Biodiversity is the Staff of Life

Learn what biodiversity means and how you can help perpetuate it

“Evolution is no linear family tree, but change in the single multidimensional being that has grown to cover the entire surface of Earth.”― Lynn Margulis

“Work with nature, rather than against it.” –every successful organic gardener, ever

Humans, Biodiversity, and Habitat Loss

Please take a half-hour to watch this lecture:

Humans, Biodiversity, and Habitat Loss — HHMI BioInteractive Video

Survival necessitates reforestation. Full stop.

Fifteen years ago, when I wrote Food Not Lawns, lawns covered 40 million acres of land in the USA. Now, they cover 80 million acres. Since then, the human population on this planet has increased by almost 20%. Yet the amount of forest ecosystems on the planet has continued to decrease by millions of acres every year. ​

By definition, by our ethics, and by the very laws of nature, in order for an ecological design to succeed, we have to remove ourselves from the throne. We have to make the conscious choice for humanity’s needs to be on equal ground with the needs of other species. Fortunately, this is the ecological default. We just have to stop working against nature. We have to embrace the fact that, in order for our own species to survive, we have to build an active perpetuation of others into our dedicated daily life-patterns.

And yes, your food forest, however small it may seem, matters! In fact, at this point in time, our survival as a species depends entirely on how quickly we can stop global deforestation and regenerate what we’ve destroyed so far. So your gardens, as many as you can grow, for the rest of your life, are more important than ever.

The threat of cataclysm is a huge and heavy truth, but it helps to understand that biodiversity isn’t a goal or something we can get. It isn’t the destination. The destination is life. Biodiversity is the vehicle that makes the destination attainable at all. And the easiest, fastest way to get behind the wheel? Gardening!

Whether you live on a farm or in an apartment in the city, you need plants. Plants provide almost all our food and vast amounts of our fuel, fiber, and medicine. Plants filter the air and water and help bind together the cycles of the earth. 

Learning about plants inspires an instinctual, natural awareness that leads to increased creativity and mental and physical healing. Plants provide opportunities. The more diverse the plants, the more diverse the opportunities. 

And, as with everything else, the designer limits the yield. The more different and diverse and interconnected you can design your varied gardens to be, the more they will contribute to the larger ecosystems of which they (and you) are a part.

organic kale growing with fresh vegetables from the rooftop garden

Types of Gardens on a Permaculture Site

There are many different types of gardens that can interconnect in your permaculture design, and they can all be designed in ways that increase biodiversity. Where they connect, varied types of gardens will create edges and microclimates!  

  • Kitchen gardens. A kitchen garden is a place to grow vegetables and herbs so ideally it’s in a sheltered spot, near the house, where you can nip to get fresh ingredients when you’re cooking a meal.  
  • Orchards. Although orchards don’t need much attention once they’re established, and so workwise could be in a distant zone, don’t forget there will hopefully be a lot of fruit to carry! This is why even on a large farm the orchard is usually near the house. The flowers on fruit trees are vulnerable to wind and frost so some shelter is needed.
  • Pollinator gardens. Flowers and shrubs grown specifically to attract pollinators. This is both to help pollinators who are struggling, thanks to pesticides and diminished habitat, and also because gardens need pollinators.
  • Field crops. Beans, grains, and seed stewardship projects tend to need larger growing areas, managed in straighter lines than you might use for interior gardens. 
  • Wild areas. Create and nurture habitats for wildlife: make a pond, a log pile; grow wild flowers.
  • Zen gardens. Space for relaxation and meditation.
  • Children’s gardens. Space for children to play in the dirt, learn to grow food, explore the world of mini-beasts, and get out of your hair for a minute!
  • Accessible gardens. Gardens designed to be accessible are crucial for gardeners with disabilities. Thinking about accessibility is important in any garden. When friends and family visit, having at least part of the garden that is accessible means no-one is left out. 
  • Hedgerows. As we learned in week 20, a well-designed, multifunctional hedgerow can provide food, shade, privacy, habitat, firewood, and much, much more. Hedgerows can create microclimates, redirect strong winds, and shelter large areas of tender plants that might not otherwise thrive in your area. 
close up of bamboo roots

What about invasives?

If you’ve done any gardening at all, you’ve encountered weeds. Whether you pull the weeds and compost them, mulch over them, or both, removing the competition so your selected plants can thrive is a huge part of agriculture, and needn’t be a struggle. However, some plants grow a little faster, and can earn labels like “invasive.”

Weeds, “invasive” plants, and exotics that are struggling to survive in a climate they haven’t evolved to endure all have something in common: they’re growing in a place that is inappropriate for what that plant needs in order to thrive in easy harmony with the plants around.

special_needs_plants infographic by Heather Jo Flores

We call them “special needs plants.”

Identifying the potential “special needs” of certain plants, whether already onsite or on their wish-list, means designers can more adeptly decide where to place those plants, or whether to bring them onsite at all. 

This approach sidesteps the “invasive” argument altogether and simply assesses whether or not you’re willing to take responsibility for the needs of the plants you propagate.​You will also need to learn certain skills, such as when to provide extra water and nutrients, protecting from extreme temperatures, hand-pollinating for fruit production, learning how to create and make best use of microclimates, and more. And, while these pursuits are often part of a permaculture gardener’s life in general, and can surely be super fun and fascinating, it’s essential that you consider these details while developing your whole-system design.

There are 11 categories of special needs plants in this illustration, and some plants will fit into several at once. The more plants you have that could be called “special needs” plants, the more maintenance your gardens will require. 



  • Go for a walk around your home, garden, and neighborhood, with your “all species” glasses on: try to see as many different life forms as exist. If they are microscopic, try to imagine where they are. Make lists if it helps, take pictures, and go deep into your awareness of how you influence the system with your every action. Then, go back to your site design and think about biodiversity. How are you perpetuating it? How are you hurting it? Will you create wild areas on your site? Where? Who do you hope to attract?
  • Make a list of the plants you hope to grow and do the research to identify which of them are “special needs” plants. Learn what it will take to make them thrive, and make decisions about whether you might want to replace them with lower-maintenance species.
  • Become obsessed with biodiversity. Study it, talk about it, and grow it wherever you can.​

Relevant Links and Resources​

Why is biodiversity important?

This animated short video explains it.

Why is biodiversity so important? - Kim Preshoff

Food Webs and Energy PyramidsAn introduction from the Amoeba Sisters

Food Webs and Energy Pyramids: Bedrocks of Biodiversity

We are Symbiotic.

If you haven’t heard about her yet, you’re in for a treat! Meet Dr. Lynn Margulis, PhD. She’s an evolutionary biologist who co-created the Gaia Theory and proved several of Darwin’s assertions to be wrong. She also happened to be the late great Carl Sagan’s first wife. Her work is so interesting and revolutionary they made a whole documentary about her, which is well worth the time and investment. Or just go down a youtube rabbit hole and learn how evolution was/is dependent on collaboration and cooperation, NOT just competition!

Here’s a lovely interview to get you started

Lynn Margulis on her life, Symbiogenesis, Gaia Theory, Scienctific Practice and Effects of Money

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