Plants For A Permaculture Future: Towards Tagorean World Change?

Christine Marsh, Presentation for Workshop at International Permaculture Conference, London, September 2015 ( )



My name is Chris Marsh and I have been a trustee of the charity Plants For A Future for 10 years. The Charity was founded in 1996 to support the work of Ken Fern, plants researcher. Currently Plants For A Future supports an online database of 7,000 useful plants, freely available and accessed by over a million users each year worldwide.
Plants For A Future has had links with permaculture from the start, and we’ve had a collaboration arrangement with Chris Warburton-Brown, Research Coordinator at the Permaculture Association, for 3 years. But Plants For A Future is not a permaculture project, and most of the users of the database are just interested in plants.
But the Plants For A Future database has huge potential as a resource for the design of diverse polycultures such as woodland gardens. The question is: How can permaculture designers make better use of this valuable resource?

The Ferns’ 28 acre site in Cornwall is still called ‘The Field’ because in 1989 when they bought it, it was degraded agricultural land on an exposed, sloping site.
Now it is a beautiful and productive oasis, half natural woodland, half diverse food forest.
Over 10 years Ken planted 1,500 species of plants with edible and other uses.
From the start the site was vegan-organic – growing plants without depending in any way on domesticated livestock. Plants-based compost was used, no manure (other than human), no grazing. Barriers against rabbits and deer were installed where necessary. Vegan-organics is an ethical imperative for the Ferns; it’ll be a practical necessity in the future – an issue I’ll come to later.
Next we come to Phase 2, Plants For A Future as it is now.

Plants For A Future became online and international in 1996 when Ken Fern and colleagues set up a website and database with details of the 1,500 species he had planted. Ken also carried out desk research and added details of other useful species.
When the new trustees of the Charity took over in 2005 there were 7,000 useful plants. Since then we have redesigned the website and further developed the database. Images have been added, the detailed information has been checked, and hundreds of new species have been researched and are about to be added to the database.

This slide shows an example of the high quality plants information provided by the database. This is just data, bits and bytes, but it’s used by a lot of people. Web analytics show there are two and a half million visits to 5 million pages annually. We hear from some of these users via social media and most of them are not permaculture designers, just plants enthusiasts and researchers.
Highly flexible search facilities have been provided for plants experts, and for designers of polycultures and forest gardens.

The search facilities allow you to select from over 7000 edible and medicinal plants using criteria including: common and Latin names, keyword, family, habitat and use. The main uses are Edible and Medicinal, plus other practical uses and characteristics.
The facility ‘Search Properties’ allows you to search for a number of plant features at once, for example, for a plant that needs a light sandy soil, is between 1m and 5m high, and likes shade – the database will then present a list of plants that have all three of these features.

We also publish books.

The words we put on the back cover of our latest book, Edible Perennials, suggests how permaculture designers might use the database.
‘Current interest in forest or woodland garden designs reflects an awareness that permanent mixed plantings are inherently more sustainable than annual monocultures. They safeguard and enrich soil ecosystems, enable plants to form cooperative combinations, make use of layers above and below the soil, and they create benign microclimates which soften winds and recycle the rain. The challenge is productivity: how can yields of useful foods and other useful materials be maximised? Plants For A Future is a resource for discovering some of the answers.’

My vision for Plants for a Permaculture Future is of millions of local agricultural ecosystems designed to meet local needs using local resources.
Each local design would include one or more areas of land with diverse permanent plantings, and the Plants For A Future database would be an invaluable resource for looking up details of such plantings, allowing designers to select plants for particular uses, suited to situations within an ecological design based on natural models, especially woodland or forest gardens.
‘Millions’ sounds ambitious. It means replicating Ken Fern’s transformation of a patch of degraded land into a food forest all over the world. Ken and others have shown that this is not impossible, and it could be what the world urgently needs.

Jared Diamond has said that ‘agriculture was the worst mistake in the history of the human race’. Over the course of history, ancient civilisations collapsed when they destroyed or over exploited the forests and soils they depended on. Small scale subsistence agriculture is not much better, Land holdings are tiny, insecure, and get consolidated into industrial monocultures and villagers flee to the city.
This is the root of today’s ecological and social crisis. So what’s the alternative?

We need to look back to the pioneers: Mollison and Holmgren’s permaculture and Tagore and Elmhirst’s rural reconstruction initiatives.
The Bengali poet and polymath Rabindranath Tagore – my particular area of study – made his ‘life’s work’ a programme of rural revival in India. Each local community would be self-sufficient and culturally rich; ‘life in its completeness’ as Tagore described it.
Tagore was assisted in this work by the agriculturist and entrepreneur Leonard Elmhirst, who went on to establish the Dartington Hall Trust in Devon, which indirectly gave rise to Transition Town Totnes.
Tagore and Elmhirst achieved great things for half a century each, but both initiatives were overcome by the tides of urbanisation and globalisation.
Their message was ‘back to the village and the forest’. And now may be the time to listen to that message again.
Combining Ken Fern’s researches with permaculture and rural reconstruction could show us how to regenerate the forests destroyed by agriculture.

But could such forests meet the needs of current and future world populations?

The Ferns’ original design for their 30 acre plot was half natural woodland, half vegan-organic food forest. A social and ecological revolution is needed. If the Ferns’ design were replicated worldwide, would that work?
The Transition approach is crucial: start with a vision of (say) 30 years into the future and make a plan of how to get there. It’s actually quite encouraging to quantify the goal.
The Earth has 12 billion acres of agricultural land – arable & pasture. That’s about 40% of the total land area.
There may be 10 billion people by 2050, which still means over an acre per person.
In theory a vegan diet could support 5 people per acre.
On the size of each community, it’s useful to take Dunbar’s Number of 150, based on his research showing that ‘humans can only comfortably maintain 150 stable relationships’.
Seven groups of people that size cooperating together locally would make a typical neighbourhood of around 1,000 people.
That works out as 10 million neighbourhoods, each with one or more areas of diverse perennial plantings in its thousand to 1200 acres.
There are many obvious challenges: getting access to land; the extent of land degradation worldwide; urbanisation; and restrictions on using land for subsistence agriculture rather than for cash crops.
As I said in my introduction I’ve been looking after the charity Plants For A Future for 10 years, seeing that as a Phase 2 of its history. I’d like to think it could be more than an information source for plants enthusiasts. The search facilities are a valuable resource for forest garden designers.

I have my own vision of the future, inspired by my studies of Rabindranath Tagore, whose ideas were ahead of his time. I’ve always seen his efforts to revive Village India as a form of early permaculture. Relocalisation: back to the village and the forest, sounds utopian but it is the only sure way to sustainability.
These are some of the questions which occur to me, but I’d appreciate your own comments and questions. Thank you.



I first encountered both Permaculture and the work of Rabindranath Tagore in 1990 and saw resonances between them. In 2005 I became a Trustee of the charity Plants For A Future ( ) At the International Permaculture Conference ( ) my aim was to interest participants at this workshop in looking again at Tagore’s alternative to capital-nation-state.


The workshop is an opportunity to discuss ways of building on the current collaboration between Plants For A Future (PFAF) and the Permaculture Association. We will discuss how the wider international Permaculture movement (and the Transition movement, which has many similar aims) can best take advantage of the information in PFAF’s Plants database and connect with its worldwide user community of gardeners and specialist growers.

PFAF is a UK-based Charity whose main aims are to provide information and encourage research on ecologically sustainable horticulture, as an integral part of designs involving high species diversity and permaculture principles. PFAF now provides free access to an information database of over 7,000 edible and otherwise useful plants suitable for growing outdoors in a temperate climate. It also publishes books on edible plants, trees and shrubs, and woodland gardening. The database was originally created 15 years ago by Ken and Addy Fern, who planted and experimented with 1,500 species of edible plants, mainly perennials, on their site in Cornwall. Analytics on site usage show that around a million people each year visit the site and make use of the database and associated website.


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