Ecological Gardening - What We Are Doing

This page was updated 4-22-11.

So what are we doing to make ours an ecological garden?


Step 1: We stopped using all chemical fertilizers and insecticides several years ago.  The only herbicide use is on the grass, and that area is intentionally shrinking every year.

Step 2: I read about Permaculture and organic gardening continually, so these principles are becoming part of me, they are how I think, so it becomes easier all the time to apply them.

Step 3: We have a list of trees to base our plant communities around, and many shrubs to go between and link them.  Then there are smaller plants and groundcovers and vines.  Most are edible, some fix nitrogen, and all are perennials.  The larger ones produce welcome shade for many of the smaller ones.  Many of the smaller plants will simply have to be experimented with in different places to see where they do best and where they help other members of the community the most.  Most of these plants have already been installed, especially  the large ones and those that are to be staples – we have about sixty types of perennial edible plants established in the garden at this time.  The ones we plan to add, around forty or so, are either harder to find or less to be relied upon.  We have placed all these plants on our diagram to fill the "Seven Storeys of Abundance" in a typical Forest Garden:

1) A 'canopy' layer consisting of the original mature fruit trees.
2) A 'low-tree' layer of smaller nut and fruit trees on dwarfing root stocks.
3) A 'shrub layer' of fruit bushes such as currants and berries.
4) A 'herbaceous' layer of perennial vegetables and herbs.
5) A 'ground cover' layer of edible plants that spread horizontally.
6) A 'rhizosphere' or 'underground' dimension of plants grown for their roots and tubers.
7) A vertical 'layer' of vines and climbers.

Canopy: We have Avocado ‘Munroe’, Canistel, Carambola ‘Bell’, Coconut ‘Maypan’, Guanabana, Hog Plum, Jackfruit 'Bangkok Lemon', Loquat ‘Sherry’, Lychee ‘Sweet Heart’, Malabar [Chest]Nut, Mango 'Julie' (dwarf), Moringa, Mulberry (large-fruited), Myer Lemon/Griffin Orange, Peach ‘UF Sun’, Wax Jambu, and White Sapote ‘Suebelle’.  We would also like an Abiu and a ‘Ross’ Sapote, but it may be some time until they are available, and a Tamarind, but it does get large so we haven’t yet decided to grow it for certain.   A Tangerine, maybe grafted with an Orange or two, would be nice, but iffy, since they keep having campaigns of cutting down everyone’s citrus trees.  Perhaps if there is space left over…

Low Trees & Large Shrubs: We have Allspice, Atemoya 'Gefner', Bananas, Bay Rum, Cinnamon, Elderberry, Grumichama, Jujube, Katuk, Moringa, Papayas (shorter ones), Pomegranate 'Vietnam'.  We would like a small hedge of Gumi, and a Kumquat ‘Nagami’, which we will be getting from Excalibur later this year, and a Sisoomba, which our friend C. has promised.

Shrubs: Abelmoschus manihot, Bay Laurel, Chaya, Cherry of the Rio Grande, Fig ‘Texas Everbearing’ (would like at least one more type), Jaboticaba, Katuk, Mulberry (small-fruited everbearing), Spiral Ginger (Costus radiate, smooth- and velvet-leaved types), Sugarcane, and Ti Plants. We still want a Basket Vine (from ECHO), a Star Anise, and a Tea (Camellia sinensis).  Clove and Nutmeg are intriguing, but may need more heat than we have here.  Since the weather is warming, we may put them in if we have space once everything else is in.

Herbaceous or Small Shrubs: Aloe, Blackberry, Blueberry (experimental – two varieties, ‘Misty’ and ‘Snowchaser’, which have longer chilling requirements than we would like, but they were what was available), Cardamom Ginger, Cassava (growing this for leaves rather than roots), Citronella Grass, Cuban Oregano (a coleus, cream-variegated), Garlic Chives, Jamaican Mint Bush, Lemongrass, Okinawa Spinach, Pineapple (several from supermarket fruits – would like some 'Red Spanish'),  and Raspberry 'Heritage' (experimental).  We still want a Prickly Pear Cactus - ECHO supposedly has a spineless variety, but in the meantime we are getting a regular one and a purple-padded one from Yucca Do, Chinese Spinach (an all-green version of Okinawa Spinach – ECHO has this), and also a Hedychium. Short-lived perennials we need to replace every few years are Fennel, Lemon Verbena, Mexican Tarragon, Oregano (Italian or Greek), Pigeon Peas, Pineapple Sage, Roselle & False Roselle (Cranberry Hibiscus), Rosemary, Rue and Tansy.  Water Leaves (Surinam Spinach) come up on their own when the weather warms in April, so we don’t add a new layer of mulch too close to that time.  Seasonally, we usually put in several varieties of Amaranth, Arugula, Basil, Broccoli, Carrots, Celery & Celery Leaf (or Lovage instead), Collards, Cucumbers, Daylily, Dill, Eggplant, Fennel (bulbing), Garlic, Hollyhocks, Lettuces, Kale, Mustard, Okra, Onions (Welsh type), Naranjilla, Nasturtium, New Zealand Spinach, Pak Choi, Pepper, Radish, Salvia, Society Garlic, Summer and Winter Squash, Sunflower, Tomatillo, and Tomato, some bought but most sown from seed, which we save ourselves as much as possible.   These are annuals that get tucked in wherever there is space, with the correct amount of light and moisture.  We don’t count on annuals for the bulk of our food – perennials are a more reliable source that requires far less work.

Potted Plants: We get herbs like Salvia officinalis cultivars, Thyme, and Scented Pelargoniums each cool season and pot them up.  Some will last through the summer if we keep them out of the rain.

Vertical: We have Chayote (started with supermarket fruits), Dragon Fruit, and Monstera deliciosa. We would also like some Black Pepper Vines, Grapes, Passionfruit Yellow & 'Giant Grenadilla', and Vanilla Orchids.  Loofa Gourd vines come up each year from seeds left in the ground.  There are Beans that can be sown in the cool season and others for the warm season, all of which we grow on teepees of copper pipe.  The Beans, Chayote and Dragon Fruit need more sun, but the others are good understory vines that can grow up a tree trunk or on a teepee in the filtered shade of the trees.


Groundcovers: During the warm season, we plug empty spaces with Portulaca and sow seeds of various Beans (Velvet Bean is good for fixing nitrogen, but not to eat) and Quail Grass, while Purslane appears on its own.  In the cool season, we add Mints, and Florida Pillitory pops up everywhere.  This year, we will be looking for some short-lived perennials we have grown in the past: Gotu Kola, Groundcover Peanut (a legume that fixes nitrogen), Tilo, and Yarrow (fern-leaf type).  We make sure to leave any desirable self-seeders to cover the ground and set more seed for the next year.  At this point, we have hardly any actual weeds because of this, combined with keeping the ground mulched.  We are looking into adding Mushrooms growing in prepared logs under the trees.

Rhizosphere: Canna indica (a few varieties – from the garden center, but still edible), Culinary Ginger, Malanga (several varieties), Sweet Potatoes (several varieties – some are ornamentals from the garden center, but all are edible), Taro (Dasheen), Turmeric, Yams (Dioscorea).  We got the tubers and corms for most of these from the supermarket and ethnic markets.   We are still sourcing Arrowroot.

Water plants: We will be adding containers of water plants and hope to have a small pond and bog area.  If and when that happens, we are interested in growing Cattail, Horsetail, Lotus, Marsh Marigold, Pickerel Weed, Saggitaria, Spatterdock, Spirulina, Water Chestnut (also the Chinese version), Water Fern, Water Lily, and Water Plantain.  At this point, we are not ready to grow water plants, and would probably not have room to grow all of these anyway, but this is the list we will take to the store.  We already grow a Papyrus plant, but it is in normally irrigated ground.


Step 4: We have covered the soil everywhere with either plants or 4-6" of mulch.  In the first few years, we will have to bring mulch in, but eventually we hope to be growing all our own.  We have two compost bins, which are used to corral prunings until we get the chance to spread them so no ground will be left bare.  Also we have a semi-regular source of dead leaves for mulch from another private garden that would otherwise be hauled away as trash.

Step 5:  Composted cow manure, and sometimes horse bedding with worm castings and rock powders, will be applied on top of the beds twice a year and covered with more mulch.  We grow Beans and Pigeon Peas throughout to fix nitrogen in the beds.

Step 6: We hope to build diversity by having so many types of plants, many of which attract birds and beneficial insects.  This also has the effect of confusing and sometimes repelling pests.

Step 7: We have turned a few pots on their sides under shrubs for toads.  There is plenty of cover for birds.  Once we add water containers, the garden will be even more useful to local wildlife.  Toads, birds and dragonflies eat garden pests.  We also grow several larval and nectar plants for butterflies, moths and hummingbirds, such as Beautyberry, Dutchman’s Pipe, Empress Candle, Four o’Clock, Jatropha, Lantana, Milkweed, Morning Glory, Necklace Pod, Passionflower, Porterweed, Salvias, Spanish Needle (also edible), and many others. 


Step 8:  Birds will bring manure.  We have been composting kitchen scraps in a continuous flow worm bin, yielding worm castings while cutting down on trash and use of the kitchen garbage disposal.  Birds and beneficial insects and the diversity of planting should take care of pest problems.  Since we began applying steps 1 and 6, we have had very few pest problems, and never have to spray even 'natural' remedies.  Timing also plays a part - plant annual vegetables as early as you can and get them harvested before their particular pests become a problem.  After eating brassica greens fresh from the garden for a few months, we are not so upset to let them give way to something else when aphids begin to multiply.

Step 9: See the Potager Update Fall 2004 to find out how we applied the principles to our annual vegetable beds.  This area has since been reshaped into two free-form beds with four small fruit trees planted in them.  We will still grow seasonal annuals here underneath, as well as Sweet Potatoes, which go nearly dormant until the warm season starts again.

We will be reporting here on the progress and success of this system in our garden, but of course, results will take a while to happen, so please be patient!





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