As many of us are working in our herb gardens this time of the year, I thought I would don my gardening smock and talk about my particular gardening philosophy-ecological landscape design.
Coming from a homesteading background, I am a strong believer in a big annual vegetable garden, canning, freezing and preserving. Here in the Midwest, where nothing grows in the winter, it is especially important to put food by.
In studying plant ecology and ecological design at Goddard, I came to the idea that using this method when planting our gardens is ideal. It is far less labor intensive than conventional gardening and does not utilize harmful chemicals.
Gardens based on ecological design heal the planet. They create pockets of wellness in the ecosystem and promote mutually beneficial relationships with other creatures-healing the rift between humans and nature. This is an integral part of creating wellness.
In ecological design, gardeners create supportive communities of plants, insects and animals, based on ecological function, called guilds.
The classic example of an annual vegetable guild is that of the three sisters in which beans are planted around the base of corn plants to fix nitrogen in the soil. Squash is planted as ground cover to help retain moisture in the soil and prevent erosion.
A fourth member , less widely known, element of this guild was utilized for attracting pollinators and improving the yield of the beans and corn is Cleome serrulata or Rocky Mountain Bee plant. An alternate common name of this plant “Navaho spinach” relays the fact that the plant was a source of food. It was also used as a medicinal and as a dye.
When an element serves multiple purposes in a system it is said to have stacking functions. Picking plants with stacking functions is especially important to gardeners working in very small spaces.
This method of planting can be applied to perennial herb beds if we are aware of the ecological function plants serve. Different teachers use different terms but some basic functions include:
2. Dynamic Accumulators
These plants usually have large tap roots which will break up compacted soil and carry nutrients buried deep in the earth to their leaves. When cut back and left as mulch they reintroduce these nutrients to the top soil.
3. Beneficial Insect Attractors
These plants draw insects and birds to your garden. Ideally placing these plants near berry plants or bean plants will encourage yield through increased pollination. Insects and birds also serve the purpose of controlling pest problems in your garden.
Other categories include ground cover, host plants for butterflies, and plants for providing wildlife habitat.
Once we know the needs a plant meets in an ecosystem, we can begin to use this idea when planning our gardens.
Pick plants with multiple functions for your beds. A low growing plant from any of these categories will act as ground cover.
When designing your perennial beds keep this information in mind, even if it is something as simple as planting peas and oats together.
For example, the picture below is my Berry Guild. It is the newest guild I have planted. It is taking the place of my poke forest which I relocated inside the fence because of neighborhood children.
The plants include two red currant bushes, thorn-less blackberries, strawberries, clover and anise hyssop. In addition to being medicinals, the clover is a nitrogen fixer. Both the clover and the hyssop, are fairly low to the ground, and will attract pollinators to the fruit bearers. The strawberries will provide ground cover and hopefully lots of berries.
There is also some volunteer lemon balm and feverfew that I am leaving in place.The idea here is to get the whole area covered. I am tired of wood mulch. You can’t see it in the picture, but there is also a bird house on the fence.
There is certainly much more to ecological design than I have explained here as plants serve many more functions. If you look on Faoi’s page here on the blog, I have last year’s plant inventory posted for downloading with a list of its functions. Not all of my plants are in ideal guilds, yet. It is definitely a work in progess.
I usually recommend Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden as a good starting point for people who want to learn more.
A more thorough primer is Edible Forest Gardens written by Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier.
A useful database that explains ecological functions of many plants is the “Natural Capital Plant Database” put together by Daniel Halsey and Paula Westmoreland. http://permacultureplantdata.com/