The second Permaculture Design principle is ‘Each Element Performs Many Functions’.

To maximise the efficiency of a design, every element (component) is selected and located with the intention that it serves as many functions as possible.

We can only do this when we fully recognise all the properties of an element, and when this element is a plant or animal, we must have a thorough knowledge of this organism. This includes it needs, outputs. attributes, the optimum conditions and the range which it can tolerate, and so forth.

One way to do this is to perform a ‘functional analysis’ to identify an element’s needs, products, behaviours and intrinsic characteristics.

When looking at plants, we need to identify aspects such as:

  1. Form – lifestyle (is the plant annual or perennial, is the tree deciduous or evergreen) and shape (is it a ground cover, shrub, tree or vine, and how tall does it grow)
  2. Tolerances – light requirements (shade, partial shade or full sun), habitat (dry, moist or wet, low or high elevation), climate (arid, temperate, subtropical or tropical), soil type tolerance (sandy, silty, clay, loamy, peaty, or chalky soil types), and soil pH (acid, neutral or alkaline soil)
  3. Uses – edible, medicinal, animal forage, soil improvement (nitrogen fixing, cover crop, green manure), site protection (erosion control, living fence, windbreak)

If we look at a Willow tree for example, the functional analysis would be as follows:

  1. Form – deciduous tree, weeping habit, up to 30m high, fast growing and short lived, propagates easily from cuttings.
  2. Tolerances – Requires full sun, grows best in moist soil that is well-draining, often found beside streams and in damp areas. It is salt tolerant, and tolerant of a wide variety of soils and pH.
  3. Uses:

    Source of Medicine
    – The bark of white willow contains salicin, which is a chemical similar to aspirin, used for the treatment of pain, headache, and inflammatory conditions.

    Source of Material for Construction and Manufacturing
    – the wood is used to make furniture, cricket bats, tool handles, wood veneers, and toys. It is used in wood turning. Willows provide wicker for weaving of wicker baskets and for making fish traps. The wood can also be used as a source of fibre for making rope, string and paper. Charcoal used by artists is exclusively made from willow.

    Source of Energy
    – Willow is grown for biomass, a renewable energy source which reduces the need for fossil fuels and petroleum products.Ecological/Environmental Uses – Willows have many beneficial environmental uses. They can be used in the following areas:
    > Riparian buffers – Natural barriers that prevent chemicals from entering streams, ponds, and lakes.
    > Phytoremediation – Willows clean up toxins from contaminated sites.
    > Wastewater management (biofiltration) – Willows filter contaminants from wastewater, and can be used in ecological wastewater treatment systems.
    > Environmental protection and preservation – Willows are often used for land reclamation, streambank stabilisation (bioengineering), slope stabilisation, soil erosion control, shelterbelt and windbreak construction, soil building, and soil reclamation.
    > Environmental reconstruction – Willows are used for constructing wetlands and wildlife habitat.
    > Gardening – Willows are used for in the construction of hedges, “living fences” and other living garden structures and general landscaping
    > Living snowfences – Strategically planted willows trap drifting snow.
    > Farming – Willows can used by farmers as an animal forage to feed their stock.

    Horticultural Uses – Willow bark contains natural plant growth hormones which can be used for rooting new cuttings.

Now, if we take the above functional analysis, we can design a practical application of the ‘Each Element Performs Many Functions’ principle .


Here we have a steep slope on a creek bank adjoining a farm, with run-off and possible contaminants coning in off the farm. The steep banks are vulnerable to erosion from the fast flowing run-off of rainwater uphill.

Placing a willows allows us to stabilise the banks with the tree’s intricate root net and prevent soil erosion. The roots enter into the water where they create a home and shelter for fish, increasing the fish population. Any contaminants or nutrient run-off from the farm are captured by the willow, preventing them from entering and polluting the waterway. The roots also filter the water in the waterway, clearing and cleaning it. The dense canopy provides a natural evaporative cooling which creates a protective microclimate. It also creates an effective windbreak. This creates a buffer from the harsh elements which supports the creation of a local wildlife habitat which can support a greater amount of flora and fauna than a bare bank. The sheep on the farm are provided with a nice shady sheltered spot, and they also have a source of forage in the overhanging willow branches. As we can see, the willow provides many functions, so one element performs many functions.

A more urban example might also be appropriate here, something you’re more likely to see in a regular suburban back yard.


This is what it looks like in real life, when first built:

Here’s the same system, fully grown:


Once again, all of the elements serve multiple purposes.

The grapevine:

  1. Shields the two 8′x4′ vegetable beds behind it from the harsh west evening sun and strong winds.
  2. Provides a microclimate for the strawberry bed underneath,
  3. The autumn leaves that fall from the grapevine will provide mulch for the strawberries.
  4. Produces grapes and vine leaves which are both edible!

The strawberries:

  1. Create a living mulch ground cover which conserves moisture for the grapevine, limiting water loss by evaporation from the soil in summer.
  2. Produce strawberries, which are edible

It actually gets much complicated than that in my design. When we introduce a herbaceous layer, (we end up with three layers vertically, this is another Permaculture principle, that of Stacking) we add more element with multiple uses and they all act together in synergy.

To one side of the grape vine trellis, I have planted Citronella Geranium, and to the other side, Hyssop. Both these plants are good companion plants to grapevines, and this particular geranium is insect repellent and works a treat if you rub it all over exposed skin to prevent mosquito bites. Just the thing for late evening simmer gardening! The hyssop is also a medicinal herb for lung aliments, used since early European herbalism.

Furthermore, the trellis itself is an element, which serves multiple uses. When the grapevine is dormant and has lost all it’s leaves, the bare trellis can be used to support climbing peas, which therefore creates a system of succession planting also (which, incidentally, is another Permaculture design principle)!

So, in essence, in order to produce functional and effective designs, you must thoroughly understand:

  1. The nature of the elements you are designing with, and
  2. The range of elements you can possibly use in a design situation,
  3. The reason and justification for using the elements you have from the range of choices available.

Designing Permaculture food production systems is all about designing with plants first and foremost, so if you don’t know your plants intimately, then I recommend you do so as soon as possible. Permaculture garden design presupposes a high level of competency in horticultural skills, and the only way you’ll gain these is by working with plants over a period of time till you really understand plants. To be frank, your designs will only be ever as good as your understanding of the plants you use and the range of plants know about. Plants are living entities, not ‘design features’ like the landscaper’s pergolas, water features and paved paths.

Remember, you are designing with Life itself, and how can you even begin to design living ecosystems with Life itself if you don’t understand the nature of that Life.

With an understanding, or even better, a real connection to Nature, the natural harmony and efficiency of Nature will be ultimately reflected in your designs!

29 thoughts on “Permaculture Design Principle 2 – Each Element Performs Many Functions

  1. I was so inspired when I saw your garden in Geoff Lawtons video ‘Urban Permaculture’ and now I am really enjoying your blog. Thanks alot.

  2. Bonjour, je vous remercie normment de partager toute cette information. Je consulte de nombreux sites sur la permaculture et vous tes le premier site aussi prcis, aussi pdagogique, aussi agrable, aussi fourni d’informations. Merci de tout coeur. Vronique

  3. I am forever gratefull for this blog. I’m starting many gardening experiment this year and I’m really interested in exploring what I can do. (Gonna try some Huglekultur on poor sandy-rocky ground and plant clover on each bed to test out the most efficient one)

    1. General gardening books and horticulture texts, it’s hard to be specific, I read a lot on gardening because I work part time as a professional horticulturist, it’s what I do for work.

  4. Awesome idea with your grape vines. I need to remember your usage of Citronella Geranium and Hyssop. Last fall I moved in 4 4 x 6 raised garden beds in the orchard area of my backyard. (My yard is small but very intensive!) I attached 2 4×4 x 10 (tall) pressure treated beams on the outside of each box and drilled holes large enough to run rebar through for the grape trellis. In each box I planted a table grape and a Jostaberry. Now the grapes can grow up into the fruit trees and the trellis supports tree branches when they get heavy with fruit, the Jostaberry’s have a protective wire cage around them and I have room to still plant/seed in about 5 large seasonal veggies all around.

  5. Thank you so much for putting specific plants in there, some of the information I have read is not specific like this.

  6. Thanks for a lovely and informative site! You mention an urgency to intimately know your plants along with a high competency in horticulture. How might I go about doing so? Are these things I can learn in books, higher education or certificates (there are many free sites online) or is it first-hand knowledge. I am eager to transform my backyard but don’t know where to begin. It’s a bit overwhelming.

    1. A lot can be gained from hands-on experience – grow the plants that you want to grow, and read about them to learn more about them, then put into practice what you’ve just learned. After a few seasons of care, you’ll have great first-hand knowledge about growing the plants you love! Self-study and formal education are options also if they appeal to you.

  7. Wonderful! We are just about to buy our next and hopefully final home… Ive been tinkering with growing veg for while ( parents have grown veg off and on since 1970s). I have finally understood the brilliance of permaculture. My question is .. how do you marry in Australian flora? Ive got a fabulous native garden at Present ( thanks mum!) and am eating our Lilypilly hedge and foraging etc…. I feel torn between what I feel our land needs and my body thats very much used to northern hemisphere vegetables, fruits etc… Do I have a food forest out the back and a native garden in the front for local flora and fauna? Is that a good compromise?

    1. You can plant Australian native and indigenous plants right through any garden as long as the plants aren’t phosphorus-sensitive. Many Australian plants, to varying degrees, have the ability to take up phosphorus very efficiently from very poor soils, so if they’re put into very phosphorus rich soil they get poisoned from taking up too much. I have quite a few planted in my food forest, and the rest in pots and containers.

      In my opinion, my ideal is food forest in the backyard and a native garden in the front as you mention. The native garden will be in flower at times when exotic plants won’t be, and will provide a valuable source of nectar for bees and birds, as well as habitat for native fauna.

  8. Nice blog, i found you be seen Geoff Lawton Q&As from quarentine.
    When you say that we must get a better knowledge of our plant, What book o webside do you recommend for that purpose?

    Regards and thanks for share your knowledge

    1. Thanks for your comment! The way to better know plants is by growing them for at least a year through all four seasons. Books, workshops and online sources are an excellent source of valuable information which is required to begin with to start you off in the right direction, but true knowledge comes from first-hand growing experience, seeing how plants respond to various conditions season after season, experimenting to see what makes them grow best. Gardening is a journey of lrearning and discovery, and that’s what makes it so enjoyable! ?

      1. Hi Angelo, thank for your comment. I have being growing plants for a long time now, but still some are hard to figure out, like why tomatoes get brown leaves in middle summer.

        Thanks for your page

      2. When I encounter a plant problem that I can’t figure out, I go and do some research! I check my gardening books, or go online and check out the information put out by government and university agriculture departments and other reliable authoritative sources. I also ask people who know more about that particular area than I do. This is a process of self-education, with each new thing you learn, your knowledge base grows, and then you are able to share that knowledge with others!

  9. Thank you for the informative post! Im looking to turn my garden into permaculture garden (about 300-400sqm usable lan). I only have very limited experience with growing plant. So should I spend a few years get to know plants by growing them first or should I get some permaculture design for the garden first?

    Thank you

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