In my last article, we looked at some general principles and benefits of ecosystem design in the garden. Now, let’s dig further into ecosystem garden design by looking at some benefits.
In all ecosystems you see that life has different form.
We often refer to the form of plant canopies and relative size—the distinct shapes of linear or broad leaf plants and the obvious layering and vertical stacking of their canopies. For instance, in a mature forest you see larger trees, medium trees, shrubs, bushes, herbs, ground covers and vines.
Even in a grassland ecosystem, there is similar layering. (The plants don’t grow as tall, of course.)
For instance, look at the native prairie grasslands that once stretched across North America, providing habitat for bison. These areas had many different grasses, forbs, herbs and flowering plants occupying different layers. This cover ranged from 6 to 7 feet above the ground to only 3 to 6 inches off the soil.
We can apply this natural phenomenon in our yards, too, by designing food forests with layered diversity. Fruit trees can reach up high. Shade-tolerant berries can grow underneath, and herbs and ground covers can abound still further down.
This design maximizes the photosynthesis per square foot of garden or yard.
In other words, more of the sunlight that enters the footprint of your yard will be taken up by plants and transformed into useful fruit, berries and herbs. But you’re also lighting new-soil organic matter, pollinator habitat and nitrogen-fixing legumes.
All wild ecosystems have plants and animals that serve different functions and benefit the ecosystem as a whole. These “services” result in companionship between plants and, sometimes and actual evolved relationship between organisms, called symbiosis.
One common examples is the relationship between mycorrhizal fungi and trees. The trees provide sugars from photosynthesis to the fungi, and the fungi supply water and nutrients more easily to the tree through the roots.
Other times, though, plant relationships aren’t the result of symbiosis so much as a more coincidental companionship. For instance, a berry bush can protect a young fruit tree’s bark from sunscald in the winter. Although this is beneficial for the fruit tree, the berry bush didn’t evolve this specific function. Rather, it just happens.
In a similar fashion, when you plant taller trees, shrubs and creeping ground covers, you help prevent soil erosion for the whole garden ecosystem. When rain falls, it first hits the higher canopy, then trickles down to the forest floor below. There, groundcovers further protect the soil and hold it against erosion! In this case all the living plants help retain soil—to all of their benefit.
Ecosystems Create Potential
Another principle: Wild ecosystems 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, prepare the land again and seed the corn again, the landscape will yield nothing the next year. Nothing of use to the farmer (or the community that eats the corn) will grow. You might see some random weeds, though.
On the other hand, an ecosystem garden builds potential. If you plant a diversified field—or a yard with fruits, nuts, berries and herbs—then leave it, it will continue to produce. In five years, you’ll see more fruits than you previously did. Plus, the soil will be richer for composted leaf fall and those soil organisms that access deeper nutrients in the soil and help fix nitrogen.
This is not just a difference between annual and 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. The ecosystem will continue to build potential as a whole.
An ecosystem landscape designed using sustainable gardening principles will, in 15 years, yield a wealth of benefits and opportunities. The grower can harvest fruits, nuts or herbs; graft scion wood; and sell fruit trees. Furthermore, they can chip prunings for edible mushrooms and more.
The community will also offer increased wellness from beautiful and bountiful landscapes. The grower will harvest local nutrient-dense food while enjoying the health benefits of “forest bathing.”
Wow, it really is a pharmacy!