Permaculture Designers Manual


Section 2.6 –

Permaculture Cycles A Niche in Time


Niches and Cycles

Cycles are any recurring events or phenomena. They have another implication, which is one of diversion. A cycle is, if you like, an interruption or eddy in the straight-line progression towards entropy.

It is the special provenance of life to cycle materials. So efficiently does this happen that in a tropical forest almost all material nutrients are in cycle in life forms. It is this very complex cycling in the tropics which opened up so many opportunities for yield that thousands of species have evolved to take advantage of these.

If NICHES are opportunities in space. CYCLES are opportunities in time (a time-slot) and both together give harbor to many events and species.


Geese eat grass, digest it, moult, produce waste products, add parasites, digestive enzymes, acids and alkalis, and defecate. The ground receives the rejecta, the sun shines, and rain may fall. Fungi, bacteria, grass roots and foliage work on feathers and faeces, and metabolise them into life.

If we reorganize and encourage such cycles, our opportunities to obtain yields multiply. Every peasant farmer who keeps pigeons (as they still do in the Mediterranean borders) knows this truth. Here, every thinking farmer builds his own phosphate factory, as a pigeon loft.

Each such cycle is a “unique  event”;  diet, choice, selection, season, weather, digestion, decomposition, and regeneration differ each lime it happens. Thus, it is the number of such cycles, great and small, that decide the potential  for diversity.

We should feel ourselves privileged to be part of such eternal renewal. Just by living  we have achieved immortality – as grass, grasshoppers, gulls, geese, and other people. We are of the diversity we experience in every real sense.


If, as physical scientists assure us, we all contain a few molecules of Einstein, and if the atomic particles of our physical body reach to the outermost bounds of the universe, then we are all defacto components of all things.

There is nowhere left for us to go if we are already everywhere, and this is, in truth, all we will ever have or need. If we love ourselves at all, we should respect all things equally, and not claim any superiority over what are, in effect, our other parts. Is the hand superior to the eye? The bishop to the goose? The son to the mother?



Principle of Cyclic Opportunity


Every cyclic event increases the opportunity for yield. To increase cycling is to increase yield.”

People are built up molecule by molecule, cycling through themselves the materials of their environment: its air, soils, foods, minerals, and pathogens.

Over limit, people create their own local ecology (as do wombats and all sedentary animals): their  wastes, exudae, and rejecta eventually create the very soils in which they garden.


Garbage in, garbage out” applies equally to computers and people.

We gardeners are constantly cycling ourselves, and by a generational pattern of adjustment become “eco-compatible” with our landscape and climate. We are not the end point of evolution but a step on the way, and part of a whole sequence of cycles.

It is the number of such degenerative-regenerative cycles, unknowable to us, which determine the number of opportunities in the system, and its potential to change, mutate, diversify, and reintegrate.

Not only can we never cross the same river twice, we can never see the same view twice, nor know the same system twice. Every cycle is a new opportunity.

In nature, it is our right to die and make way for our successors.who are ourselves expressed in different forms.

It is our tolerance of the proliferation of life which permits such cycles. Deprived  systems, like those blasted by biocides, lose most or all opportunity to transcend their prior state, and the egg of life is broken, degrades, and assumes a lower potential .

Tribal peoples are very much aware of, and tied to their soil and landscapes, so that their mental and physical health depend on these ties being maintained. The rest of us who have suffered forciablele, historic dislocations from home sites, and many no longer know where home is, although there are new and conscious moves to re-inhabit the earth and to identify with a bio-region as “home.”


Travel itself causes stress and morbidity. Travelers both carry and acquire pathogens and spread them to other cultures. New settlers bring new spices, new timetables, and new concepts. Local systems have to readjust, or fail.

These processes are analogous to the disturbance of old ecosystems by new ecological or climatic forces. The post-invasion evolution contains part of the old and part of the new system, so is itself a new assembly with new potentials.

Too often, however, we have destroyed very productive local ecologies, only to replace them with energy-consuming “improvements” of our own making. We have assumed the role of the creator, and destroyed the creation to do so.

Cycling of nutrients is continuous in the tropics, but is interrupted wherever drought, cold, or low nutrient status reduces the ”base opportunity“, just as the killing of fish stocks reduces the yield.

Such cycles are slowed or even stopped by climatic factors or by our interference.


Cycles in nature are diversion routes away from entropic ends – life itself cycles nutrients – giving opportunities for yield, and thus opportunities for species to occupy time niches.”

Cycles, like comets, have schedules or times to occur. Some are frequent and obvious like day and night, others long-term. Like – sunspot cycles. Both short and long cycles are used in phenomenological reckoning by aborigines, who use cycle-indicators as time maps.



Time is a resource which can accumulate in eco­systems. It can be “lost” to an evolving or evolved system by setback (adverse disturbance), just about the same way as we can set back the hands of a clock. Such setbacks are termed deflection stats by ecologists.

Ecosystems, especially those we are in process of constructing or destroying, are always proceeding to some other state of evolution. Left alone, they may evolve at their own pace to some unknowable (or imaginary) endpoint, which we once called a climax state.

However, forest climax states are temporary events in the long span of geological time.

Australian studies show that old dune forests lose the battle to mobilize nutrients, and begin to show a net nutrient loss, aided by rainfall and occasional fire, until they begin to recede to a less vigorous shrubbery system.

Most other (disturbed)  forests appear to be building, but (if disturbed too often) never reach the previous vigour, height, or yield.

This is obvious to many of us who have seen original, regrowth, and second regrowth tree stands. These show signs of decay at progressively lower heights, and no doubt these too are losing vitality with age. I can sympathize.

Time can work as a rehabilitative resource, for active intervention in such successions enables us to analyse and to supply key nutrients and soil treatments, if needed, to assist maximum forest rejuvenation.

A second time concept is that of life-time, or the “quality time” that we have to enjoy, examine, and understand our world .To the interested observer, it would  seem that life-time is very short indeed for those mobile, power-using, bombarded, employed, make-work, and busy humans who make up non-tribal societies, while many tribal peoples still manage to preserve a high quota of the celebrations, discussions, contemplation’s, mutual preening, and creative artwork on which many of us “wish we had time to spend…

This erosion of the lifetimes of people, exacerbated by the media and messages of the consumer society, is perhaps the most serious effect of that society.


“Life is too much with us, late and soon, getting and gaining, we lay waste our years…”


People so harried that they have “no time for anything else“, may find that time has run out to save themselves, their lives, or those of their children.




Niche is a place to be, to fit in and find food, shelter, and room to operate. Many such niches are unfilled due to chance factors. Many are wiped out by agriculture or urban sprawl. Many can be created.

But in pursuit of a simple food product, most farmers give no place for wildlife, no nesting sites or unbrowsed grass for quail or pheasant (both industrious insect eaters), and often no time for any intelligent assessment of the potential benefits of other species.

Existence is not only a matter of product yield, but a question of appreciating variety in landscape. Evolving plant systems and existing animals provide niches for new species: the cattle egret follows cattle; the burrows of rabbits are occupied by possum, bandicoot, snakes, frogs. and feral cats; and the growing tree becomes a trellis, shade spot, and a host to fungus and epiphytes.


Every large tree is a universe in itself. A tree offers many specialty-forage niches to bird, mammal, and invertebrate species. For instance, yellow-throated honeyeaters (in Tasmania) search the knot-holes for insects, treecreepers the bark fissures, strongbilled honeyeaters the rolls of branch bark and hanging strips of bark, and blackheaded honeyeaters the foliage, where pardalotes specify the scale insects as their field.

As for time-sharing, the yellow-throats are permanent and territory-holding residents, the treecreepers migrants, the strongbills and blackheads roving flock species, and all of them scatter as breeding pairs in the spring and summer, so that it is rare to find any one tree fully occupied at any one time.

There is also a pronounced post-breeding tendency for several bird species to form associations for foraging and travelling in autumn and winter. Five to eight species travel together, some (e.g. fly-catchers) gathering insects disturbed by the others, with all species reacting to the alarm calls of any one species, but some species (mynahs for example) acting assentinels for the whole mixed company.

Here, we see time, space, and functions all used in a complex and non-competitive way, and glimpse something of the potential for designers to enrich human societies providing that no individual or group claims a right to sole – use at all times for an area.


The failure of a mono-culture to produce, sustain,or persist is thus easily explained, as many species are invading or trying to use more efficiently the complex resources of time and space.

A combined space-time factor is called a schedule: a time to be in that place. Any observer of public park use sees the usage change hour by hour. Morning joggers give way to lunch-time office workers, who are succeeded by older, retired people playing draughts, later displaced by evening entertainment crowds, and late at night, the people on the edge of time: the semi-legal, the unemployed , and the lonely. Towards dawn, only the lame and isolated strollers, often with dogs for companions, remain on the streets.

Many mammals, forced to develop tracks and resting places, do not control “areas“, but rather time-slots in space. My own studies of wild wallaby, urban people, and possum show this to be the case. Fighting occurs when one is out of schedule, and ceases when that place is vacated for use.

Schedules may run on long cycles, tuned to the level of browse or succession of vegetation, e.g. a sequence of grazing has been observed for African herds, so that antelope follow wildebeest follow elephant (or some such  sequence) for many herd species.

This suggests that wormed braziers, knowing the preferences of different species (sheep follow Cattle follow horses follow goats) can make much better use of the basic browse resource by scheduling rotation (not to keep one level of browse constant, but to dynamically balance levels by species succession).

Scheduling (the “right” to use a particular space at a specific time, occurs within species, where dominant animals use prime grazing land at prime time, and sub-dominants are pushed  to the edge of  time and space, or between species, so that  sequences of different species use the same area of vegetation at different seasons or stages of growth.

No individual “owns” the area, just a time-space slot (like a chair in a family kitchen at dinnertime). In Tasmania, there are two prime time activity peaks for wallaby over 24 hours, both at night: the main one is crepuscular (just after sundown), and the secondary one is auroral (just before dawn).

This permits digestive and recuperative rest periods, denied to weaker animals who cannot compete for preferred periods.

Within this framework, any possum can, by aggression displace a wallaby at a feeding-place. Any individual holds a place only for a short time, moving on to contest another area until satiated. Thus, the sharing of resources is a complex dynamic, but no species or individual has sole rights.

A human analogy would be that of a sports-ground used by different sports groups at times, by gulls or rodents whenever sports are not being played, and by worms at all times.


To summarize, we have:

1.  Niche in space, or “territory“·(nest and forage sites);

2.  Niche in time (cycles of opportunity); and

3.  Niche in spac-e-time (schedules).


Between these, there is always space or lime available to increase turnover. Niches enable better utilisation and greater diversity, hence more yield .

Of all of these niches, schedules are the best strategy for fitting in new species of mammals, providing these are not territorial species (which try to hold their own space at all times), but are chosen from cooperative species which yield space when the time Is right (see Figure 1.5).


There are lessons here for people:

those who try to hold on to all things at all times prevent their use by others“.


Figure 1.5