With Ecosystem Design, Always Start With Biodiversity

Good ecosystem design is a matter of applying key principles to our growing spaces, and biodiversity is a critical first step to sustainability in the garden.

by Zach Loeks
PHOTO: cooperr/Adobe Stock

 Sustainable garden design, regenerative gardening, permaculture design, natural gardening … all of these practices are rooted in observing nature and 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, helping to self-regulate fertility and pests while creating a wealth of resources that are sustainable into the future.

We can mimic (or emulate) these natural principles in our gardens and properties through ecosystem design to help us grow sustainably. These principles are applied to the context of your typical modern garden and 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 can guide our design for gardens, landscapes and farms. We will look at the major ecosystem principles that are found around the world in wild ecosystems and discuss how these translate to garden practices.

Ecosystem Design Basics

Some of the obstacles gardeners face include those pervasive issues of weeds, pests, water and yields. Most gardens are also organized for short-term productivity. Annual inputs of fertility and regular irrigation during times of drought are necessary to keep the garden growing.

Ecosystem design is about creating a garden that is self-regulating and healthy. A garden with soil that is alive with beneficial organisms is best able to fix, store and release nutrients on its own (without adding more fertilizer). Similarly, an ecosystem approach to garden soil management makes your soil more able to hold water in droughts as well as drain water better in flood-type rain events.

But ecosystem design is not just about soil. These sustainable gardening practices also diversify backyards yields, ensuring 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 that includes canopies of fruit trees with berries and annual vegetables growing in between.

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Whether you want to apply ecosystem design to your annual vegetable garden, a perennial orchard or some integration of both, these sustainable gardening practices in your backyard are sure to increase your yields and reduce weed, water and pest issues.

Using ecosystem design for gardening is about the principles found in permaculture and natural gardening, not simply purchasing products labeled “sustainable” or “green.” Over my next few articles, we’ll look at six of the most important of these principles, starting with biodiversity.

Biodiversity Is Key

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.

For starters, we can maximize underutilized spaces to achieve more diversity. As an example, we can use ground covers like creeping thyme in our paths between raised garden beds. We can also include various herbs and ground covers as an understory under fruit trees. Ideal flowers and herbs include lemon balm, chives and echinacea.

Increasing the diversity in our garden means we don’t put all our eggs in one basket (so to speak) if there is a pest problem. We are less likely to have pest issues when there is more diversity to confuse pests and act as a habitat for predatory insects.

Biodiversity is a critical principle for sustainable ecosystem design, but it’s just one of a handful of cornerstone practices. Stay tuned for future articles covering more key concepts to practice in your ecosystem gardens.

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