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Stacking Functions: Increasing Efficiency with Multi-Function Spaces

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Stacking functions is a quick term for the concept of planning things (elements) and areas (space) to perform the most services for us with the least input. It’s reusing things as many times as possible to get the most out of our time and energy, and letting the spaces themselves do some of the work for us. Elements used in stacking ideally perform multiple services and functions to not only further increase the efficiency of a space, but also add to our resiliency by creating redundancies in our systems. Analyzing homestead elements for multi-functionality and redundancy were covered in the first article. This time we’ll look at combining them into multi-function spaces.

Companion Planting & Guilds

An example of a multi-function space use is companion planting. Companion planting is basically co-locating plants so that one or all partners provide something the others need. A guild is taking that to another level to create a long-sustainable system with few or no outside resources needed for its continued health.

For example, we can put chives and daylily around the base of our trees to prevent weed growth and limit our work or need for mulching that particular area, and they’ll soldier through the dense shade seasons. Around the verges of fruit, nut and resource trees we’d put shade-tolerant and part-sun or full-sun berries, depending on sunlight, or we might have berries and-or vines on the fence beside the trees.

We might include wallflower, lavender, rosemary, and lupine around some of the trees and berries to provide health and pest benefits for those plants, and plug-in some radishes and nasturtium to act as pest traps and food sources. We’d include something that produces nitrogen if we were going with a hazelnut shrub or pear instead of a locust. We might build up rings of soil to plant sweet potatoes or yams to spread and choke out weeds, and use the biomass for livestock feed, mulch or compost. We could use weeds like henbit, plantain, wood sorrel, and dandelion for their varied human or livestock feed purposes as well as the health benefits to soil like N-fixation and nutrient mining, and their early and late pollinator feed potentials. We can fill space between the guild and other areas with somewhat decorative grass grains or high-biomass sun-loving crops like buckwheat or native oats, collecting the seed or letting it be a forage area while producing biomass we’ll use for livestock bedding or mulching.

Things like shrubs and brambles can provide shelter for small livestock that’s grazing, like rabbits, ducks and quail, should predators show up. Leaving runways of stubble and standing grasses will increase those hiding areas, either protecting our livestock or increasing our hunting territory (if neither applies, cut stubble shorter to decrease the number of critters that can hide).

All of the plants we include in the guild have at least one or two primary purposes. Most are edible or herbs, most have parts that feed livestock or worm/BSF farms, most provide something else for the system like a groundcover, nutrients, or mulching. Something like brambles might be used to deter some pests or predators, while other plants might discourage cats or ants.

We’ve jam-packed a particular area with a ton of services, yields and functions by selecting things that work well together, provide services beyond their primary role, and that fit our space and wants. By doing so, the guild doesn’t need us as often, and we can harvest a lot from a relatively small space compared to having just a couple of trees, a bramble or fence on a vine, and then mulch, monoculture pasture, or yard grass below them.

*If a companion planting list suggests chives for anything but trees and shrubs, take everything they say with a big grain of salt.

Three Sisters

One of the most well-known companion guilds is the Corn-Beans-Squash combo. Corn goes in, peas or beans follow and use the corn to climb, giving the corn extra support against wind and replacing some or all of the nitrogen the corn will use over the season. Squash follows, and is trailed around the verges to act as a shading ground-cover, decreasing evaporation and weed competition.

There are some other benefits from the system, though:

  • Increased blooming season, especially depending on type of bean and squash (good for pollinators)
  • Bug-rich hunting grounds for chicks with high-protein needs (no semi-mature chickens or geese)
  • Squash seeds for next year’s garden, eating, or livestock feed
  • Corn cobs for firestarters
  • Corn stalks to chip for bedding or mulch
  • Pea stalks for bedding or mulch (chip for bedding)
  • Squash biomass for compost
  • Dense space for ducks & guineas to hide from hawks & eagles
  • Dense, potentially long season space for beneficial insect lifecycles

Savvy birds will use elements we provide – like a hawk teepee, Three Sisters mound, or dense brush – to hide from predators while free-ranging.

Hoops & Coops – Vertical stacking

Shelters for small livestock have the potential to cram an enormous number of functions in to a stacked vertical space, just like silvopasture and aquaponics.

There’s the ability – as discussed in other articles – to stack coops or hutches over either compost or worm bins or a BSF farm (or all three). That increases the efficiency by directly feeding the bins with animal wastes, and not hauling litter and bedding more than a few feet. Another example would be storing straw or mulch under those coops, and having a bin between them. With a coop for a few chickens right beside a tier of hutches over a worm bin, we can provide young birds or layers with a handful of wigglers right there while we’re dealing with egg collection and watering and feeding.

Roofs offer two opportunities.

First, a green roof of herbs, grasses, and weeds for livestock, or human foods. Rabbit manure is “cool” and could easily be spread carefully enough to make even lettuces safe (I still wouldn’t do raw manure and root veggies, personally, but that’s me). Especially in small, compact spaces, using roofs can increase the amount of sunny area somebody has, allowing them to use the rest of the yard for larger crops. We can collect fresh feeds and let our hares and chooks clean up out out-cycling plants for us by reaching up with pruners and then taking a step to the side.

The roof can also be set up for water catchment. If it’s water that’s already filtered through shallow growing pans, it might not be great for the rabbits or chickens, but there’s no reason not to use it for the growing trays during dry periods, to keep compost and worm bins moist, or to water something like a strawberry or herb tower or some other vertical growing system that’s beside the livestock.

We can use catchment from any sized roof to create ephemeral pools, edible rain gardens, or fill catchment buckets and barrels.

We could also channel our roof runoff into a pond, and use edible lilies or cattails or damp-loving shrubs to filter and clean that water, or just make an edible rain garden.

Stacked hutches can be positioned to create shade for another set of vertical towers or planters, increasing the palatability of greens and lettuces later in the season and keeping more feed going for livestock.

Throw in a tree with human or livestock fruit, nuts, or seeds beside and across from the coops and hutches, and we’re increasing the yields of food (or feed), increasing shelter from wind and rain, providing shade (which keeps Mr. Bunny at peak performance later into the summer and earlier in the fall), creating some wind blocks and potentially terrestrial insulation for critters in winter (less heating/bedding needed), and if we arrange our buckets correctly or reuse a kiddie pool, increasing our water catchment for that area, decreasing the amount of fresh water we have to use for watering plants or animals.

Coops, Hutches & Greenhouses

Another way to stack functions in a space is something permies will love: increased integration via a combination coop-greenhouse. We’re basically going to take some of what we talked about in the efficiency article and expand it a little further.

The bare design is pretty darn good as it is: The plants benefit from the body heat and-or “deep bedding” heating method from the fowl, the insulated glass increases sun warming, and soil and water act as a heat sink in winter. Critters can clean up some of the greenhouse wastes and help reduce pests. Add in deciduous trees or vines to provide passive cooling (shade) during summer, but allow light to penetrate and warm during winter.

Some of the same thermal-mass and passive heating can be derived by siting a greenhouse and cold frames near our own homes.

Some take the combo-coop concept even further with the addition of planning trees and shrubs and annual crops nearest the greenhouse-coop to be fodder and bedding or just supplements, and all of them benefit by making it faster and easier to toss plant thinnings, prunings, and scraps to birds, and to care for both plants and animals at once.

Others stack functions by arranging chickens or geese as pest- and weed-control patrols in areas that already need to be protected, and allowing them to mow and leave manure behind for perennials to use.

The functions stacked within the building itself can be increased further as well, by increasing the diversity within the space and the use of space.

If there’s only a few animals in the types of coops and hutches shown in the first hutch examples, we can still increase the number of functions that space performs for us. We can erect a hoop house or build panels from soda bottles to arrange against and over/around the existing stacks, increasing the animals’ shelter and insulation, and using the dual body-heat and solar-heat yields to create a warmer space for starting seeds or keep “weeds” growing to feed to our livestock.

All aspects are rolling in together to create a guild of plants and animals as well as the abiotic factors like sun, wind and rain and our manmade structures, regardless of the scale.

Analyzing Elements to Stack a Space

Chickens and geese are both grazers, but ducks and guineas can be encouraged to only nibble the tenderest of shoots along with their bugs and seeds. That means ducks and guineas can be incorporated into more systems with fewer worries and less fencing. On the other hand, they require more non-vegetative feeds, they won’t till or mow for us, and they won’t cycle as much of our garden and food wastes as chooks will.

The amount of space we have, the other livestock we’re running, our feed resiliency in the form of BSF and worm farms or fish, and our own preferences lead us to deciding whether we want the increased functions and redundancy of one type of fowl over the others.

In the first stacking function article, we mostly focused on listing the services various elements can provide. When we start stacking functions within a space, especially in permaculture, we want to do basically a SWOT analysis for each element we want to include, with the element’s needs falling under its weaknesses and opportunities.

We would also list the time we need to devote on a daily, weekly, monthly and seasonal basis, and be aware of the tools we’ll be using – now and as we become older or injured – so that we can plan for proper access to each element in our system and the system’s basic infrastructure.

Then we compare it, seeking relationships where a byproduct or primary function of one serves the needs of others. We also look for similarities in needs and functions to increase efficiency.

Each kind of livestock we have or want should be taken into account as we analyze spaces for stacking functions, with structures, plants and other livestock all affecting each other in a system.

For example, if I’m choosing to have ducks or guineas and rabbits in a combined ecosystem, and I know rabbits can’t have too much fresh apple leaves and ducks don’t eat a whole lot of vegetation, I might not plant my crabapples, plums, and apples too close to them. I might instead use elms or maples – things that drop seeds my poultry will eat, but that I can also collect for hay or bedding for my livestock and to feed my worm bins. I might also use more tender forages or create a pond or ephemeral creek system for duckweed and make the guilds nearest the coop-hoop house water-based edibles.

I can use the same riparian-type edibles to create buffers and feed zones that protect waterways from livestock runoff and chilling winds.

Or I might have boggy or seasonally soaked spots and choose to create a guild or system of guilds based around willows that will help dry up those spots. The willow’s functions have increased from just shade, fodder, medicine, and possibly baskets/lashing resource limbs to also include wind break, soil stabilization or tailoring, habitat creation (fish-roots and overhanging limbs), and water purification.

It’s only by analyzing which elements we want and how each element interacts with all the others that we can best create the guilds and spaces that contain the most functions, and contain them most efficiently.

Stacking Functions – Diversity & Resiliency

Any time we can get a space to perform more services for us, it tends to increase the diversity of that space. Diversity leads to greater health. Diversity and stacked-function areas with multiple elements increase our production per square foot. Stacking also increases our efficiency by decreasing travel time (and repeated steps back and forth). The condensed, efficient use of space allows us to do even more on our property, from a rental with a balcony and some windows to a 500-acre dream ranch.

Stacking functions is worth more research. It’s another area of permaculture and functional landscape design with whole articles devoted to just one example or type, and is the subject of books and multiple chapters. Small space gardening can be another field to look into for inspiration even on large properties.

Other areas that may interest homesteaders and folks interested in doing a lot in small spaces are permaculture zone and sector analysis, redundancy in food webs and permaculture, diversity’s effects on soil, and fodder/forage trees, especially the legume family trees and shrubs that also fix nitrogen.

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  • Candace F

    Hi Paris – You seem to really know what you are talking about when it comes to gardening. I’m looking to expand my garden this spring, I have a lot of naturally growing edible apples trees growing on my property that I would like to keep thriving. Is there anything you recommend I do NOT plant that could upset the apple trees? and what grows well with them? My veggie garden is pretty close to the apple trees, is this okay? I also have tons of naturally growing clove, do you think that upsets the balance of anything?

    • R. Ann

      Try to avoid deep-rooted grasses right there in competition with the edge of the trees’ root zones, especially if they’re young.
      (They’ll compete for nutrients and water with the root hairs – the tips of roots are where they collect those; it’s the flip of the trunk-limbs, where the tips-leaves-collect the sunlight and perform most of the gas exchanges.)

      Apples, plums, and most of our bramble fruit share diseases (with roses, too). They may not manifest symptoms the same way, but they can cross over, so avoid moving trimmings from one to another.
      If you’re treating your trees with sprays for pests or disease, you’re not going to want to introduce brambles or plums. If you go with strawberries as a ground cover, choose a wild type, the mock type (the berry is small and bland, but works well in a salad, and the leaves are still nice and tasty, for tea or for critter fodder), or make double sure you’re growing resistant strains.

      Likewise, make sure you’re not introducing a rosaceae that has something if your trees don’t.

      Wallflower is one of the most common tree companions.
      Chives, garlic and onion, too.
      Both help draw in predatory insects that prey on insect vectors of tree disease and pests, and will actually repel some pests. Wallflower may also actually bolster trees against disease.

      Lupine is rarely listed for the plums or apples, but it is a suggestion for roses regularly, and there’s some anecdotal evidence it can also help with the tree and bramble fruit members of the family.
      Lupine is also sometimes more attractive to white fly than the plants around it, the way radish and nasturtium can go in to be a sacrifice to the vegan insects instead of them munching our preferred crops.

      There’s huge success in keeping the low clovers going under crop trees of all kinds, with the clover getting to producing excess N about the same time trees can use the boost for fruits.

      To add to a guild, because the rosaceae family IS so prone to diseases, you can look outside it for the varying heights to include.

      You don’t mention the size or pruning style/canopy start height.

      Goji, honeyberry, and blueberries all have compatible heat-cold and pH tolerances. (If you go with a thorny goji culture, stick it where apples won’t fall in there).
      A pygmy pea shrub can go near the dripline of even a dwarf tree.
      Rhubarb tends to do well under trees and on their shady side, since it’ll actually sweeten.
      Shallow-rooted small lettuces can go in if you build a bed up around the tree (they’ll be tough to get started without tilling, which will disturb roots).
      New Zealand spinach, perennial kale, and edible hostas and ferns are some other options.
      https://deepgreenpermaculture.com/companion-planting/companion-planting-table/

      Mulch is always a friend. (Unless it’s grass or chipped-limb mulch from an infected cousin tree or bush.) 🙂

      Remember to build up a bed from the surface up with established trees, to avoid disturbing roots. Otherwise, try to wiggle your way down carefully and place shrub-perennial starts.
      Cheers!

  • Bill

    I wish I had the time to create a garden such as this, however the reality is that some of us have a work schedule which does not allow.

    • R. Ann

      Compared to a conventional in-ground or raised bed of rows, a perennial guild – especially of edible wilds – takes a fraction of the time, especially if mulch is applied.
      You might be able to manage more than you think.

    • R. Ann

      You crossed my mind yesterday.

      I don’t know how much yard work you already do. If you’re mowing and you also maintain the edging/cutting in spaces, and they eat up time, you might consider getting some trim-plant seeds that will go around boxes, along fences, and line areas.
      Chives is a top pick for me, because there are scapes, then first-opened flowers (taste like red onion), and the actual chives, although it’s a huge number you;ll never use all of. They are aggressive little pom-poms and will take a bit to establish, but once they do, they’ll discourage other plants right around them. They also buck weather and heat, are adaptive to soils, and can take abuse, they pop up early in spring ahead of weeds.
      So they make great edging and border plants, and you can just mow right up to them instead of weed-eating areas – faster, easier.
      https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/6939dc1c376ccfad96b16a445725515022f23b13303d77f5145876ebb0aa026e.jpg

      https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/5334a6f49a98f63e9b5be25c05658bcea5a9274c4eb6a51bfbd57b66ce72d777.jpg

      Some other choices might be:
      – wild garlic (basically like chives, different flower)

      – mints
      – a cardboard-chip/pine strawberry bed (even starting with the “weed” mock strawberries)
      – JUST using everybody’s leaves, pine needles, and your mown grass to create a mulched boundary you can zoom around instead of making a second pass to cut or going back and forth, slowing down and stuff so you can do those sections

      Other options would be to:
      – turn a $10-25 kitchen trash can or two and some PVC, defunct hollow handles, section of hose, tiers of soda bottles, etc. into grow towers right by the door/porch and-or hose/catchment (water ease, access, reminders)
      – hang a pot (or a train of them) of herbs, strawberries, compact cherry tomatoes, lettuces from/beside a porch,
      -and set a bucket or two to catch runoff from the porch, cover it with a t-shirt or pillowcase
      They’ll give you spaces that are right handy, less-weedy, easy to feed by stepping just out a door with coffee grounds/tea in bags, watered by just heaving up the bucket or bailing (with a coffee can or top-removed milk jug) for the first quarter-half the bucket and then heaving for the towers).
      https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/e4bf4e582e5b9a4fa4106daf3458300cd295f43204473b542e722b4420673e00.jpg

      https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/6a90c76ffcef528830c38816544a759c02295ee2082f0728d8894c07283db208.jpg

      https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/ee0059f29dbdfa47bd2964b05388e788e2b9dc38e47400dc516ac84749082f17.png

      https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/499709046947da01aadd7b1abafcf18623ec4b619283e38ee7c9bb9c084f3094.jpg

      https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/a2ad0fc3e7388eba60701ba5bf247e0171febe28dff49c0f82c0d878499b002b.png

      The workload compared to a conventional row garden is fractional, and they don’t require anything more than a few pauses.
      Upright towers versus container beds use little vertical space, have fewer access points for weeds, and are less susceptible to weeds and stuff getting thrown into them as you mow/weed eat.
      If you have a Lab, new driver, or bouncy kids, you can pound in a stake or two to help make sure they don’t get bounced hard enough to fall over.

      It doesn’t have to cost a fortune in time or money, or take a lot of space, and you can still enjoy the benefits of some gardening and seed saving.
      Containers can also be pretty. Edible ornamentals (edimentals) are used all the time, at all different scales.

      Cheers!
      Rebecca Ann

      • R. Ann

        “Upright towers versus container beds use little vertical space” – meant to say horizontal space; growing vertically uses less square footage.
        Because they’re tall, “covered”, and only a smaller footprint is available, fewer weeds and crap or falling leaves find their way inside, compared to raised beds, horizontal containers, and ground-level beds.

  • Debbie Curtis

    Another wonderful article! I just thought I’d throw this out there for folks that may be new to the country life. Nothing grows under Black Walnut trees. I can’t remember the name of the toxin, but I know people who have planted up to them and then wonder why their garden didn’t do well. Also – for horse people, never, ever, ever, put Black Walnut shavings/sawdust in your horse’s stalls for bedding. Your horse will founder. Those toxins soak right in through the sole of the foot. I’ve been told by a vet that after the black walnut is dry it is safe – but why take chances. The bales of shavings you buy are totally safe pine shavings, but there was a time when I was getting free bedding by cleaning up around a family sawmill. Learned the hard way, but it was an uncommon problem, like who would think shavings could make a horse founder? I had a lot of vet bills, and fussed with medications, put sand in his stall, hand walked him six times a day, but I saved my horse, and he came out of it sound and lived to be 38. Whew!

    • R. Ann

      jugalone

      Still a no-go on ponies, but there are a few things that exist in relationships with even the hard-hitting black walnuts.

      There’s a nice, big list at the *bottom* of these articles:
      http://extension.psu.edu/plants/gardening/fact-sheets/trees-shrubs/landscaping-and-gardening-around-walnuts-and-other-juglone-producing-plants
      http://www.mortonarb.org/trees-plants/tree-and-plant-advice/horticulture-care/plants-tolerant-black-walnut-toxicity

      The same also work around oaks if you can catch those and the walnuts before they turn the area into dry orange powder and brick, or get your hands on some wood chips from a trimming company (find out who has the contract for the power and phone companies or city street/sidewalk control – they’re chipping) and build that up around it to give those a chance to condition soil ahead of the starts.

      Personally, the hassle involved, I’d skip the annuals/traditional conventional veggies, and go with the natives and biomimics that naturally exist with black walnuts (and their fellow fighters).

      Walnuts are a really good place to stick some of the maples, dogwoods and butternuts, especially, where they also have high jugalone or alleopathic tendencies or where they have the highly reactive root systems that will grow up into other beds or start sneaking along the paths other roots build, and then outcompeting those trees and shrubs.

      Glad you liked this one too!
      🙂

      • Debbie Curtis

        Hi, Good point on the things that do grow – I was just thinking of the people I know who were trying to have a vegetable garden by some black walnuts. Thanks!