Permaculture and California Native Plants

A Question & Answer Interview with Diane and Miranda Kennedy of Finch Frolic Garden

Diane and Miranda speak on January 26 at the CNPS-San Diego Winter Workshop in Balboa Park.

Can you briefly explain permaculture for a person who may have heard the term before but does not understand what it means?

Permaculture is the overall name given to methods of land use based on nature. Above all, it focuses on building soil through non-chemical means. 

How are native plants integral to permaculture?

Native plants create the habitat that is integral to integrated pest management, wildlife corridors, and so much more. Permaculturalists study natural habitat and use that knowledge back in designed landscapes for better production. The restoration of native habitat in denuded areas stops erosion, sinks water into the landscape, builds soil and revives the food chain.

California Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma californica) Photo by Becky Matsubara

For you, in what ways are native plants and wildlife habitat connected?

DIANE: Native plants provide the best possible food and shelter for our greatly endangered native insects, as well as local birds and other animals. In any area, but most importantly in an area as biologically diverse as San Diego, planting natives is essential. Plants form a community that we are only just understanding, one which communicates on many levels and that affects all plants in the area. I find the methods of communication fascinating.

MIRANDA: With a background in conservation and ecology, I know that all parts of an ecosystem -- biotic and abiotic -- contribute to the character, interactions, and success of the system. Our view of our environment is only segments in a path that has a long history and a continuous progression. When we look at a landscape, we're looking at a certain formation of geology with a certain degree and kind of degradation and aggradation; this supports certain kinds of plants along with all the animal species that have evolved to tolerate that climate, terrain, and floral habitat. Native plants and native fauna (animals, fungi and bacteria) are innately connected as the result of hundreds and thousands of years of struggling for survival and persistence within that landscape and amongst or against each other. They're making allies and vying with competitors and enemies, enduring disruptive weather events and invasions -- as interconnected as people in neighborhoods and their homes, roads, shopping and supply centers. Current relationships are not fully understood (or even all uncovered!) yet remain dynamic: there is wonderfully so much to discover, even as it unfolds!

Besides incorporating native plants into a landscape, what is another design consideration for creating wildlife habitat? 

A water feature, preferably using rainwater or chemical-free water, is the single most important part of a habitat garden. Birds can hear the sound of dripping water from as far as miles away.

Honey Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) seed pods. Photo by Don A.W. Carlson

Tell us about your Finch Frolic Garden in Fallbrook.

Finch Frolic Garden Permaculture is a 1.68-acre food forest begun in 2011. Incorporated throughout the food producing plants and the medicinal, timber and ornamental plants, are a wide variety of natives. Most belong to the local chaparral community, and some, such as the edible-bean producing mesquite, are not, but are a bridge between native and food producer.

From the time you learned permaculture and began teaching it to others, what might have changed in the philosophy?

The philosophy of permaculture has been the same since the term was coined in the late 1970s by Bill Mollison. Its three ethics are care for the earth, care for people, and return of surplus. Permaculture isn't sustainable or organic: it's better. It's regenerative, and uses recycling, repurposing, water harvesting, soil building and good design. 

Questions written by Joseph Sochor