Clever tips for using the way wild ecosystems work to create a self-sustaining and bountiful food garden. This is sustainable garden design at its best and benefits soil, plants, yield, and community
By Zach Loeks, Director of the Ecosystem Solution Institute
Sustainable garden design, regenerative gardening, permaculture design, natural gardening; all of these practices have roots in observing nature and creating 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 such as woodlands and meadows successful. Wild systems are regenerative and resilient, helping to self-regulate fertility and pests. They naturally create a wealth of sustained resources for the future. By emulating these natural principles in our growing spaces, our gardens can become more sustainable and bountiful.
When we observe wild ecosystems, such as woodlands, grasslands, or wetlands, we can see similarities and natural principles in all of them. Principles that can guide the design of our gardens, landscapes, and farms. 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 are necessary to keep the garden growing.
Sustainable garden design improves the land
Ecosystem design is about creating a garden that is self-regulating and healthy. A garden with soil alive with micro-organisms and that can fix, store and release nutrients on its own. It can do this all without added fertilizer. Similarly, an ecosystem approach to garden soil management makes your soil able to hold more water in droughts. It also makes it able to drain more water in flood-type rain events.
But ecosystem design is not just about soil; it’s also about plants. It’s a sustainable gardening method that uses a diverse planting scheme combining annuals and perennials. There’s an emphasis on maximizing your property’s growing area with a layered approach. That includes the tall canopies of fruit trees, the medium-height layer of berries, and annual vegetables growing in between.
You can apply ecosystem design to your annual vegetable garden, a perennial orchard or integrate both. It’s about tapping into permaculture and natural gardening principles. Opposed to simply using products labeled as “sustainable” or “eco-friendly.” These six ways to use sustainable gardening in your backyard are sure to increase your yields and reduce your weed, water, and pest issues.
1. Add plant 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. One way is that we can maximize under-utilized spaces to achieve more diversity. For instance, we can use ground covers like creeping thyme in our paths and between raised garden beds. We can also include various herbs and groundcovers, such as lemon balm and chives, as an understory under our fruit trees. Increasing garden diversity means we don’t have all our eggs in one basket if there is a pest problem. A mixture of various plants, opposed to a monoculture, confuses pests and acts as a habitat for predatory insects.
2. Site-suitable to the Environment
Each environment has plants that are site-suitable, meaning they can survive and thrive best in that area in which they are found. For example, a tropical plant will not survive planted in a boreal forest. Also, a wetland plant will not thrive planted in dry, free-draining soil. An ecosystem would never continue to grow something that doesn’t perform well. But they also wouldn’t settle on only growing a few crops and nothing else.
As gardeners and property owners, we can discover which edible and useful plants are suitable for our soil and micro-climates through research, trial and error. At the Ecosystem Solution Institute, we are trialing thousands of edible plants to find those suitable for different climates. You can also try different fruits, berries, and herbs at home and see which do best and drop the rest. For micro-landscape in your property, you can analyze the soil type, sun exposure, and hardiness zone to research varieties that will thrive.
3. Ecosystem Form
In all ecosystems, you see that life has different form. We often refer to form of plant canopies and relative size, the distinct shapes of linear or broadleaf plants, and the apparent layering and vertical stacking of their canopies. In a mature forest, you see this at play with the layering of larger trees, medium trees, shrubs, bushes, herbs, ground covers, and vines. Even in a grassland ecosystem, there is similar layering, albeit the plants don’t grow as tall.
For instance, the native prairie grasslands that used to stretch across North America had many different grasses, forbs, herbs, and flowering plants that occupied different layers from 6-7 feet above the ground to only 3-6” off the soil. In our yards, we can design a food forest with layered diversity too. Fruit trees tower above, 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, herbs, but also new soil organic matter and habitat for pollinator species, and nitrogen fixed by legumes, etc.
Take, for instance, the design of the edible hedge below. It could be planted along any laneway, or property front, or fence line and includes layered plants that serve many functions…keep reading!
4 Ecosystem Function
All wild ecosystems have plants and animals that serve various functions. Together, they result in companionship and benefit the ecosystem as a whole. Sometimes these “services” take the form of symbiosis: relationships between organisms such as mycorrhizal fungi and many trees. In this example, the trees provide sugars from photosynthesis to the fungi, and the fungi supply water and nutrients to the tree.
Other times, the relationships are 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 never evolved this specific function; it just happens.
In a similar fashion, having taller trees, shrubs, and creeping ground covers helps prevent soil erosion for the whole garden ecosystem. When rain falls, it first hits the higher canopy and trickles down to the forest floor below. Groundcover on the bottom level protects the soil again and stops it from eroding. In this case, all the living plants are helping retain soil to all of their benefits.
5 Wild ecosystems build potential
When you grow a field of corn, you begin with a certain number of seeds. You sow them, and if you tend the field and have a successful year, you will get a yield of a lot more corn than what you started with. This is agriculture. However, if you don’t save the seeds and plant them the next spring, the field will yield nothing next year. Nothing will grow that will be of use to the farmer or the community that eats the corn.
On the other hand, an ecosystem builds potential with time. If you plant a diversified field, or a yard with fruits, nuts, berries, and herbs, and leave it, it will continue to produce. In 5 years, there will potentially be more fruits than previously. The soil will also be richer from the leaf fall and action of soil organisms.
This is not just a difference between annual or perennial agriculture either. An orchard with only apples will be less resilient if there is a significant pest outbreak than a diversified fruit forest. In a fruit forest, some trees will fail due to pests, but others will fill in the gaps, and the ecosystem continues to build potential as a whole.
A community with ecosystem landscapes using sustainable gardening principles will, in 15 years, say, have increased benefits and opportunities. They can harvest fruits, nuts, or herbs, graft scion wood, and sell fruit trees, chip pruning’s for edible mushrooms, etc. The community will also have increased wellness from the beautiful and bountiful landscapes, local nutrient-dense food, and the health benefits of “forest bathing.” It’s now proven that the rich colors, scents, and textures of natural landscapes have beneficial effects on human mental, emotional and physical health. Wow, it really is a pharmacy!
6. Holistic Soil
Lastly, all terrestrial ecosystems are deeply connected to their soil, and this soil is alive. The term holistic soil refers to soil with a good balance of mineral material, organic matter, and pore space for air and water. Indeed, the ideal soil composition is about 45% mineral, 5% organic matter, 25% air, and 25% water. This means that 50% of well-balanced soil comprises 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 keep the soil hydrated and aerated, helping plants survive. This provides good drainage in major storms and provides oxygen for the decomposition of organic matter.
However, and of the utmost importance is the fact that 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 micro-city with many pathways of transport, communication, plumbing and electricity, and houses and places of work!
When we support a healthy soil structure, our “soil society” thrives and supports the plants we want to grow. We can support soil by avoiding compaction and providing protection over the winter through cover cropping, and regular additions of organic matter such as garden compost. Natural ecosystems have thriving soil life, and our garden should too.
Sustainable Garden Design in Your Garden
Ecosystems are biodiverse, full of site-suitable plants, with layered form and many functions. They are constantly building overall potential, such as dynamic holistic soil rich in organic matter and teeming with life. Ecosystem design and all the benefits it provides now and into the future can start simply. We can begin with integrating layered diversity into our yards and protecting and enhancing the soil.
When we use these sustainable garden practices in our gardens and yards, we maximize the benefits of wild ecosystems. This includes the aforementioned improved soil health and its ability to fix, store, cycle, and release nutrients and water to our garden plants. Doing so creates gardens that are more drought-resistant and more self-regulating for fertility. It also creates plants that are healthier and more resistant to pests.
The Edible Ecosystem Solution Book
Zach Loeks is the author of The Edible Ecosystem, a book about growing biodiversity in your backyard and beyond. It explores why edible biodiversity is so important and the immense opportunities in our backyards, communities, and farm to increase edible diversity. It is also a step-by-step guide to transitioning any piece of lawn to edible ecosystems gardens using principles that improve soil health, enhance yields, and sustainable a diversity of edible and abundant plants.
No matter the scale, Ecosystem Design brings modern garden and property management and natural ecological principles together. For more information on ecosystem design, sign up for a FREE Food Guild Design course at www.EcosystemU.com with the Promo Code “LovelyGreens”. The course begins March 1st, 2021