Tree Species Selection using Permaculture Principles

Today I had the chance to plant some of my own trees, and I wanted to produce a short(ish) article about the trees that I planted, their range of uses, and what I intend to do with them in the future. I had also planned to give a rundown of my own tree planting system, but decided to save that for another post, hopefully when the weather is more conducive to taking pictures. I tend to use Patrick Whitefield’s list of Permaculture Principles, as listed in his excellent book, The Earth Care Manual. This was the first Permaculture book that I used, and Patrick was my teacher on the Permaculture Design Course that I attended.


Trees Planted

The trees that I’ve been planting today are Cherry Plum (Prunus Cerasifera), Sweet Chestnut (Castanea Sativa), and False Acacia (Robinia Pseudoacacia). To help understand why I chose these particular species, you need to understand what my needs/wants/required outputs are, as for me, this drives the selection process, and ultimately the design.

My Priorities

My priorities for this area include: Bee forage, firewood, food, shelter for beehives, and wildlife habitat, amongst others. Conventional design might separate all of these functions, but in Permaculture we are looking for Multiple Outputs (Whitefield), or for every element to fulfill more than one function (Mollison).

My top priority is bee forage, for which, providing food sources early, and late in the year, are most important. Located in the middle of Industrial Agriculture, the period from April to June, is dominated by Oilseed Rape, and Field beans. It makes more sense to use trees that flower outside of those periods.

Cherry Plum

The first tree, the Cherry Plum, meets many of these needs. It is one of the first sources of nectar available to bees, it burns well, is a good, tough hedging tree, produces fruit, and the flowers are attractive. So it earns it’s place in the planting scheme easily. Looking to the future, it may be even more useful. Most fruit trees are propagated by grafting, which takes a cutting from a parent plant, with good characteristics, and attaches it to a different plant, known as the rootstock. This is done primarily because when plants are grown from seed, their characteristics are variable. That may be ideal for selection purposes, but not good for fruit tree sales, as it is not possible to predict how good/bad the new variety will be. My plants have been grown from seed, so will be genetically different from the parent plant. So, not only could I graft good fruiting varieties of Cherry plums onto these seedlings, if I delay this until they are producing fruit, I may discover that there are some that already have good qualities, that I want to keep. By waiting, and then evaluating what is there (Permaculture Principle of Observe and Interact), I may find a new, better variety of fruit, or a plant that produces it’s fruit at a younger age, or flowers earlier. These can be grafted onto the trees that do not exhibit such good fruiting qualities. It may also be possible to graft other members of the Prunus family, like plums, damsons, etc. onto the Cherry Plum rootstocks.

Sweet Chestnut and False Acacia

The Sweet Chestnut is part of an “Observe and Interact” experiment, which is now in year three. Like the False Acacia, it doesn’t thrive in a clay soil. However, having observed an Acacia growing well in a clay soil, on  a friend’s Smallholding, I decided to see how well it would cope. I planted five False Acacia, and a Sweet Chestnut, in the lower part of the garden. This has the deepest topsoil on the whole of the smallholding, but still suffers from waterlogging after prolonged,or heavy rain. Of these, I have lost two of the False Acacia, but the rest are coping OK. To take the experiment further I have planted ten of each species up in the field. Eight of each have gone onto the top of the highest (Northernmost) swale bank. This should keep them out of standing water until the roots are well established, and the tree is better able to cope with periods of immersion in water. I have planted two of each above them, in an area which is regularly wet. This is to see whether they can cope with the impeded drainage in that area, right from the outset. I believe that as the other trees in the field create a better soil, that these species will be fine here, but these early experiments are to see whether I need to wait.

You might ask why bother planting species which may struggle in the clay. This goes back to the bee forage need. Once the main nectar flows are over in early June, there can be a ‘hungry gap, with little else flowering. There aren’t many trees that flower at this time, and many that do are purely ornamental. Whilst there is nothing wrong with an ornamental tree, I prefer to plant trees that have other uses. The False Acacia flowers in June, is a nitrogen fixer, it’s seed can be used as poultry food, and it’s timber is like oak. It makes good fence posts, as it’s very slow to rot in in the ground, without needing to use preservatives. It does take a while before it starts to produce flowers, so the  earlier that I can introduce the tree, the sooner that it will start being of benefit to my bees.

The Sweet Chestnut flowers in July, produces nuts, has a durable timber, and responds well to coppiceing. Like the Cherry Plum, better fruiting varieties are available for grafting. This is particularly relevant to the Chestnut, as it takes a long time before it starts to produce nuts. The leaves of the chestnut take a long time to break down in the soil, helping to create a very rich humus layer.


Zoning is another principle/planning tool used in Permaculture. Applied to people it suggest that things are placed in relation to how much attention they need. With things needing frequent attention, such as seedlings, salad plants, chickens, located closer to the home, and the rest located further away according to their needs. I have applied this to the planting locations, but in relation to the needs of my bees, as opposed to mine. Early in the year, when the Cherry Plum is flowering. Flying conditions are normally more difficult, with wind, rain, and temperature all restricting flying. Therefore, the Cherry Plum is located inside the little glades that I am creating. Here, they will be better protected from the wind, and much closer to the hives. This will allow the bees to make very short flights out to the flowers, in a more sheltered environment. By the time that the Chestnut and Acacia are flowering, flying conditions are normally much easier, and so I have planted them furthest away from the hives, alongside the Eucalyptus, which should also be flowering late in the Summer. If they thrive here, the nitrogen produced by the Acacia, will help the growth of the Chestnut, and Eucalyptus.

Other Species of Trees

Other species that I am planting fulfil similar functions, and will be located in a similar way. My Planting list Includes Italian Alder, Hazelnut, Cornelian Cherry, Willow, Oak, Small Leaved Lime, Eucalyptus, Box Elder (Acer Negundo), Holly, Wild Cherry.

I have yet to decide what species to use when I improve my boundary hedging, much of which is located in quite wet areas, nor what ground cover plants to use, once the grass is weakened by the shade of the trees. These are all things to mull over slowly.

There are plenty of places to get good advice on species selection, and the mutiple uses of plants. I would particularly recommend the book Plants for A Future, by Ken Fern, or any of the great publications produced by Martin Crawford, of The Agroforestry Research Trust. Both have been very useful in gathering knowledge, which I can now use to produce a better overall design here.

Take Care


2 thoughts on “Tree Species Selection using Permaculture Principles

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