Ecosystem Design Creates Potential, Builds Good Soil

Ecosystem design, in mimicking characteristics of naturally occurring ecosystems, builds future potential and healthy soil for years of organic food production.

by Zach Loeks
PHOTO: Drazen/Adobe Stock

In previous installments of this look at ecosystem design principles, we explored biodiversity, site-suitability, form and function. Today I’m going to present the two final principles, as I see them, for successful ecosystem design.

Ecosystems Create Potential

Another principle is wild ecosystems that they build potential. When you have a field of corn, you start with a certain number of seeds. If you fertilize the field and have a successful year, you will get a good yield of corn cobs with much more seed than when you started. This is agriculture.

But, if you don’t dry the seed, save it over the winter, then prepare the land and seed the corn again, then the landscape will yield nothing the next year.  Yes, nothing will grow that is of use to the farmer or the community that eats the corn, aside from some random weeds.

On the other hand, an ecosystem builds potential with time. If you plant a diversified field—or in our case a yard with fruits, nuts, berries and herbs—and you leave it, it will continue to produce. In five years, there will be more fruits than previously. The soil will be richer from fallen and composted leaves, and the soil will host new habitat for soil organisms to help fix nitrogen and access deeper nutrients in the soil.

This is not just a difference between an annual and a perennial agriculture, either. An orchard with only apples will be less resilient if there is a major pest outbreak than a diversified fruit forest with many different varieties. Yes, perhaps some varieties in the fruit forest will fail due to pests, but others will fill in the gaps and the ecosystem continues to build potential as a whole.

A community built from ecosystem landscapes using sustainable gardening principles will in, say, 15 years present many benefits and opportunities. Community members can harvest fruits, nuts or herbs. They can graft scion wood and sell fruit trees. They can chip pruning for edible mushrooms and so on.

Subscribe now

The community will also have increased wellness from the beautiful and bountiful landscapes through local, nutrient-dense food. And these ecosystems also provode the health benefits of “forest bathing,” which has proven that rich colors, scents and textures of natural landscapes have beneficial effects on human mental, emotional and physical health. Wow, it really is a pharmacy!

Holistic Soil

Finally, all terrestrial ecosystems are deeply connected to their soil. And this soil is alive!

The term “holistic soil” refers to a soil that has a balance of mineral material, organic matter and pore space for air and water. Indeed, an ideal soil composition is about 45 percent mineral, 5 percent organic matter, 25 percent air and 25 percent water. This means 50 percent of the soil is actually openings in the soil aggregates for air and water (otherwise known as pore space). These macro pores and micro pores (as they can be classified) help to keep the soil hydrated and aerated, which help plants survive.

This provides good drainage in major storms and provides oxygen for decomposition of organic matter.

However, and of the utmost importance, is the fact that a well-balanced soil also helps sustain soil life. Within the soil there is a micro ecosystem of organisms: from bacteria that fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, to mycorrhizal fungi that share resources with plants and arthropods that help shred and decompose organic leaf litter into more soluble and plant-available nutrients. Soil is like a city with pathways of transport, communication, plumbing and electricity. Soil even holds houses and places of work!

When we support a healthy structure to the soil in our garden, by avoiding compaction, and providing protection over the winter through cover cropping, and regular additions of organic matter, then our “soil society” thrives and provides support for the plants we want to grow.  Natural ecosystems have thriving soil life, and our garden should too!

When we use these sustainable garden practices in our gardens and yards, we maximize the benefits of wild ecosystems, such as the improved soil health and its ability to fix, store, cycle and release nutrients and water to our garden plants. This creates gardens that are more drought resistant and self-regulating for fertility.

Good ecosystem design also creates plants that are healthier and more resistant to pests! A plant that is healthy can easily acquire the nutrients it needs to grow vigorously and will more quickly develop strong shields made of lipids in their leaves to defend against the chewing insects like flea beetles.

Ecosystems are biodiverse, full of site-suitable plants, with layered form and many functions, as well as constantly building overall potential such as dynamic holistic soil rich in organic matter and teaming with life.  Ecosystem design, and all the benefits it provides now and into the future, can start with simply integrating layered diversity into our yards and protecting and enhancing the soil.

Grow On,


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *