A Backyard Ecosystem

All of nature is organized into ecosystems, where the death of one allows the life of another – where everything is recycled and nothing is wasted. If we start to think of our backyard as an ecosystem in which we play an important role then we can make new discoveries on a regular basis and feel a greater connection to the cycle of life of which we are part.

Many types of gardens can be incorporated into an ecosystem-design approach, but all such designs share certain characteristics. The first is diversity. The more diversity contained in an ecosystem, the more stable it will be. Thus, we strive to create different types of habitats, and use a varied array of plants to attract many types of wildlife, from the smallest microbes to large birds and mammals. While we will never understand all the complexities of life, even in our own backyard, it is an opportunity to start to think about how one organism or plant is essential to the life of others.

Components of a Backyard Ecosystem

I: Soil

Although ecosystems are really circular, without end or beginning, I believe it can be said that the basis for an abundant and healthy garden ecosystem begins with the soil. The soil in which plants grow is actually much more than a collection of particles and nutrients. It is also host to a huge number of micro-organisms from the size of a single cell up to the size of an earthworm, which form a complex web of life which is indispensible to healthy plant growth. Nutrients bound up in the soil are made available to the plants by the action of these organisms, and the soil particles themselves are made to stick together, allowing improved water and air flow essential to healthy root and plant growth. Organic materials like leaves and sticks are broken down, releasing nutrients and forming humus which greatly improves the ability of a soil to hold water and nutrients. An excellent article detailing the subject can be found at www.soilfoodweb.org.

Our main concern, then, is to figure out how to encourage a diverse and healthy soil-food-web and a healthy soil structure. If we have a healthy and mostly undisturbed plot of land, the best answer may be to do nothing. Given time, stable soil ecosystems will establish themselves, and any tinkering is likely to be only detrimental. If we do have a disturbed site, as is common in the garden zone, there is a simple approach to creating healthy soil: namely COMPOST. Compost is a blend of organic materials which have been allowed to partially decompose. It is loaded with many micro-organisms which will colonize the soil, and contains nutrients which will be released slowly over time in a form usable by plants. In a sandy soil compost will improve the retention of water and nutrients, and in a compacted or clay soil compost will improve drainage and air circulation to the roots. At first, we may want to purchase a large load of compost to help in establishing the garden. Adding 3 inches of compost will have an immediate beneficial influence, and will become incorporated into deeper layers of the soil over time through the action of the living organisms and seepage. Over time we can start to make our own compost. Adding more compost to the soil on a regular or occasional basis will continue to generate improvements. Compost tea is another way to increase specific organisms, but can be a bit technical (see compost article).

II. Plants

As the soil provides the basis for healthy plants, so the plants will create habitat, food, and reproductive sites for a huge number of insects, birds, and mammals. Different types of plants will grow best in certain conditions. Soil type, moisture, sunlight, and wind exposure are prime factors influencing plant selection.

COMMUNITIES: Plants that like certain conditions are naturally found growing in communities of other plants which also like the same conditions. It is very important to consider which types of plant communities are suited to the growing site. Each type of plant community will also support a certain community of wildlife. A moist meadow, dry pine forest, and acidic bog are all examples of habitats supporting different plant communities. The greater the number of plants that are included from a particular community, the greater the diversity of wildlife that will be attracted. Likewise, the greater the number of communities that are included in a single garden, the greater the diversity.

LAYERS & HABITATS: Besides being particular to a certain community, many animals are particular as to WHERE they live, feed, or spend time in a particular community. This is especially true of communities which include trees and shrubs. In a woodland community, the forest floor will support a completely different group of wildlife than the canopy. In fact, there are (at least) 4 distinct vertical layers which each add to the overall diversity of the community. Having representative plants from the ground layer, shrub layer, understory tree layer, and canopy will not only increase diversity, but will give the garden an abundant and healthy appearance.

III. Insects

Insects are commonly perceived as something to be avoided or eliminated in the garden, for the damage they cause by eating plants. In reality, while there are a few garden thugs to be alert for, the vast majority of insects are in fact beneficial to the garden. They are important pollinators and serve as an important food source for birds and small mammals. Butterflies in particular are always welcome guests, but many other insects can be equally beautiful or fascinating, if seen in the right light. Some insects are specialized in eating the garden thugs, and encouraging a wide variety of insects in the garden (diversity=stability) will go a long way toward preventing infestations and complete desiccation by one of the thug-species. Of course, insects often eat plants, but usually the damage is cosmetic and minor. The suggestion here is to regard garden plants not as sterile specimens, but as an important source of food and housing for insects and animals, and thus an important component of the entire ecosystem. Besides looking for food, insects and butterflies also look for particular plants on which to lay their eggs and grow their larva.

IV: Birds & Mammals

These larger animals are the last links in the backyard ecosystem, and are desirable for the charm and vitality they give to the landscape. They serve the additional important functions of controlling insect populations, spreading seeds, and adding fertilizer to the garden. They are attracted to the garden in their search for food, water, temporary shelter, or long-term housing, so it is important to provide all these aspects . Food may include berries and nuts from plants, insects, and seeds from flowers (or bird-feeders). Certain plants may be particularly prolific in the amount of wildlife they attract, and others may attract one rare species of butterfly for example. Factors like these can be considered when choosing which plants to include.

V: You!

The backyard garden is of course not a wilderness ecosystem. The exact combination of plants you choose would possibly never be found in the wild. The manicured paths, trimmed trees, composted soil, weeds removed – would never exist without you. Does this make it un-natural? Of course not! You are a part of nature, and by participating in the creation of your backyard ecosystem, you are affirming this fact. Do you want to spend time in a sterile space of perfect flowers and chemically green grass or relax and interact in a pure and healthy environment teaming with life? This is the basic choice between conventional landscaping and ecosystem-based landscape design.

FernCreek Design * Olivebridge, NY 12461
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