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Read the Plants, Read the Landscape

Observation is a key element of permaculture design, and plants can help us to understand the landscape under our feet.

Indicator plants are plants that grow in such a density that their success in out-competing other plants can tell us a lot about the soil and microclimate they grow in. Several means can be used to link a plant with a bio-indication: primary ecological range, ecological niche, characteristics (physical , chemical, etc.).

For example, a plant with a strong tap root has an advantage over other plants in a compacted soil. A nitrogen-fixing plant can thrive in a nitrogen-poor environment. The beauty of nature is that this process creates an homeostasis, leading to fertile soils — the tap-rooted plant decompacts the soil and the nitrogen-fixing plant makes nitrogen available to nearby plants via roots or leaves.

French-speaking European permaculturists can use the two-volumes encyclopedia of bio-indicator plants written by Gérard Ducerf, that indicates bio-indication from over 500 common plants of Europe.

As we just acquired our 1.3 ha (3 acre) property, this book is a precious guide during our observation phase. For example, a small stall and a kennel are located not far from the house. As you can see in the picture above, two species of plants are clearly bio-indicators of something.

After identification, the plants in front of the kennel (left) are Golden Parsley (Chaerophyllum aureum) and those in front of the stall (right) are Dwarf Elder (Sambucus ebulus). As reported by Ducerf, both are indicators of soils saturated with water and/or OM (organic matter). This is not a surprise, as there were two goats and two donkeys before we moved in. The animals would have eroded the soil (top of the picture), compacted it under their hooves (thus the water-logging), and dropped large amounts of OM.This is in part why we asked the preceding owners to give the animals away before we moved in, in view of the steepness of the landscape.

Bio-indicators can tell the history of the landscape, but they can also be a tool to choose what to do next (often to restore ecological health before it is too late). Of course this is just an element among others, as it depends on other factors (such as zones and sectors). But let’s play a little with the Dwarf Elders. They seem not very useful ‘as is’ and they are located not far from the house (between zones 1 and 2) on one of the rare flat areas of the landscape. In the encyclopedia, it is said that Dwarf Elder is a plant that like nitrate. So, we should succeed in growing (according to zone) plants that thrive on plenty of water, OM and nitrates. After asking a garden-geek friend of mine, such vegetables are corn, spinach, cabbage and squash. So, what about growing a “two-sisters” polyculture of corn and squash?

Nature is so powerful that you can read the past, and sometimes the future just by looking at plants!


  1. Hi Nicollas

    Great reference. I’ll order a copy from the library next week and see how far I get.
    What part of France are you in? We moved to the Drome in 2004 and have a small goat farm in the base-Alpes. Unfortunately a large building we rent collapsed on top of all our equipment and forage about two years ago and the proprietor’s insurance have refused to pay-up. So it’s a long wait to be heard before the Tribunal de Grande Instance.

    However, in the interim we’ve learned something about permaculture. We hope to start implementing our version once we get some money – it’s an expensive start-up!

    Best Wishes, PeterFD

  2. Hi again Nicollas

    Have you registered as farmers/exploitants with the MSA? This is the French social security system for people working in agriculture.

    I’ve always believed that permaculture lends itself well to market-gardening (maraîchères in French).

    Here in the Drôme you would need at least 2 hectares, however if you install a greenhouse, polytunnel, etc, you could bring the land requirement down.

    If you’re under 40 years of age and have a recognised qualification in Agriculture (including organic), or would be willing to study for one, you can apply for a young farmers installation grant of a maximum of 40,000 euro’s. Your partner(s) too!

    With registration you can apply for annual “primes” to help you maintain and develop your land. The more difficult the terrain, the more you get per hectare.

    You can also apply for grants of between 50% and 70% for buildings etc.

    There is tremendous pressure in France to adopt BIO farming, the conditions of which are far less strenuous than you will be using in permaculture.

    Anyway, good luck in which-ever direction you decide to take!

  3. It is actually the Three Sisters, Corn, climbing beans, and squash. Planted together it provides 20% more food than a densely planted corn field, and a more complete diet.

  4. @peterFD

    thanks for the informations, i just finished my BPREA (french diploma to become farmer – with grants), so i pretty aware oh all this stuff.

    I do not plan to become an official farmer yet, first i have to raise my child to born and design the land (veggies, poultry, food forest). But i plan to sell some stuff to the market, but the land use i plan will not qualify for an farmer status, but for a “cotisant solidaire” one, which sucks :)

    if you speak french, you can chat with other permaculturist in France on

  5. @David G

    but as this part of the plot is already full of nitrate and OM, i do not need the beans (and should not add it if a want to balance my soil)

  6. Hi again Nicollas

    Good luck with everything. I believe the CAP system is going to change in the not too distant future.

    Interesting site reference, looks very new?

    Thanks, PeterFD

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