02 Jun Learning from the Forest to Make Your Garden Healthier
The forest around the farm is in full bloom. The leaves are full. The animals have food to eat. The incredible abundance of our forest home has many lessons that we can glean and apply to our own gardens.
Take a look at our permaculture workshops if you are interested in learning more.
Why is the Forest so Productive?
Forests (and many other ecosystems) are filled with life on a grand scale, far outstripping the productivity of human gardens. From a bird’s eye view, this ecosystem looks seamless and peaceful.
It looks peaceful because this is a system based on relationships between bacteria, plants, fungi, and animals that have evolved over millions (and even billions) of years. It is these diverse relationships that support nature’s incredible productivity. Look a little closer at the forest and it becomes a roiling mass of different actors. In one square inch of the forest floor, you can find photosynthesis, decomposition, fertilization, nitrogen-fixation, competition, and symbiosis. The forest exemplifies of one of the twelve Permaculture principles, Integrate rather than Segregate: It has developed to integrate every individual, so even things that appear destructive, like predators hunting prey or parasitic fungi, just increase the fertility of the system.
Bacteria are Essential to Ecosystems (and Our Gardens)
Bacteria are the foundation of the forest and any other ecosystem. They fix the essential element nitrogen into the soil and do much of the work to decompose and recycle nutrients. This world belongs to bacteria: They may not have interesting social lives, but they were here soon after the earth cooled and will be here when the sun dies. Ecosystems could not survive without them. We (literally) could not last a day without them, as they synthesize vitamins in out gut, help digest our food, and protect us from unfriendly bacteria. (Bryson, citation below.)
They also nourish the soil for plants and humans to live on.
How does this Apply to My Garden?
For a productive garden, soil health means lots of healthy, friendly bacteria recycling essential nutrients. We all know that feeding these soil bacteria with compost is a good start. At ifarm, we use many different kinds of compost and manure (more on this in a later post). We also allow plants to decompose where they fall. Forests do the same, dropping leaves, dead wood, and decomposing animals to nourish the soil.
However, compost is only one part of the picture. If you want to create a radiantly healthy garden, it is also important to integrate different, complementary plant species like a forest. Many plant species have beneficial relationships with bacteria that can support your whole garden! At ifarm, our permaculture garden has over two hundred different plant species.
It is not necessary to plant such diversity: Even one or two additions to a garden can make a big difference. But you may not even need to lift a finger to plant new species: You can take advantage of wild plants that naturally volunteer.
Yes, we are talking about using “weeds” to help make our garden more resilient and productive.
What’s this about useful weeds?
Most weeds are ecosystem pioneers. They (even the dreaded dandelion) are the first ones to arrive and heal the soil when a disturbance (a tree uprooted in a storm, a landslide, a flood) has created an upheaval. The pretty Lupine (Lupinus sp.) is a great example. Lupine is often first to the scene after a highway has been made, but only lasts a few years. It helps to develop the health of disturbed soil but does the job so well that other plants can join the fun (Cody and Diamond, citation below.)
There are some “weeds” that you don’t want in a garden. Hedge bindweed (Calystegia sepium), for example, can be quite problematic. But there are many weeds that can be integrated into the fold, creating large net gains for you: Less time weeding while reaping the benefits of your new allies.
In the ifarm garden, we welcome “weeds” to perform very useful tasks, including working with bacteria to fix nitrogen (white clover, Trifolium repens), unearthing nutrients from deep in the soil (Yellow Dock, Rumex crispus), and repelling insects (Calendula, Calendula Officinalis.) The results are significant: We used very little compost this year for our established beds. It took about three years to get to this point. Originally we used lots of compost to get the plants started, but as the communities of different species have settled in, and the soil bacteria has grown more healthy, the garden has needed less input from us each year.
If you would like to learn to work with diverse species (to stop fighting weeds and start using their secret powers) to strengthen your garden, take a look at the workshop below.
Note that as we are leaving the spring cycle for the summer, it is time to get garden structures set so flowering vines and vegetables can grow well in small spaces. Take a look at our Garden Structures Workshop below.
Lastly, integrating pollinators into the garden is also an important part of the Integrate rather than Segregate permaculture principle. Take a look at our pollinators workshops.
Bryson, B. (2016). Short history of nearly everything. Chicago, Black Swan.
Cody, M. L., & Diamond, J. M. (1975). Ecology and evolution of communities. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.