Steps to an Ecological Garden
Step 1: Stop using chemical fertilizers, herbicides,
and insecticides. These kill or drive away soil organisms and
deprive beneficial insects and animals of habitat and food, taking away their
welcome mat. There is nothing to attract them, and danger lurks in your
garden for them in the form of killer chemicals. Why should they pay
you a visit? We stopped using chemical fertilizers and insecticides,
but the herbicides are still a problem because of the nutgrass in the front
beds. We hope to solve this discrepancy soon, whether we actually get
rid of the nutgrass or not. That will probably be a constant battle as
long as we are here, but the chemical dangers are not worth it. Our
recent lawn man had to quit the business because he has a precursor to Parkinson's
disease. Herbicides and pesticides, which he used a lot of in his work,
are nerve poisons and cause diseases of the central nervous system.
Step 2: Research information on permaculture, organic gardening, and
forest gardening. This site does not scratch the surface - you need
to read about these principles and then you can see how to apply them to your
Step 3: Research what useful plants will grow in your climate.
Concentrate on perennials. Perennials will be less work than
annuals for obvious reasons, and provide for a much longer period.
Also, their growth is not set back too much, nor do they lose too much
biomass when harvested, unlike annuals. With perennials, you can eat
all year long from your garden without much effort, since our growing season
is year-round. No fussing with row covers and greenhouses as you would
up North. Look for plants of all sizes that attract insects, fix
nitrogen, mine soil minerals, provide shade for more delicate neighbors (and
the hot areas of your house), cover the ground and crowd out weeds - not just
edible plants. You are trying to build a habitat where small animals
will feel welcome and where useful plants will be encouraged to grow because
of beneficial relationships with other plants. Planting things to
perform many functions is called stacking functions. You also want to
grow several things to perform each individual function so your system has
backups in case a particular element fails. These are two of the basic
principles of permaculture. Being in a subtropical climate where the
soil is mostly sand, we can grow a great many fruit trees and perennial
edible shrubs and groundcovers, and countless other useful plants to fulfill
the functions above. Some plants produce substances that are damaging
or stunting to other plants, but we don't have as much of a problem with that
as other climates do, because everything leaves the soil so quickly. So
we can plant more things together without worrying about whether plants will
hurt each other. This is an advantage. A disadvantage is that
helpful substances also do not stay in the soil long, and nutrients must
continually be added to the soil. Which brings us to Steps 4 and 5.
Step 4: Mulch, mulch, mulch. Keep the soil covered at all times. This
is not as hard as it sounds. We all know the benefits of mulch - it
keeps the soil cool, retains moisture, and supresses weeds. But bagged
mulch at the garden center costs money, is a pain to haul and apply, and is
not very nutritious for the ground. It is often made of shredded wood,
which robs the soil of nitrogen when it breaks down, and to make matters
worse, it is often made with cedar or mangrove, natives that are becoming
endangered, right? Not necessarily. First, you can buy mulch not
made of our engangered native trees. Look for Enviro-mulch, made from
old telephone poles. But why buy your mulch? Find out if your
city or county makes available rough mulch from their chipped trimmings on
public land. Many areas have a program you can sign up for that will
deliver it right to your property. In huge amounts! For free!
While you're at it, find out if there is a composting program.
You might have to pick it up yourself, but the price will be right.
If mountains of chippings at a time is intimidating, ask the next few
landscapers you find chipping trees if they could bring you their chipping
when they are wirking in your area. Many will be happy to do so and
avoid the charges thay may pay, or just the trouble of hauling them to a landfill
or city composting program. You'll be saving on fossil fuel consumption
and pollution! Chippings are rough-looking, so if you want a more
finished look, top them with a bit of storebought mulch. Eventually,
your garden will be producing its own mulch, but this is a big part of your
work in the beginning. What about the nitrogen-burning decomposition?
This is more of a problem when the mulch is mixed into the first few
inches of soil than when it sits on top and ages. And wood mulch and
chippings break down more slowly than most other substances, so it is not
likely to be a problem. Still everything breaks down faster here than
in most parts of the country. If you are concerned about it, sprinkle a
little composted manure in with the mulch before topping it off. I
mulched my front beds with bagged wood mulch for years, and it got nice and
black and crumbly and moist for a good 9-12" down. I added about
3" twice a year, along with 1/2" of composted cow manure. When this
was not done for about two years, it was amazing how much good soil texture
was lost - the depth went down to 3-6"! This proves that (1) wood mulch
does build good soil and attract beneficial soil organisms, and (2) mulch
must be added continually, or nutrients will burn out of our sand like
wildfire. Also, the organic matter in the mulch that gets pulled down
into the soil by earthworms will repel nematodes. They like very sandy
Step 5: Never till the soil. Feed plants through the mulch and with
cover crops. With our sandy soil, there's no need to till to break
it up. When you till, you destroy countless soil organisms and the
balance of soil life has to reestablish itself all over again. So
tilling sets your garden back. Nutrients do not have to be tilled in.
Whatever you want to put in the soil can be laid on top of the mulch or
you can pull back the mulch a bit and stuff it under to hide it. Just
keep adding to the top and everything will be tilled in by earthworms which
will happily come and stay now that the chemicals are gone. And they
will leave behind one of the best fertilizers of all - worms castings, which
are immediately useful to your plants and never "hot" enough to
burn them, as chemical fertilizers and raw manure can. Cover crops keep
the soil covered, thus cooler and moister than bare ground, fix nitrogen, and
add biomass - free mulch. Your mix should include nitrogen fixers (like
legumes), but also 10-40% non-nitrogen-fixing plants like grain plants.
Nitrogen-fixers alone will cause an imbalance in mutrients. These
plants feed the soil while they are growing by means of their roots and the
leaves they drop, then you can cut them down and lay them on top of the
ground as mulch and they will feed the soil again.
Step 6: Build in as much biological diversity as you can. The
more varieties of plants and insects and animals you cultivate in your
garden, the more nutrients will be available in the soil and the more pests
and diseases will be thwarted. Pests are confused, for example, when you
plant different families of plants together instead of separately in blocks.
Biological diversity also makes your garden a stable environment that
can withstand your being away or ill for a time.
Step 7: Consciously provide habitat, not just food, for beneficial animals
and insects. Put in a water feature if possible, the more natural
the better. Make sure the creatures you want to attract can use it.
Put it at ground level or make unobtrusive ramps for amphibians and
reptiles to climb into it. Provide shallow spots so birds can use it.
Put in some water plants and a small fish - the fish will eat
mosquitoes and use the plants for cover from birds that would eat it.
How about a pot turned on its side in a quiet spot for a toad? Make
sure birds have cover close by so when they bathe or eat at a feeder if you
provide one, they can quickly escape from the neighborhood cats.
Step 8: Think of how you can let nature work for you. You can
have a chicken tractor and let chickens weed and fertilize for you, but if
you don't want to raise chickens or your city won't allow that, set up a bird
feeder over the area you want to build soil in. The birds will drop
seeds and husks and fertilize, too. Think of the various jobs you have
to perform, observe how those jobs are taken care of in nature, and see how
you can let nature do it in your garden, too. Who needs a compost pile?
Earthworms in a bin will be happy to process your kitchen scraps for
you. How about rabbits in a cage on the back porch or a shady part of
the yard? They will produce loads of manure that can go straight into
the garden since it won't burn plants. Or you can place their cage over
the worm bin and get even better processed manure. With larger
vegetation laid on the ground, shredded if possible, but otherwise it will
just take a little longer, and kitchen scraps processed by worms, there will
be no more hauling and turning of compost. Just harvesting lightweight
Step 9: For intensive cultivation of annual vegetables, you may wish to
set aside a few small beds in full sun. Think of the above
principles when doing so. Plant the different families together, rather
than in large, separate blocks, which become a beacon for pests.
Interplant herbs and flowers that will attract beneficial insects, like
Dill and Fennel, and anything with tiny flowers. Calendulas, Cosmos,
Fenugreek, and Nasturtiums are supposed to be good. Marigolds are not
as great as previously thought - only the species repels nematodes and then
only when planted in a mass with nothing else for an entire season.
Their strong scent may repel other pests, but they may also repel
beneficials. Arrange plants so taller plants can shade more delicate
things like lettuce from the strong sun. Remember that the north side
of anything is shadiest, so place shade-lovers to the north of taller plants,
and sun-lovers to the south and west of them.
So how are we applying these principles? What are we doing in our
Home ** What's New? ** How It All Started
* Garden Update October 2004 * Garden
Diary 2008 * Garden Diary 2009 * Garden Diary 2010
Diary 2011 ** New! Garden Diary 2012
** Rose and Perennial Court * Rose Update Feb 2003 * Front Garden Update 2008-9 * Behind the Wall * Herb Circle * Tropical Edibles
Area ** New! Growing
Dinner: Visit to a Homegarden ** Potager
* Potager 2004-5 * Potager Plan
2008-9 * Edibles 2008-9 * Crop Chart
2008-9 * Edibles
Planting Schedule * Warm Season Planting 2005 * Succulent Beds * Wild Edibles *
Caterpillars to Butterflies ** Updated! Building Healthy Soil **
* Index of Plants and Techniques Featured * Annual Vegetable Chart * Long Lasting Markers: Jewelry for Your Plants * Build a Gardening Notebook