There’s no such thing as an ornamental garden

I love it when someone unexpected turns out to be a fellow permaculture practitioner.

I recently mentioned our permaculture students to my physio, Michael. He got very excited, which is maybe not such a good thing when someone has a seatbelt around their hips while they stretch out you inner thigh! It turns out he’s a huge Bill Mollison fan, has read The Designer’s Manual and has an established and highly productive permaculture garden.

Then he said this. “My neighbour has a garden full of dahlias and roses. An ornamental garden seems like such a waste of space to me.”

Interesting. It got me thinking about all of the various things we have done with our own system. There are large sections of it that Michael would probably consider a waste of space on the basis that there are no obvious human food plants. But permaculture isn’t just about growing food for humans.

I’ve raised this topic before, most recently in this article about what permaculture isn’t:

It’s true that for many of us our entry point to permaculture was gardening, and food growing in particular. It was a practical way to understand the design model. Those that stay with permaculture also come to understand that it’s a pattern that can be used in all kinds of contexts, not just gardening. Developed as an alternative to industrial agriculture, permaculture has its roots in the soil but its branches extend into anything that can be designed; homes, social systems, businesses, refugee camps and personal development have all been improved using the model. When Bill Mollison declared permaculture ‘imagination intensive’ I wonder if he imagined how broadly it would spread. David Holmgren in his most recent book, Retrosuburbia, applies permaculture design to areas as diverse as raising children, sharing homes with others, dealing with an energy descent future and managing our health. He’s also written about growing food.

Which leads me back to gardens. If permaculture is more than food gardens then certainly gardens that don’t produce food are worth a second look. What is the basis for calling anything a permaculture design? To my mind, it is an alignment with the three core ethics of permaculture and with the principles. The ethics and principles are not menus where your get to pick the bits you like, but part of an holistic design pattern.

Consider the ethics. If you haven’t ticked boxes for earth care, people care and fair share you might be designing, but you are not designing in permaculture. Activities that are inherently damaging to the earth or to people, and those that rely upon the unfair distribution of wealth and resources or the exploitation of the natural world can never meet the standard. So the test for an ornamental garden would be whether or not it cares for the earth, cares for people and demonstrates a return of surplus to the first two ethics. A garden that relies upon synthetic chemicals couldn’t be considered aligned with the ethics but one managed using organic, biodynamic or permaculture methods certainly could be.

Not everyone wants to grow food and not everyone can. Most of us use money as a form of stored energy. For some people the most efficient use of their energy is the support of specialist local regenerative farmers. These farms benefit from economies of scale and may provide better opportunities to put energy to its highest use when compared to a similar land mass of suburban homes attempting to achieve the same output. Supporting farmers to make right livelihood might be the choice that best aligns with permaculture principles for your family, particularly if you are short on the time needed to manage a garden, or live somewhere that isn’t conducive to growing food.

Now let’s think about the principles. While an ornamental garden isn’t providing food, consider all of the other yields. It could provide cut flowers that haven’t been grown using the damaging methods used by that industry. It might provide habitat for a range of living things, from birds to lizards, from frogs to butterflies. A well managed ornamental garden will be drawing down significant amounts of carbon, processing CO2 and pumping out oxygen. The soil that supports this garden will hold a billion life forms in a teaspoon and the root systems of the trees within it will create giant underground cities, teeming with life. Flowers provide pollen for bees and nectar for birds. A thriving ecosystem does not need to feed humans to be valuable.

I also believe that beauty is a legitimate yield. Gardens that enchant and delight the eye, that lift the heart, that invite us out of our homes and amongst their flowers have a value beyond putting food in our bellies. The spaces within them become part of ‘people care’, whether its a seat with a view, a restful place of meditation or a play area for children.

Look at all those stacked functions.

I would suggest that a garden that doesn’t provide any human food can certainly qualify as a permaculture system. How it is managed would be as important as it is for a food garden, but assuming energy efficiency and earth-friendly practices, it meets all of the requirements. I would also suggest that to dismiss any garden as ‘ornamental’ is both unkind and incorrect. Gardens are never purely ornamental, even those that don’t provide humans with food.

Of course the irony of Michael’s original statement will be obvious to many of you. Both roses and dahlias are edible.

One thought on “There’s no such thing as an ornamental garden

  1. Another excellent article Meg.
    I think we all need beauty and the occasional wow factor in any garden and as you note a plant with high visual value often has plenty of other values. Permaculture is not ugly. Maybe it’s the general lack of typical ornamentation and regimentation (suburban gardens of mondo grass, standard roses and buxus hedges come to mind) that has some people dissing the relaxed aesthetics.


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