When we work in our gardens we are not just decorating, flower arranging or nurturing produce; we are collaborating. By gardening naturally, we acknowledge this, and use it to our advantage.
Our gardens are ecosystems, however we choose to manage them. When we adopt natural gardening, we must first understand the processes that our garden, and nature can use to self-regulate. Once we understand these processes, it is easier to let go and allow them to do their thing. Gardening naturally should be less work, and more interesting. We end up as more an observer than a doer. But don’t be deceived; this is anything but lazy gardening.
As gardeners, our desire for perfection and need for order can sometimes be our greatest downfall. We treat everything like a battle and are too reactive when things go wrong. In other words, we fail to recognise that nature has been fighting pests and diseases for millennia. Whilst somehow still producing fruit and flowers.
What is an Ecosystem?
An ecosystem is a collection of organisms living in and interacting with their environment. It’s a chaotic symphony of life, death, eating, pooping, and multiplying.
Usually, when we think of a garden ecosystem, we think about plants, birds, frogs and hedgehogs, bees, butterflies, and worms. But the reality is much more complicated. What we see buzzing, leaping, flying, and walking through our gardens is only a fraction of the story. Arguably the most crucial part of our garden’s ecosystem is what exists below ground.
Gardening Naturally; The Garden Ecosystem
Healthy ecosystems are able to maintain themselves without any intervention. They are resilient against naturally occurring problems such as weather events, pests, and diseases. They don’t require any intervention to remain in balance. In ecological terms, this is called dynamic equilibrium. The system may experience fluctuations; populations of one species may be high one year and low the next.
Ecosystems that start to unbalance have ways of righting themselves, but it does not happen overnight. For example, one year may see a large number of caterpillars. The following year the population of birds and parasitic wasps may be higher, so the population of caterpillars will fall.
If the numbers of birds and wasps get too high, their numbers may also start to fall, and the caterpillar numbers may rise again. But it’s not just the coming and going of pests; climatic factors can play a considerable role in ecosystem dynamics, so the system has a lot to keep on top of!
Natural ecosystems can be completely self-maintaining. So why can’t our gardens? Well, that’s pretty obvious; our gardens are not natural ecosystems. But we can make them more natural. If we can take a step back, as our gardens balance themselves over time, we will find that we do less work and get better results. After all, nature has been doing this since the dawn of time. It’s a small wonder that it’s better at looking after our plants than we are.
Using Our Garden’s Ecosystem
The key to getting your garden or allotment to self-regulate is to let it. You cannot hope for it to override your influence if you’re doing too much or for populations to balance themselves if you are always trying to help. Of course, we must do some things in our gardens. We must sow the seeds and plant the plants. If we can do this with encouraging biodiversity in mind, this is the best we can hope for in a garden environment.
The best way to encourage biodiversity in your garden is to stop doing things that discourage it.
The Soil Ecosystem
The soil ecosystem is the most vital ecosystem to consider and nurture in your garden. Traditionally, when we think about the soil, we think about an inert substance we plant into. We are taught as gardeners; that the soil is made up of sand, silt, clay, and organic matter. When we think of this organic matter, we usually think of compost or manure. But the organic matter that does matter is alive.
The soil is a teaming ecosystem full of life and possibly the most critical ecosystem in the garden. We see a few things; ants, earthworms, woodlice, and spiders, but most of what lives in the soil isn’t visible to the naked eye. This doesn’t make it any less important, however! A healthy soil ecosystem is (literally) the foundation of a healthy garden. Tiny bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, actinomycetes, algae and arthropods (plus a few things we are probably yet to discover) work together, eating each other, excreting each other, fighting the bad guys, and maintaining their environment.
That last part is critical; all these organisms are linked together in an ecosystem, and they work together, and sometimes against each other, to maintain a healthy environment. When it comes to soil, an environment that is healthy for the soil’s life is also beneficial for the plants.
Plants and the Soil Ecosystem
Plants are the soil life’s primary source of food. Just as plants are the primary producers above ground (because of their ability to photosynthesise and create mass from thin air), they are also the primary producers below ground. They feed the soil life in the form of fallen dead leaves and by something called Root Exudates. These are tiny packets of carbohydrates (sugars) that the plant feeds down through the roots to feed the root life. A combination of these root exudates and dead plant matter provides the entire ecosystem directly or indirectly.
So, it’s in the interest of the things living within the soil to maintain a healthy environment for our plant roots. Healthy soil life can help to control weeds, manage pest populations, reduce watering and flooding, and feed our plants. They can aerate our soil, deliver specific nutrients to our plants on demand and even maintain soil ph. All, ultimately in the interest of preserving its food source.
As the ecosystems above and below ground in our garden grow, we will face the odd problem. It takes a while for systems to become self-regulating. The same is true with any investment; you take a risk, and at first, you may find yourself worse off than before, but over time you start to see a return, which increases yearly.
Gardening Naturally Means Encouraging Biodiversity
You probably already know that to encourage biodiversity in our gardens, we must provide spaces for nature. Wild and weedy areas, ponds, log piles and trees make great spaces for organisms to live in your garden. The greater the diversity of creatures living in or using your garden, the more stable the ecosystem will become. In terms of the soil, the good news is that, like it or not, there are already billions of tiny little creatures working for you already. All we have to do is not interfere too much. We should trust that these little miracles of evolution know what they are doing. We need to relinquish our control and trust nature to do what it has been doing for millennia.
Gardening should not be about fighting nature or trying in some way to overcome it. We will never win that fight. So, we need to recognise when we are beaten. And if you can’t beat them, join them! You are as much a part of the garden ecosystem as anything else. Gardening should be about collaborating with nature—understanding and trusting one another. And who knows, you might find it easier and more enjoyable.