Use Ecosystem Design Principles To Improve Your Garden

Applying ecosystem design principles to small, sustainable growing spaces can help you improve yield while reducing maintenance needs.

by Zach Loeks
PHOTO: Zach Loeks

Regenerative garden design, sustainable gardening, permaculture design, natural gardening—all of these practices have roots in observing nature. And in doing so, we can build garden strategies by working within ecosystems.

My work is in ecosystem design, which is about understanding the natural principles that make wild and natural landscapes (ecosystems such as woodlands and meadows) successful. These wild systems are regenerative and resilient. They help to self-regulate fertility and pests, and create a wealth of sustainable resources.

What Is Ecosystem Design?

We can mimic (or emulate) these natural principles in our gardens and properties through ecosystem design to help us grow sustainably. This applies larger principles into the context of a typical modern garden and/or landscape as efficient and sustainable gardening practices.

When we observe wild ecosystems—such as woodlands, grasslands or wetlands—we can see similarities (and natural principles) in all of them. These similarities can guide design for gardens, landscapes and farms.

Let’s look at some major ecosystem principles found around the world in wild ecosystems and discuss how these translate to garden practices.

Read more: Ready to try permaculture gardening? Start with these 3 crops!

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Benefits of Ecosystem Design

Some of obstacles gardeners face include:

  • weeds
  • pests
  • water
  • yields

Most gardens are also organized for short-term productivity. Annual inputs of fertility and regular irrigation in a drought are, therefore, necessary to keep the garden growing.

But ecosystem design is about creating a garden that is self-regulating and healthy. It relies on soil that is alive with beneficial soil organisms and able to fix, store and release nutrients on its own (without more fertilizer added).

Similarly, an ecosystem approach to garden soil management makes your soil able to hold more water in droughts and drain more water in flood-type rain events.

But ecosystem design is not just about soil. These sustainable gardening practices also diversify your backyards yields. They ensure you have more variety in your garden—more than just annuals).

These practices emphasize maximizing a property’s square footage with a layered approach to design. One example of this: Canopies of fruit trees, with berries and annual vegetables growing in between.

Maybe you want to apply ecosystem design to your annual vegetable garden. Or perhaps you’re building a perennial orchard or berry patch.

Regardless of your growing goals, there are some ways to include sustainable gardening into your backyard that will both increase yields and reduce weed, water and pest issues.You just need to look to principles found in permaculture and natural gardening.

In this and future articles, we’ll explore these principles, starting with biodiversity.


All ecosystems are biodiverse, meaning they have many different life forms that occupy the landscape. As gardeners, we can integrate biodiversity into our gardens in a number of ways.

We can maximize under-utilized spaces to achieve more diversity. For instance, we can use ground covers like creeping thyme in our paths between raised garden beds. We can also include various herbs and groundcovers (lemon balms, chives, echinacea) as an understory under our fruit trees.

When you increase the diversity in your garden, you don’t “put all our eggs in one basket” if there is a pest problem. Pests get confused and predatory insects enjoy a natural habitat, decreasing the potential for destructive infestations.

Read more: Here’s how to identify and manage 4 common kale pests.

Site-Suitable Plants for an Environment

All ecosystems have plants best suitable to the environment. Soil texture (sand, silt or clay), moisture (dry or wet) and climate (how cold is in the winter or hot in summer) all contribute to this factor.

Each environment has plants that are site-suitable. These species can survive and thrive in that area in which they are found.

As gardeners and property owners, it is part of our role as stewards of our landscape to continuously discover which edible and useful plants are suitable to our soil and micro-climates.

At the Ecosystem Solution Institute, we trial thousands of edible plants to find those suitable to different climates. At home, you can also trial different fruits, berries and herbs and see which do best.

And those that don’t work? Drop them. A natural ecosystem would never continue to grow something that doesn’t perform well. But it also wouldn’t settle for only growing a few crops and nothing else.

For any of your property’s micro-landscapes (5 foot by 5 foot or larger), you can analyze the soil (clay, sandy, loam) and sun exposure (full, partial-shade, shady) to better understand the hardiness zone—your coldest average winter temperatures.

Then you can find varieties that will thrive.

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