Permaculture Explained: each element performs many functions

Here we explain each element performs many functions, a principle of permaculture from Bill Mollison and Reny Mia Slay's Introduction to permaculture. The second section first appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of our members' newsletter, Permaculture Works.


bMaslow's hierarchy of needsy Michel Thill

Lately, in my work as well as on Permaculture courses, I have been exploring the topic of livelihood. Livelihood is often described as “that which sustains us” and for us in the west, more often, “that which brings in an income”.

It seems that in our culture, the function of work, or certainly employment, is more often than not reduced to income. In a permaculture sense, spending that much time of our lives working for the sake of income alone seems highly inefficient. It leaves us little time to look after our other needs, such as health and wellbeing, companionship, belonging, purpose and self-actualisation.

This is where the principles Every Element Performs Multiple Functions comes in handy. If we look at a fruit tree and call it an element in our garden, we can quickly see that the fruit tree does more than just provide fruit.

A tree gives us a nice shady place to rest, it serves as the habitat for many creatures, turns carbon dioxide into oxygen, and reduces the effects of climate change. With its roots it holds the soil and prevents erosion, it cycles nutrients, turning them into foliage which in turn drops down in autumn to again provide food for life in the soil. The fruit tree performs multiple functions.

Although the tree does so anyway, as a permaculture designer, following the above principle, we are able to integrate these functions into the working of our garden.

Our work as well, is able to perform multiple functions beyond providing an income. Often our work helps us build relationships, sometimes it makes us feel like we belong, and in a few cases it makes us feel healthy and come alive.

Could good design using the principle Every Element Performs Multiple Functions help us make a living, while making a life?



by Ruth Robinson

A chicken is not just a chicken in a permaculture design. It has hidden talents, (well, functions really).  A chicken is an oft-used element in a land-based/food growing design (unless you are vegan).

Depending on where you place your chickens in your design: they can help control slugs and other garden pests, they eat your food waste and some of your ‘weeds’ - goosegrass for example. They can warm up your greenhouse at night, provide fertiliser for your soil and, of course, lay eggs!

What is an element? As Looby MacNamara says in People in Permaculture, an element is ‘a building block of your design’. We select the elements in our designs for a reason.  When we apply this principle, we can ensure the elements of our design, ‘earn their keep’. 

Graham Bell in his book Permaculture Way, advises at least 3 uses for each element, but preferably 5.  He says ‘looks nice’ doesn’t count but I think that is really up to the designer!

So if your elements have 3 to 5 functions each, those functions will occur several times in the system. This provides stability, should one or two of the elements fail.  

Jerusalem artichokes - perennial windbreak. Photo shows yellow artichoke flowers growing in a suburban backyardJerusalem artichokes are a big hit in permaculture gardens and not to be found in many supermarkets! They reliably yield interesting knobbly tubers for us to eat, have lovely sunflowers for bee forage, provide a screen for sunny gardens or a windbreak. Don’t use as mulch on your veg bed however, as they are said to inhibit growth of other plants.

This principle  helps us appreciate the yields of things that we may normally take for granted, for example, washing up. An element in our daily lives, a chore, not very interesting, sometimes mounts up to daunting proportions, you might think. Or, it could be an activity that gives us a break from heady screen time, grounds us in something simple and repetitive, easy to achieve, a bit of peace and quiet from the rest of the household perhaps and gets our hands nice and clean!

I love this principle as it illustrates the abundance, robustness and perfection of a natural system.