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When Orthodox Science Meets Permaculture Principles, Techniques and Design Process

Design science is at the root of any definition of permaculture or put simply, permaculture is design science. — Bill Mollison

Permaculture is a design/holistic/integrative science, whereas the mainstream/academic science is reductionist — that is, to understand how things work, scientists break a system and study the tiny parts.

Nevertheless, permaculture can benefit from reductionist science, to find relevant knowledge and new design ideas, but above all to gain some academic arguments to demonstrate the validity and legitimacy of its principles and techniques.

This is an article which shows some of the links I’ve found between scientific articles published in national and international journals, while searching facts and numbers to help me design my property. During the process, some ideas just popped, so I included them to make the article a “live performance” of the usefulness of lurking in the scientific jungle sometimes.

So, my property is 1.5 ha (2 acres) in a temperate climate, and the most important characteristic is that it has quite a steep slope, oriented toward the sun. A couple of goats have eroded parts of the land in the past. Some of the land is flat, fertile, and in front of the house — so I guess we’ve found the Zone 1 garden plot! Characteristics of the rest of the land make it a good candidate for reforestation, so I plan to create a food forest on it, with its complimentary animals (us and poultry).

Permaculture is a search for harmony in the process of positioning living or inanimate things in such a way that they can meet their natural needs, and perform their natural behavior. The efficiency of the system is met in using these behaviors and any output in an integrated way.

A good way to know to requirements of a species, like a chicken, for example, is to check how their wild counterparts live. A paper from K. C. Klasing studies the food consumed by red jungle fowls. It is so interesting I’m quoting it extensively:

Foods of plant origin that are frequently consumed include fruits and berries from trees and
herbaceous shrubs, seeds from a variety of plants especially bamboo seeds when available, nuts, young shoots of bamboo and other grasses, leaves, petals, and tubers. When near villages and agriculture, they eat readily available rice, millet, and vetches, but they are not reported to especially pursue these foods. Foods of animal origin that are frequently consumed are termites and their eggs and pupae, winged ants and their eggs and pupae, earthworms, roaches, grasshoppers, spiders, moths and their caterpillars, beetles and their grubs, small crabs, snails, centipedes, and lizards. Invertebrates are obtained by scratching at leaf litter in the forest. Insect communities in elephant droppings may be an important food source in many locations(1).

The permaculture approach of a food/fodder forest for poultry based on perennials is confirmed, and the current mainstream approach of feeding chickens with annual grains is somewhat dismissed.

How to grow a food forest? The permaculture way to do this is to interplant fruit/nut trees with pioneer trees, as seen in nature. I like this because a lot of pioneer trees are wind resistant, produce food for chickens, stabilize steep or eroded slopes, are not destroyed by deer and add fertility. What a program! Just a few examples:

  • Seabuckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) helps to infiltrate rain water, with a coefficient of only 0-3% at 50 mm daily precipitation and with a near five fold more accumulated infiltration than farmland after a 30 minute rainfall (2). After feeding seabuckthron, “the rate of laying eggs and the number of eggs increased 10.3% and 28.1% for 2-year-old hens. The weight of chickens increased 5.74% and that of hens 7.81% after feeding with leaves and fruit residues after 56 days”(3). It reduces the decrease of meat flavor during regular temperature and heat stress(4). The fruits are packed with proteins and vitamins, and are edible.
  • Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus Umbellata) is often used as a nurse crop. Works on walnuts (Juglans spp.) interplanted with autumn olives show that the nitrogen-fixing shrubs increase the growth of black walnuts by 85% after 9 years(5); increase the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and magnesium in their leaves(6); decrease by two times the amount of juglone (a chemical component secreted by walnut that affects growth of non-tolerant species) in the soil(7); reshape black walnuts(8) and decrease anthracnose(9). Autumn olive fruits are also edible, and eaten by chickens (though no scientists bothered to study this aspect).

Potential other pioneer species include pea shrub (Caragana arborescens) and Black locust (Robinia pseudoaccacia). Black walnuts, helped by autumn olives, are also edible for humans and poultry (once cracked). They also benefit from poultry manure when young (10). When one adds mulberries (Morus spp.), tolerant to juglone(11) with fruits relatively rich in proteins, well balanced in essential amino acids requirements for poultry, with high protein leaves that can be included in chicken pellets(14), and a long bearing season and self harvested fruit by poultry, one begins to see the potential of a food and forest garden for humans and poultry, as expressed by Mollison and Holmgren in their books!

The first citation about red jungle fowls reminds me about bamboo. What about growing bamboo near your poultry house, where the nitrogen tends to accumulate, so it can furnish cover, wind protection, young shoots and seeds? Maybe chickens could provide a natural way to control bamboo expansion? In regards to seed, bamboo doesn’t make seeds often (some species take 120 years!). Luckily for us, Daniel H. Janzen asked himself why bamboo waits so long to flower(12), and wrote an article in which he listed several species of bamboo with the number of years between flowering years. This might be helpful for designing fodder systems based on bamboo seeds for poultry? Ok, it’s just musing, but I include it to show how scientific articles can expand creativity during the design process.

Forest gardens not only provide food, but also cover from aerial predators, thus allowing poultry to range more and farther. As a study showed:

It was clear from this comparison between houses that the amount of tree cover in the range areas was a good predictor of the number of birds that would come outside the house.[…] Despite being the most distant habitat, trees and bushes
were consistently chosen over short grass or short grass near a fence, and open short grass was the least preferred habitat despite not being the most distant(13).

Chickens are also beneficial to trees. A comprehensive study made about the interactions between chickens and mulberry showed that chickens in a mulberry plot (at a density of 450 per ha) killed 90% of weeds in seven months(14). Domestic fowls were also good at pest control, including the Apriona japonica Tomson, a pest of mulberry.

We’ve seen some good trees for nuts and fruits (among many, many more), but as we’ve seen earlier, wild chickens consume a lot of insects (and not a lot of roasted soybeans or dried fish-meal) in the wild. A number of scientific papers show links between poultry and
insects. A promising insect is the larvae of black soldier fly (Hermetia illucens), which can reduce poultry manure by half, and 500g of flies per year could be raised from the manure of one laying hen. Black soldier fly larvae have 42% crude protein on a dry weight basis, making it a good food for poultry and could replace soybean or fish-meal(15).

We have just seen a little of the kind of knowledge and connections that can be studied and learnt in a permaculture system. Permaculture is science, and science, even when very fragmented, can be weaved into a more complex pattern. It is also the work of permaculturists to tap into this useful and overlooked resource.


  1. Poultry Nutrition: A Comparative Approach, K. C. Klasing.J. Appl. Poult. Res. Summer, 2005 vol. 14 no. 2 426-436.
  2. Seabuckthorn (Hippophae sp. L.): New crop opportunity for biodiversity conservation in cold arid Trans-Himalayas, Somen Acharya, Tsering Stobdan, Shashi Bala Singh Source: Journal of Soil and Water Conservation Vol: 9 Issue: 3 pp: 201.
  3. Evaluation of nutrient value of seabuckthorn in north China, Jian-zhong Hu and Xiao-feng Guo. Forestry Studies in China, Volume 8, Number 1, 50-52.
  4. Effect of Sea Buckthorn Leaves on Inosine Monophosphate and Adenylosuccinatelyase Gene Expression in Broilers during Heat Stress, W Zhao, X Chen, C Yan, H Liu, Z Zhang, P Wang. Asian-Aust. J. Anim. Sci. Vol. 25, No. 1 : 92 – 97.
  5. Autumn-Olive as a Nurse Plant for Black Walnut David T. Funk, Richard C. Schlesinger and Felix Ponder, Jr. Botanical Gazette Vol. 140.
  6. Effect of autumn-olive on the mineral composition of black walnut leaves, Felix Ponder. Communications in Soil Science and Plant Analysis, Vol. 14, Iss. 12, 2008
  7. Juglone concentration in soil beneath black walnut interplanted with nitrogen-fixing species, Felix Ponder and Shawky H. Tadros. Journal of Chemical Ecology , Volume 11, Number 7, 937-942
  8. Early growth and form of common walnut (Juglans regia L.) in mixture with tree and shrub nurse species in southern England, J.R. Clark, G.E. Hemery and P.S. Savill. Forestry (2008) 81 (5): 631-644.
  9. Destruction of Gnomnoia leptostyla perithecia on Juglansniga leaves by microarthropodes associated with E. umbellata Litter, K. J. Kessler. Mycologia 82, 387–390.
  10. Using Poultry Litter in Black Walnut Nutrient Management, Felix Ponder, Jr., James E. Jones, and Rita Mueller. Journal of Plant Nutrition, 28: 1355–1364, 2005.
  11. A review of suitable companion crops for black walnut, Robert Scott, William C. Sullivan. Agroforest Syst (2007) 71:185–193.
  12. Why Bamboos Wait So Long to Flower, D H Janzen. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics (1976) Volume: 7, Issue: 1, Publisher: JSTOR, Pages: 347-391.
  13. What makes free-range broiler chickens range? In situ measurement of habitat preference, Marian Stamp Dawkins, Paul A Cook, Mark J Whittingham, Katherine A Mansell, Amy E Harper. Animal Behaviour,Volume 66, Issue 1, July 2003, Pages 151–160.
  14. Uchino, K., Watanabe, M. Ishida, H. & Sato, A. 1988. Effect of guinea fowls raised in a mulberry garden. Bulletin of Chiba Prefectural Sericulture Experiment Station, 6: 1-10 (in Japanese).
  15. A value added manure management system using the black soldier fly, D. Craig Sheppard, G. Larry Newton. Bioresource Technology, Volume 50, Issue 3, 1994, Pages 275–279.


  1. Hey Nicollas,
    I really enjoyed reading this, I would have never have thought to look in scientific papers to back up ideas used in permaculture. I do however disagree with your generalisation that “mainstream/academic science is reductionist — that is, to understand how things work, scientists break a system and study the tiny parts”. This statement is true for a lot of scientific disciplines. I’m studying environmental science at university, I don’t agree with everything that is taught in the course but my favourite subjects are easily ecology subjects, the study of ecosystems; although separate parts of the ecosystem are looked at individually it is also looked at as a whole and how the different biotic and abiotic components interact with one another, just like in permaculture. Climate science is also an academic science that looks at the bigger picture.
    I’m a bit of a stickler for semantical errors so don’t mind me, but I do try to point out people’s false assumptions where possible. I am by no means disagreeing with what you are saying or trying to stick up for the modern scientific method but if permaculture is to become more mainstream and to become more accepted, our community needs to avoid making false generalisations or statements about the people/science/society to whom we are trying to show a different and more holistic way of life.
    Good luck with your property and keep up the good work (:

  2. Great article Nicollas.

    for more info on Black Soldier fly there was a good discussion here…

    here’s a link to plans for a Black Solider fly larvae automatic chicken feeder!

    BSF larvae purge their guts before seeking a place to pupate (usually in the ground) the auto feeder (simply made from a plastic 50 gal drum) has a ramp out of the compost into a feed tray accessible to the chickens, when the larvae are mature enough to pupate, they purge their guts (hence these larvae do not taint eggs as house fly maggots do) and walk the plank looking for a suitable place to pupate, straight into the chicken feeding tray :)

    There is a commercial BSF chicken feeder called the “BioPod” they also run a very informative forum, I won’t include a link here as it is a commercial company but you’ll find the forum etc. on google (the home made one in the link above seems just as good IMO)

  3. Thank you for this article. It would be good to see more like this – applying findings from mainstream science into permaculture, as appropriate. I’m hoping to develop a forage system for our chickens and found the description of the food of jungle fowl more helpful than hypothetical chicken forage systems, that I’ve read about, that use plants that wouldn’t grow in my climate.

  4. Great article.
    Some of the stuff about Black Soldier fly can be found in a book by Harvey Ussery.
    Loved the Sea Buckthorn, and Nitrigen fixer facts.

  5. Excellent article! should be a permies best friend ;)
    Organic farming research institutes also do interesting and useful research.
    For example, in Europe the FiBL (Research Institute of Organic Agriculture) is working on a very wide range of topics including things like aquaculture, breeding black soldier flies, encouraging beneficials, organic no-till etc. See These researchers are not just guys in white lab coats! Much of their research is carried out ‘in the real world’ on working commercial farms.
    Another very useful site is, an international open access archive for papers and projects related to research in organic food and farming. Poultry keepers for example will find interesting research on free-choice feeding, the value of sprouted grains, mobile housing etc. Typing “agroforestry” in the search box yields 23 papers. Well worth checking out for any topic dear to your heart.

  6. you mention a stocking density of 450 fowls to the hectare with mulberry trees…. thought that this many chooks would result in bare land?

  7. keerti, a stocking density of 450 birds to the hectare will not result in bare land, unless you design it that way.
    I grazed 150 chickens over one acre of mixed orchard with grass understory(converting to food forest) and you could not see where they had been besides the odd dust bath area where they created bare holes which they visited regularly.
    Although 150 birds to the acre only extrapolates out at 330 birds to the hectare, this orchard still required some mowing to keep the grass shorter in spring.
    However, if you confined 450 birds into a small area at a time, and effectively cell grazed them over that hectare, such as with an electro-net system, you could clear the ground of all vegetation then plant these areas to specific chicken forage crops.
    When I had 150 birds on one acre it was such a small number that you could hardly see them scattered over it, there were several roosters and they developed harems of 10 to 15 hens and they all spent their days in different areas of the orchard minding their own business, but all coming back to roost in a common shed at night.
    Admittedly, the ground was bare at the entrance to the shed and if I still lived there I would be spreading straw over this area.
    I understand that organic certification/ free range guidelines allow for 1000 birds to the hectare, which I believe would result in bare soil if the ground only had a grass covering, unless a lot of supplementary feed was provided.
    Mixed animal grazing systems such as those of Joel Salatin are worth studying for their high carrying capacity.
    I think the answer is designing diversity of forage and applying good observation and interaction.

  8. The opposition you make between permaculture and mainstream/academic science is rather – in my view – an opposition between the synthetic approach and the analytic approach in science. Most life-sciences, although academic, actually have a synthetic approach. It is especially the case of ecology, which uses the concept of emergence in the study of ecosystems, in which many properties cannot be explained by the separate study of the elements that are part of them.

  9. You may also wish to look at the mulberry leaves. Studies and tests have used the high protein leaves as a part of a feed mix.

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