches of weeds, and other things we scatter through a yard and garden and affix to buildings to encourage helpful wildlife.

This site deepgreenpermaculture.com has a more detailed set of examples and some graphics of Zone definitions. It also has some subsections about common zone sizes.

Permaculture Research Institute – Urban farm rabbits located over composting bins, near water catchment, and along path between house, shed and garage.

Urban & Suburban Sites

There’s nothing wrong with taking a set of known factors and twitching it. Zone definitions can be rearranged and relisted, tailoring them to fit our lifestyles.

For an apartment, condo, or a single-family home on less than a half-acre, zones shrink and include our floorplan. When we turn to sector mapping, we zoom out and include more of our neighborhood with condos and small yards, but that “zoom” can apply to zones as well.

Regardless of where we’re going, or what’s around us as we putter through the day, our habits tend to change by season, and what’s around us changes. There may be areas we can “expand” into besides our own property.

That’s really worthy of its own article, but some examples would be any areas we can hit with seed bombs for wild edibles or for plants that can be improving the soil now for use in a crisis. We might have parks, verges, ditches and other areas that are untapped resources but are on some of our daily, weekly and monthly beaten paths. We might also find landowners (or absent landowners) to talk to about growing space, or have rooftops or fire escape landings that we can use for planters and water catchment, now or “after”.

Knowing where we go most frequently will help even the tiniest studio prepper identify places that have the most potential with the least effort – and that’s really what efficiency is all about, with efficiency one of the major gods of the permies.

Multiple Maps

What I recommend and what I do for clients is to actually print three identical maps. Two are for “right now”, and are going to be our habitual activity maps, one for the “high season” when we’re outside the most and one for the “slow season” when we’re outside least.

The third map is going to be our “ideal” map – what we’re about to work to make happen.

See, we’re going to use these maps to identify existing zones using our current activity. However, going back to efficiency, we’re also going to use them as a planning tool. Some of the trends we identify will lead to changes, hopefully consolidating our zones of activity for better efficiency.

We can also nab a wider view for our neighborhoods, even as home- and landowners.

Those with significant acreage might want to do one map set with just the house and the 0.5-1 acre it sits on and a second set with the whole property and a margin around it.

Supplies for Mapping

Printing and drawing really is the easiest way to make this happen. You can use computer programs to trace lines that will progressively darken or lighten with every pass. That’s not crazy talk, since it offers opportunities to make multiple-scale maps at once, then just zoom in and out. For the average client, it’s a black-and-white drawing or Google map of their property, regularly with a chunk of the surrounding area that’s going to leave some margin for additional notes.

I really like the Google Earth maps that are nice and up-to-date, and that you can adjust by season and time of day. They let you pick noon in the barest of winter, which lets you “see” more of your property. If you can’t get a free submission to Google Earth, find out if a local library has it, do some screen grabs at various zooms/scales and print them off wherever it’s cheapest.

For paper, standard letter 8.5×11” is fine, or we can go up to 11×17 or even 17×24” if we want.

We’ll also want some coloring supplies.

A couple of sharpened crayons or colored pencils are fine. Markers also work, although you either want really fine points or really big maps. Aim for colors that are easy to see on a simple map, that you’ll be able to see the map through (no dark Sharpies or pens), and that will darken as you overlap lines. Red, orange, blue, and pale purple tend to work really well.

One Map

If you only want to print one map, no big there. Hit the dollar store for some of that thin notebook or copy paper that you can trace through. You can shine a light through some plastic or use a bright window to help see better. Call it an overlay.

You can also create a larger map and make overlays of your zones and sectors using contact paper and map pens or grease pencils.

Overlays will also help reduce printing in case you decide you want to add seasonal maps, do maps for each member of the family, or combine everything into a single map.

It’s also a backup against an ill-timed sneeze, doggy nose-bump, or a beloved’s alarm going off and making us jump with a marker in our hand. Hey, we’re preppers. Prepare for crazy things.

The Process of Activity Mapping

This is where the “darkens as we overlap lines, but not too dark” comes into play. Observe, then color.

Start with your first work-day wake-up, and trace your tracks through the house, then outside it. Back and forth, bathroom, coffee, paper, animals, meals, vehicles, back and forth, all through your day until you tuck yourself in at night. To and from the bus, trash can, walking the dogs, as we hang out and retrace steps from vehicles or gardens to sheds and garages, the hose, indoor faucets, all the way down our rows and around our flower/garden beds.

Don’t draw bird-flies straight lines. Trace the actual path everyone takes. Then repeat for the work week, and the weekend.

Remember, it’s the overlaps – resulting in darker colors – that give us our current intensity of use. Be honest with yourself. You’re the one who does or doesn’t benefit.

Zone Map

Your existing zone map just drew itself.

The darkest areas are your 0-1-2 zones. Your palest and untouched areas are your Zone 4 and really, really excellent places to expand that Zone 4 or develop your Zone 5.

Now we go through, and kind of divide those spaces into blobs and blurbs and modern art. We can re-draw or trace our map and give them different colors now, or make them more uniform shades, or just more clearly delineate edges.

You should be able to identify some of the areas you only hit a couple of times a year, like pruning, or places we inspect and repair only as needed.

We should also be observant enough to know those wide, looping, lightly-drawn areas are only us mowing – and maybe we keep those in our map in their apparent zones, or maybe we go back and remove those, or lighten them to more accurately reflect how much attention they actually get while they’re getting mowed. Otherwise, especially for us Southerners, our summer map is going to show our twice-weekly or 2-6 times-monthly sing-along ride or teenager’s slave labor as getting more attention than our workshop and laundry room.

Shoveling snow and raking leaves has some impact on applying the information we just gathered, but not really a ton, so you can go light there, too, if you like.

Applying the Zone Map

Our map doesn’t just sit there. It’s a tool, one of many.

Most of us are likely to have some of our darker/intense areas out there on their own, and many of us likely have dark lines like a drunken spider’s web hooking and criss-crossing.

Those oddball dark jags are places where we can consolidate some of our activities, instead of leaving them suspended and isolated. That will save us time and effort, which will make us more efficient.

When we plan to expand gardens or even change where we keep the tools we use, consult the existing zone map. Places we’re already passing make excellent locations for those.

If we’re passing them regularly, they get more attention and we see that they’re dry, being eaten by critters, sick and sad, or ready to harvest. Being faster to respond to them, and able to respond immediately with tools if necessary, will result in better yields.

Worm bin composter located near the source of feed and easy access to water.

Sometimes we might look at our plan and actively renovate things we already have in place – especially if those things don’t get the attention they should. The extra attention and ease may make it worth it to switch from conventional beds to a series of trash cans turned into vertical gardens, from hot composting piles kept across the yard to a pipe composter in a keyhole bed or a worm composter near the kitchen or the trash.

We may move livestock so it’s faster and easier to get them into gardens for pest control or tilling, or to get composted manure onto large plots. We might move them somewhere else so they’re easier to toss kitchen scraps to.


We might eschew the usual advice of sticking an orchard out-out so we can put small livestock under it, or to make some additional use of our dog runs and kids’ play areas.

Things like the sectors that affect our property, stacking elements and stacking functions, mapping water movement, and switching to low- or lower-labor growing styles that fit into our busy lives can all help make our properties, big or small, more efficient and productive.

A zone map will help us further analyze where we can increase our efficiency and help us visualize how the puzzle pieces of our production and resources can best fit together. We can then play with the map, marking future expansions to see how they’ll fit in with our current traffic flows and patterns, and make our properties more versatile, resilient and productive all over again.

Usually sectors gets covered first. I’m going to cover Zones instead. I highly endorse doing a search for “permaculture sectors” – that’s where risks and resources are going to be

I have seen the advertisements for Rick Austin’s book, Secret Garden of Survival on a lot of blogs in the prepping community, but had not really considered it much. There wasn’t any reason that I passed it by, but I guess something didn’t trigger me to find out more about this book until last week when I stumbled on a glowing review from another source. Now, my curiosity was peaked so I went out to Amazon to check out the book further.

The premise of this book is that it will teach you how to grow a camouflaged food forest and this really caught my attention for several reasons. The first was the basic concept of having food growing in your yard that doesn’t look like a garden. One of the thoughts I and obviously Rick has had is that having a garden of nice pretty rows is an invitation to theft. I don’t have a tall fence around my property; neither do many of my neighbors. It is really easy to see who has a garden in their backyard and this could be a prime target by unscrupulous or simply starving people in a grid-down situation. To have your food somehow less obvious would be a natural advantage.

The second reason I was interested in this book are the concepts that Rick uses of a food forest and how to take advantage of nature. By using Permaculture concepts, he discusses how you can grow your food in guilds. Each guild has various layers each complimenting and benefiting the other layers. His approach uses foods planted not in rows, but probably more like how you would find them growing in the wild. This was a great idea in my opinion. I am sure that has something to do with the frustration experienced in our garden this year with weeds.

Lastly, the food forest concept mentioned in the book Secret Garden of Survival isn’t so dependent upon watering and changing all of your plants every season. This is Permaculture and your plants aren’t annuals. By planting fruits, berry producing shrubs and ground cover, you only have to worry about them the first year. One of the issues I have with gardening at least this year is how much work is wasted. Every year we have to plant, mulch, weed, fertilize, weed, water, weed and then pull it all up and do it over again. Since I have refused to use any weed killer in my yard since about 3 years ago, the battle with weeds seems more frustrating I guess but lately I have been thinking about why we fight this battle of the weeds. Surely, nature has a reason for weeds and my weekly waste of time continues to be futile. There has to be a better way.

On to the book review…

The Secret Garden of Survival is 112 pages and there is at least one photo on just about every page. Richard covers wide array of topics from how to prepare your land for planting a food forest to Permaculture guilds, grey water systems, rain water collection, planting, pest control and harvesting. There isn’t any one subject that is covered to the point of too many details and this book was a quick read. I think it took me a couple of hours to blast through it.

What I liked

I really like the concept of a food forest. I think this is simply brilliant and maybe it says something about my laziness, but if I could have the years, time and money I had invested in our current and past gardens I would completely redo everything like Rick mentions in this book. I think the concept makes perfect sense and it boggles the mind when I think of so much wasted time I have put myself and my family though with the traditional approach. Having food that comes back year after year seems to be a perfect model for anyone who wants to be prepared and this book has given me a ton of new ideas for our yard.

Now, does that mean you shouldn’t have a garden? No, quite the contrary; having a garden is such an important item to cross off your list, but if you have the time (2 years ideally), patience and land to start a food forest, that is what I would do. Would I get rid of my garden entirely? No, but I would scale it back a little and let the food forest do most of the heavy lifting.

What I didn’t like

I’ll just be honest and say that I don’t think this book was worth the cost I paid. I paid $29 on amazon and was pretty surprised that the book was as thin as it is. Some people paid even more. It’s my fault I know for not reading the details, but I just assumed it would be more like a manual. As it is, this is a great introduction to the concepts I mentioned above, but there are so many other things he could have put in this book. There were plenty of photos, but it was very short on the details of actually planning your guilds and displaying charts and graphs. Also, there were quite a few typos and the images weren’t high quality. Some were so dark it was difficult to make out what the author was trying to highlight.

If you are looking for a really good introduction to the concept of a food forest with photos from someone who has actually done it, this book may be for you. If you are looking for a resource book that you will refer back to time and time again because it is such a wealth of information, I might suggest a different book. I’ll admit that this was probably all because of the price. If this book was maybe closer to $6 I wouldn’t have felt as much disappointment, but I do think I was expecting more “how to” information and this book, while showing me something new I hadn’t considered, left me wanting more. Now I will be looking for a new resource that goes over the topics that Rick spurred my interest in. I’ll let you know if I find something better.

I have seen the advertisements for Rick Austin’s book, Secret Garden of Survival on a lot of blogs in the prepping community, but had not really considered it much. There

You don’t have to buy into any woo-woo-ology or being “green” to reap the benefits of some of the concepts to come out of environmentally friendly growing methods and lifestyles. In fact, some once would have just been considered common sense. Stacking functions is one of those. Stacking functions is a quick term for the concept of planning things (elements) and areas (space) to perform the most services for us. It’s reusing things as many times as possible to get the most out of our inputs. In permaculture, we really like multi-purpose items (stacked functions) because they increase our efficient use of a space, decrease our labor, and make it easier to gain resiliency by having multiple items that perform each function. I’ll take this in two parts so I can be wordy. We’ll start with what stacking functions is and multi-function elements. Next time we’ll look at multi-function spaces.

Types of Stacking

When we talk about stacking functions we generally mean two things: a multi-function element or a multi-function space.

Within spacial stacking, we have things like silvopasture (livestock grazing on pasture beneath and in the alleys of trees, which can be for timber, firewood, fodder/forage leaves and branches, or a fruit or nut yield for humans or livestock). We also have things like companion planting, combined coop-greenhouse or greenhouse-home designs, total-system hutch-coop systems – anything with a great deal going on in one space.

Two types of stacking function include spacial stacking or multi-function spaces, like silvopasture to increase yield or a chicken moat to protect gardens and increase efficiency, and multi-function elements – each individual inside a system, like a particular plant or animal.



Multi-function elements are the individual things inside our systems that are capable of performing more than one job – an apple or locust tree, the fire from our thermal-mass heater and rocket stove, our coop with its roof and the way we arrange our bird fencing.

How we combine and site our various elements adds or detracts from their ability to maximize the efficiency of their multi-functionality. Creating redundant spaces and incorporating redundant-functioning elements increases diversity, which adds to the resilience and thus the stability of our systems and homestead.

Multi-Function Element – Pigs

Pigs have the ability to do more than turn my creek into a muddy wallow and turn broccoli into bacon. Joel Salatin reinvented the market for pigs.

I can also tweak his methods and make it just one stage. I can let them clear land (and run off predators) ahead of chickens. Chickens further till land, spread the pig manure, consume things they missed, and make my scrub woods a field ready for replanting a little bit faster. If I have relatively savvy chickens, I can arrange my pigs as a buffer between the poultry run or rabbit hutches and nearby woods or fields. Throw 3-5 pigs in a space, and even stupid domestic dogs will rethink crossing that lot to play with the fun feathered things. I’ve seen a coyote destroyed by a handful of five-month porkers, and it’s just not pretty.

I can also use them to create a no-rodent/canine/cat zone on the non-dog side of garden beds. Foraging pigs are pretty smart. Run a loose line at the top of a fence or between trees where the pigs’ hot line is, hang some bells or cans from the line, and slap it periodically as you toss in a squirrel tail and barely-keeper fish, entrails, bug-eaten produce, gophers, scraps – anything extra, they don’t care. Pavlov’s got nothing on pigs that discover goodies at the sound of a bell.

Happily, wild critters are pretty smart, too. I’ve seen raccoons change their mind when they hit the top line with a bell on it and hear those “feed me” squeals. On the other hand, I’ve also accidentally bumped an alarm line while already flailing for balance on loose leaves, which led to one of the scariest moments of my life. Pigs: double-edged swords.

Pigs would be one element in a system – any system. They’re

  • one of several food elements (garden, poultry x1-6, goats/sheep, rabbits),
  • one of potentially three brush removers (sheep, goats),
  • one of potentially two tillers (chickens),
  • one of potentially four garden/crop clean-up critters (chickens, goats, sheep)
  • one of potentially six alarm systems (guineas, dogs, chickens, geese, donkeys), and
  • one of potentially five guardian or protection systems for smaller livestock and gardens (dogs, large aggressive geese, donkeys, Winnie the Winchester or Kimmie the K98)
  • one of several manure contributors (any non-dog, non-cat)
  • one of several manure/compost spreaders for fields and garden areas (chickens, geese & ducks to lesser degree)

They potentially serve seven functions for me. Their characteristics mean that I need to haul them water and spend enough time dealing with them that I can safely enter the pen for the keepers and handle the raise-out(s), or I can spend more time and stick them in harnesses on leashes to forage other areas or just be more amenable to humans.

If we ran the same analysis of ducks, we could see the same type of multi-function creature that provides:

  • Bug removal/pest reduction (direct garden patrol when nothing is overly small; there’s less waddle-waddle, smack-smack compaction with mulch)
  • Parasite reduction (ticks)
  • Eggs
  • Meat
  • Manure

Different animals provide fewer and more services. They all come with pro’s and con’s like size, noise, feed needs, water needs, human care, weather resistance, protection, and their ability to interact with other elements. Our needs, capabilities, and desires affect what might fit on our space and in our lives.

Ideally we also seek out the animals that let us cover each of our systems’ needs in multiple ways – redundancy to build resiliency, using stacked-function elements that each perform multiple services. It creates a complex web, but when we have complex webs, we’re nearly immune to losing a strand or two. It just doesn’t hurt us the way losing a link in a single chain would cripple our production and self-sufficiency.

Multi-Function Element – Tree

Another individual element would be a tree – super simple. We can take a produce tree like an apple or a “resource” tree like locust. Locust wouldn’t be my pick for being right next to a house, but if I had rabbits in a small lot, I might go for it.

Apples provide:

  • Fruit for fresh eating, preservation, cider (and regularly, easy-storing fruit)
  • Fruit for pectin (potentially)
  • Fruit for livestock feed (potentially – too rich for some)
  • Limbs & leaves for green feed (rabbits limited, goats, sheep, chickens)
  • Limb tips & leaves for tree hay (rabbits, goats, sheep, limited chickens & cattle)
  • Limb tips, fruit cores, & leaves for silage
  • Pruned branches for garden supports, chipping into mulch (don’t mulch berries with Rosaceae leaves), smoker chips, kindling & rocket stove fuel
  • Mid- to late-spring pollinator fodder

Two goats under tree, one on hind legs nibbling leaves

The locust provides:

  • Nitrogen for nearby plants (leaves, roots)
  • Limbs & leaves for green feed (rabbits limited, goats, sheep, chickens)
  • Limb tips & leaves for tree hay (rabbits, goats, sheep, limited chickens & cattle)
  • Limb tips, fruit cores, & leaves for silage
  • Limb tips & leaves for leaf mold (fertilizer & mulch) or shredded leaves for worm bins & compost
  • Pods for fodder (honey locust)
  • Branches for fencing & tool handles
  • Firewood & kindling
  • Pruned branches for garden supports, chipping into mulch, kindling & rocket stove fuel
  • Early- to late-spring pollinator fodder (neck-and-neck with sage for the best honey)

Both trees also have the potential to be shading a greenhouse, workshop, or home against summer’s blasts, or shading livestock coops or hutches, sheds, tractors, tie-outs, or pasture. They could also very easily shade a hammock or patio set, creating an outdoor living area, or make up part of the wall and “roof” of an outdoor cooking area.

Everything that goes for the apple also goes for most fruit trees and some nut trees. There are other livestock fodder/forage trees and things like aspen and maple that provide some to many of the same functions and services as the locust.

When worked into a guild with other plants (basically: companion planting on steroids), the apple and locust become part of a multi-function space, with some of the functions overlapping to create the same redundancy and resilience discussed with the livestock. It’s possible even in a small space by coppicing that locust (or replacing it with another, smaller N-fixing tree, or using N-fixing shrubs instead) and selecting dwarf and semi-dwarf trees.

Single-Element Replacements

Although we can get even more out of a space by combining multiple multi-function elements that work together or have similar needs, there are times when a simple solution still does wonders for us.

Thorny and dense shrubs can harden fences against livestock and intruders, create chokepoints, and serve as windbreaks while also providing a food or resource.

For example, fences and windows. It’s pretty common to have a foundation plant around homes, and living fences or using fences as trellises isn’t uncommon. It’s a pretty well-known trick to use a particularly uncomfortable shrub or bramble to create choke-points around property, make fences a little “harder”, and make it a little less likely that somebody just hops up and through our widow without us knowing. Defensive properties are one function. I totally accept aesthetic landscaping as a function.

We can boost those functions by selecting roses that produce copious hips, thorny shrubs like goji and some of the nostalgia berries, and bramble fruit like raspberry. In the case of raspberry, I not only get either a medicinal or a fruit, I get both. With a lot of them, I can also select harvest tips to use as fodder supplements for rabbits and goats. Raspberry and blackberry canes add a lot of flavor as a smoker wood.

Rubus – Blackberry ‘Loch Ness’

The Bio-Integrated Farm: A Revolutionary Permaculture-Based System Using Greenhouses, Ponds, Compost Piles, Aquaponics, Chickens, and More

Seaberry is a pain for humans, but chickens are happy to work for the berries. As a dense, spiky plant it makes a great living fence and it has the benefit of being a nitrogen fixer, so heavy-bearing plants placed alongside it can reap all kinds of benefits, from fertilizer to protection from deer and humans, to less wind.

We can replace our just-showy shrubs with vitamin-packed blueberries, honeyberries and aronia and still get explosions of color twice a year, but also get human and livestock food and increased pollinator presence by tailoring our plantings so there’s always something for them.

If we already have a patio bed or sidewalk we past nearly daily, that’s a great place to put our berries and greens that so quickly go from perfect to squishy or tough and bitter. We can easily intermingle them with our annual and perennial herbs and flowers to maintain a pretty space.

Using a bed near a house or building also allows us to quickly and easily attach porous lines to our downspouts or water barrel overflows, directing even short, light rains to water-needy plants like greens and tomatoes.

Plants, plants & more plants … always with the plants

In my defense, plants are the fastest, easiest way for absolutely everybody at every skill and scale to increase their resilience, and they tend to offer almost as many functions as a chicken – without the noise. However, we can stack functions with abiotic things as well.

If the bane of my existence is mowing and I have downhill spots in my yard that turn into swamps every time it rains, I can solve two of my problems by deep mulching uphill – using landscape fabric. The mulch not only limits how much I have to mow, it also slows, spreads, and absorbs some of the rain, increasing infiltration and requiring a little more rain to fall before I have to jump the Niagara on the way to my car or mail in the morning.

I can also deeply mulch a play area so I can still kick the kids out when it’s been raining. And if it’s deep enough, children and animals are less likely to break a bone when falling off a slide, swing or tree branch.

Either mulched area is also a non-muddy staging ground for repairs and projects, harvest sorting, training, and all kinds of gatherings.

My quad isn’t just for recreation. It’s not even just deer- or harvest-season transportation and hauling. My quad also has a hitch that turns it into a furrowing plow, disker, seed spreader, and winnowing rake.

A rocket stove and thermal-mass heater can heat my pot of water now, have a cavity and lid that acts like an earthbox/slow-cooker and a cabinet to serve as an old-school warming box, be shaped into a lounger, slowly dissipates and keeps my house nice and toasty, and with embedded plumbing can have additional water right there still hot or warm for a hand wash or a faster mug of tea. A coil of hose in a greenhouse ceiling can provide some of the same benefits.

Stacking Functions – Elements to Areas

We can tailor non-living things to provide more and less shade, take advantage of sun, wind and rain or protect from wind and rain, and we can make purchases with an eye to multi-functionality (like a kiddie pool that will double as water catchment, a chick brooder, or a tarp). However, usually when we talk about stacking functions, we’re talking about productive spaces as a primary goal. If you want to eat it, it’s usually a plant or animal.

Those plants and animals can do a lot of jobs for us even if we look at them as just individuals and spread them out across a conventional homesteading site plan. When we start combining them into groups and when we start cramming them into small spaces, we can gain a lot of benefits. We’ll look at some of the ways various plants and animals can benefit each other or us by sharing space in an article that deals specifically with multi-function areas and guilds.

You don’t have to buy into any woo-woo-ology or being “green” to reap the benefits of some of the concepts to come out of environmentally friendly growing methods and lifestyles.