When we think of organic gardening and permaculture we tend to conjure up images of leathery-skinned bearded warriors who dedicate their lives to working long days in their vegetable plots. Whilst this may be a wonderful way to live your life, it doesn't suit the average suburbanite with a full-time job and a hefty mortgage.
Growing food is typically seen as either an art form or damned hard work. It's no wonder very few people do it on a serious level. But what if a technique came along that was so easy and so prolific that even the busiest corporate executive could grow a significant portion of their family's food in less time than it takes to drive to the shops. Ecological gardening just might be the answer. In my experience, it's the ultimate modern-day convenience veggie plot.
I didn't have a light bulb moment that said, "Ah, so this is ecological gardening". My vegetable garden was no different to anybody else's for many years until I made a few changes. The first and probably most significant was squeezing far more plants into a given area. The second change was to never dig the soil. And thirdly, I upgraded my composting system. Once these simple strategies were in place I noticed the garden taking on a life of its own. Weeds virtually stopped growing in the beds and plants started living much longer. The garden could endure longer periods without water, I was yielding far more than I ever had and I could harvest every day of the year. I wanted to know what was happening at a scientific level and applied my university training as an environmental scientist to understand why I was getting such amazing results. I had to completely let go of all my preconceived ideas as a gardener and look at the plot through the eyes of an ecologist. After some time I realized that I had created an ecosystem made up of edible plants, and it behaved in exactly the same way as a natural habitat. I became more of an observer than a gardener and the role of head gardener was pulled from under my feet as nature took up the reins.
The wonderful thing about nature is that she works tirelessly, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Nature follows very simple laws and works in the same way, on any system, anywhere in the world. When we create an ecological garden we are creating a living, breathing ecosystem. By doing this we get nature working for us, and not against us, and her great stamina works in our favour.
Niche Spaces and why they are important
A pristine ecosystem is made up of thousands of living and non-living components all coexisting in a given area. Each living component occupies its own niche space and the role of the niche space is very important to understand when creating an ecological garden. Let's look at an example. Imagine a giant rainforest tree crashing to the ground after standing tall for hundreds of years. Such a large tree would have filled an enormous niche space. Lying in the soil, hundreds of dormant seeds spring to life, desperately fighting for their opportunity to occupy the best real estate in the forest: the empty niche space. The niche space is quickly filled and harmony is restored.
When we look at a traditional vegetable garden with this type of insight, what we see is a very unnatural system. There is very little diversity and a lot of empty niche spaces. Nature enforces her will on vegetable gardens in exactly the same way she does a rainforest, and this means that empty niches spaces will be filled as quickly as possible. However, in a traditional vegetable garden there are no desirable seeds waiting to fill the niches spaces, so weeds fill them instead.
The solution is to create a garden that has tightly filled niche spaces so that weeds don't have any opportunities. We can do this by planting the garden very tightly with a diverse range of plants of differing shapes and characteristics. The result is a dense jungle-like planting arrangement that can yield an unbelievable amount. The denseness also creates a highly protected micro-climate. This ideal growing environment causes your plants to last much longer. Greens don't bolt to seed as soon as a hot spell hits and cold sensitive plants are more protected as well.
How to manage an ecological garden
Managing an ecological garden is different to managing a traditional vegetable garden. With an ecological garden, there is far less to do. As you become the observer and allow nature to take over as head gardener, you will notice that the garden is in a continual state of gentle change, just like a natural ecosystem. It can be difficult for the traditional gardener to stand back and observe as we, human beings, like to control things. This style of gardening calls for a great deal of faith in natural laws. Sure, there will be times when you need to step in and direct the system in a certain way; however that is almost always because a certain plant species is getting too successful and the system is at risk of loosing diversity.
The dense mixed-up nature of the ecological garden creates a natural form of pest management. Pests generally locate their target plant species using sight or smell. Imagine how much more difficult it is to see your target plant when its outline is blurred by a sea of green. And how on earth could you smell your target plant when there are so many conflicting smells.
Crop rotation is practiced by dedicated gardeners for a very good reason. Different plants require different minerals from the soil, in different proportions. After an area has been planted with a certain species, the soil can be left depleted of certain minerals. To lessen the effects of this depletion a different crop will be planted in the area the following year. In addition, many gardeners rest their garden beds periodically and grow a green manure crop, usually a legume such as Lucerne or field peas. These plants add nitrogen from the atmosphere through a process called nitrogen-fixing. However, crop rotation simply isn't necessary with ecological gardening because the mixed-up planting arrangement counteracts the effects of mineral depletion because a single species doesn't dominate a single area. Likewise, green manure crops are not necessary as nitrogen is topped up in two ways. Firstly, through planting edible legumes such as peas and beans within the jungle-like mass. And secondly, by the addition of compost to the surface of any bare areas.
Compost is an important part of the ecological garden and is a very valuable commodity. To me, composting is a way of building valuable nutrients that will, one day, feed me and my family. The average person buys food from a shop, consumes it and then sends the waste away. This is simply buying nutrients, taking what you need for that precise moment, and disregarding the remainder. It's a nutrient flow that only flows in one direction, like a fancy car roaring down the road. You admire the car for a moment, but after a second or two, it's gone.
My goal is to slow down the car and then get it to do a U-turn. I want to keep the nutrients within my property where I can capitalise on them. By doing this, I am able to use the nutrients again, so I don't have to buy them for a second time. In effect, I am creating a system that is self-sustainable. Composting is a vehicle in which we are able to create a nutrient cycle within our property. We are part of that cycle because we consume the nutrients when they are, for a brief time, in a useful form. Then they return to the compost and slowly make their way into another useful form where we consume them again. This cycle can go on and on indefinitely.
Natural ecosystems don't require gardeners with shovels and hoes to come along every season to turn their soil, and neither does an ecological garden. However, it is best not to walk on the garden beds as this will cause unnecessary compaction. Of course, this requires the installation of permanent pathways that are positioned in a way that the gardener can obtain access to the plot.Digging soil upsets the soil structure which, in turn, reduces the soil's ability to pass on valuable nutrients to plants. The loss of soil structure also reduces the soil's ability to hold water. Developing good soil structure is actually the best water conserving technique I know, and when practiced in conjunction with a dense planting arrangement creates a holistic soil ecology management plan. A dense planting arrangement will shade the soils surface, stopping surface crusting which causes runoff and nutrient depletion. Developing good deeper structure will allow soil organisms to do what they do best – turn organic matter into available plant nutrients.
If you are lucky enough to visit a pristine rainforest you will probably be awestruck by the towering canopy. However, the future of the rainforest lies in the soil in the form of seeds – tiny cells of life waiting for their opportunity to prosper. If we are going to create an ecological garden then we have to make sure it too, has a future. By allowing some plants to go to seed, we can build up seed stores, just like the rainforest. And like the rainforest, we should aim to have thousands of seeds of many varieties spread right across our plot. Most of these seeds will never germinate because in the ecological garden the niche spaces are so tightly filled that opportunities for new life are limited. However, eventually a plant will be eaten and an empty niche space will appear. If we have thousands of seeds lying dormant, the chances of the niche space being filled with something desirable are pretty good
Absolutely everyone from farmers to inner-city townhouse dwellers. It may seem strange, but if you have never grown food before then you are, in some ways, at an advantage. Experienced gardeners may like to see themselves as adopting some ecological gardening techniques, but find it difficult to let go of the need to control the system. Like all industries, the gardening industry can get stuck in doing things a certain way and most seasoned gardeners will inevitably over-work the garden. As a species, human beings prospered when we learnt to cultivate food using tilling and other traditional agricultural methods, so it's difficult to turn back to where we came from – nature. It might even feel like a step in the wrong direction. But if we can let go of our need to control every living thing on the planet, and start to work with nature, we actually gain more control by being able to grow food more efficiently than ever before. It's a paradox – but it works!
Setting up an ecological garden
Any existing vegetable garden can be converted into an ecological garden. Firstly, get your pathways laid out so that you never have to walk on your garden beds again. After that, get a good composting system going and apply it to the soil surface. Then plant densely and diversely.
If you don't have a vegetable garden, my suggestion would be to create a classic Esther Deans 'no dig' garden to get you started. Once erected, simply follow the ecological gardening method.
If you live in a unit or townhouse with no soft ground you could create a mini-ecological garden using a series of containers. Polystyrafoam boxes with drainage holes are ideal. Fill them with good potting mixture and arrange them side by side using as many as you can fit onto your verandah or patio. Rather than developing a large composting system, you could purchase a worm farm and add the worm casts to the soil surface as fertilizer. Once the boxes are set up, simply adopt the ecological gardening method.
The Ecological Gardening Method – the key principles.
- Plant densely
- Plant a diversity of plants within a given area
- Get a good composting system set up and use the compost as a surface mulch on bare patches
- Allow some plants to go to seed
- Only interfere with the system when a single species of plant over-dominates and simply scratch out excess plants when they are small.
Growing food is not hard work, especially when you have nature helping you 24/7. A small area can provide you with such a bounty of food, saving your family thousands of dollars per year. Most of us don't have much time to spend in the garden, including me. I only invest around eight hours of time per year to growing my food, and although I live on a small farm I only use a space of around 6 x 6m. That's an area that could fit into many suburban backyards several times over. The most wonderful thing about this method is that I know I can ignore my vegetable garden for months and it won't miss a beat. So, if you believe growing food is only for tough bearded warriors with lots of land and time, think again. Ecological gardening could be just the thing for you.