Pop Goes the Garden
In the previous eleven chapters I laid out a tool kit for assembling an ecologically sound garden. Here I’ll quickly review where we’ve been and describe
what happens when theory meets practice: how real ecological gardens work, what the limitations are, and what to expect as the garden matures. For
those who like the big picture, I’ll also discuss some of the underlying principles that make ecological gardens tick—why connections, not just pieces, are
so important—and suggest some directions for further exploration.
At the heart of any garden or landscape, at the base of the ecological pyramid, is soil. Create healthy soil, and the rest of gardening simplifies.
Because of techniques such as composting, deep mulches, cover crops, and nutrient-storing plants, the ecological gardener’s soil teems with worms and
beneficial microorganisms that shunt fertility to plant roots. This rich, humusy earth supports a broad array of soil life, which in turn nurtures diverse plant
species and the wide spectrum of helpful insects, birds, and other animals that come to share in the bounty.
Healthy soil ensures that the second element of a self-sustaining garden, water, is in abundance. Deep, spongy humus will hold every drop of rain and
irrigation water better and more cheaply than any other medium. Deep mulches slow evaporation. To weather long droughts, we can also store water in
ponds and tanks that are filled by rain, recycled through graywater systems, or, less sustainably, piped from a well or municipal source. All this means that
the natural condition of this garden is abundantly moist.
Soil and water are the behind-the-scenes elements that make the garden work. A third element, on center stage, is the vegetation. Chosen to play
many roles, the useful and beautiful species have here been selected from native plants, naturalized varieties, noninvasive exotics, indigenous and
foreign rare species needing preservation, heirloom crops, and cuttings from neighbors’ and friends’ yards—in short, from as many sources as are
available and ethical. Each plant serves at least two functions—oh, perhaps a handful of them just look pretty; we’re human, after all—and in combination
they offer benefits both people and the rest of nature.
Finally, by choice and by serendipity, the garden extends a home to many animals. In the right circumstances, rabbits, chickens, ducks, or even a pot-
bellied minipig may be at work here, tilling and manuring soil, converting weeds and waste to fertilizer, and connecting us to a more-than-human nature.
But even without domestic animals, an ecological garden swarms with niches for pollinators, pest controllers, and scavengers that work the blossoms,
nibble the ample foliage and wild berries, or search for prey. The garden is alive with buzzing, fluttering, soaring, scampering allies.
Soil, water, plants, and animals are the four dynamic components of the ecological garden. To this list I might add a fifth, the designers and occupants,
who will interact with and shape all the others. The garden also contains a sixth, static element: the structures. Though inert, greenhouses and other
buildings, fences, trellises, compost piles, paths, and gates shape the flows that move through the garden.
But, as I’ve said before, these are just pieces. The beauty and effectiveness of the ecological garden is in how the parts are connected. It is the flows
between objects, not the objects themselves, that define a natural, sustainable environment.
This garden combines many strategies to create a dense web of connectedness. Stacking functions is one method we use to ensure that everything is
linked to one or more other elements. Here, elements serve multiple functions. A Maximilian sunflower hedge at one edge of the garden, for example,
provides an impenetrable weed barrier, edible shoots, late fall color, seeds for birds, and plenty of mulch material. These uses tie the sunflower to many
other parts of the garden and reduce work and imports such as fertilizer.
Also, each function is performed by multiple elements. The sunflower hedge reduces cold fall winds and could be combined with other hedges and
trees, a carefully placed greenhouse, a rock wall, and even an earth berm to form a sheltered place for tender plants or a little sunbathing. Combining
several techniques that serve the same purpose provides backups in case one method fails and often yields unexpected synergies. Look: That
combination of windbreaks has also blocked noise from the nearby highway and screened the view from the neighbors. Now we have a perfect sanctuary
or a hot-tub site.
The garden’s pieces are also connected by careful use of the zone-and-sector method, which locates each plant or other feature by how often it needs
attention and how it interacts with sun, wind, a view, or other energies from outside the site.
Patterns from nature shape the garden’s design. Paths and plantings curl into mounded spirals to save space, bend into keyhole beds for easy reach,
and use branch, net, lobe, and other patterns to catch and save energy. The right balance of edge and interior gives both diversity and protected habitat.
The garden is stacked in layers to broaden its reach into the third dimension, where it can reap sunlight effectively and also supply many niches for
Here, plants harvest and store sunlight, ponds catch water, graywater wetlands capture and use wastes that would otherwise be lost. All these pieces
link together to forge a complete and harmonious whole that replenishes and enlarges itself. The garden is a net, a sieve, sifting and sorting energy and
nutrients from whatever passes through it and transforming them into a community of flowers, birds, insects, food, and healthy people.
The diversity of this landscape makes it flexible and resilient. With so many inhabitants, connected by such a multitude of interactions, there are many
pathways, loops, and possibilities. Cycles ebb and flow with changes in the environment, adapting to new conditions. Too many aphids in one corner are
met with a sudden surge of ladybugs that have lain semidormant amid yarrow and fennel, waiting for such a feast. A heavy load of fallen fruit, rotting
because the owners are on vacation, is pounced on hungrily by birds, insects, and soil life, to be reincarnated as soil and more life before the owners
return, unaware of the janitorial frenzy that’s gone on in their absence. Small miracles like these are commonplace here.
Ecological gardens are constantly evolving, and the process of their evolution—not just the final product—is fascinating to watch. It’s exhilarating to see
once sterile soil enrich and heal itself each year, to watch new birds or insects find a home, to taste the first lingonberry, grape, or heirloom apple. Each
year brings new treats and is an endpoint in itself, rather than some stage to be impatiently hurried through.
Terraces made from broken concrete (“urbanite”) hold perennial food and habitat plants in the Los Alamos, New Mexico garden of Mary Zemach,
designed by Ben Haggard and Nate Downey, Santa Fe.