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 own yard.  

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 soil best.

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 fertilizer.

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 garden?


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