The permaculture design principle of multiple functions is the best way for beginners to start thinking (and understanding) the "permaculture way".
But before we get to the examples let's understand the background...
No living being can function on its own. It's true for you and for everything in your garden. You need food, shelter, other human beings, an interesting and challenging job and a whole lot of other things in your life to be happy.
Plants need water, food, light, (those are obvious), but also pollination, pruning, transplanting and other things to be happy.
In a conventional garden you would be the one who has to satisfy all the needs, i.e. you have to fertilize, water, weed, mulch, prune, transplant... The work never ends!
A permaculture design is a bit smarter. A good permaculture design outsources or eliminates many tasks (especially boring, repetitive tasks) and that way saves you a lot of time and work.
Once you understand the functions of each element, you can place elements together that mutually benefit each other. It's easily done. Still, many gardeners never take advantage of these possible connections, where one plant or element looks after the needs of another plant...
This may still sound confusing, so let's look at some examples:
The easiest way for permaculture design beginners to get started is to try to think of three uses for every element in your garden. I can usually come up with about five, but three is enough for beginners:
Look at what every element can provide, and what it needs. Once you understand that you can then put elements together so they support each other.
Let's look at a compost pile in my permaculture garden:
So what does a compost pile do?
Here is an image of what it usually does... Not much. It's often hidden out of sight, in an otherwise dead area of the garden.
That is a waste of many of the services that a compost pile could provide in your garden! Let's look at them:
The obvious function of a compost pile is to turn weeds and dead leaves and other things from my garden into compost, chock full of nutrients and growth factors and other stuff that makes plants happy.
That are two functions already: taking care of garden waste and producing plant food. What else?
Come on, I said at least three uses.
Ok, here's what I can think of:
And now let's look at how the multiple functions of the different elements, and of that particular compost pile, are put together.
Index of all Permaculture Design Principles