How to manage an ecological garden effectively
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 losing diversity.
Natural Pest Management
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.
No More Need to Rotate Crops
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 capitalize 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.
Throw away the hoe
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