When we apply Permaculture design to our gardens we try to mimic, or maybe even facilitate, an ecosystem. This topic is about how we can do that, how is it possible to let an ecosystem develop in our gardens and crop systems. It is also about sharing experiences to give other people ideas they can try out.
It is difficult to say what exactly an ecosystem is but to give it a try: a functional ecosystem is a collection of both flora and fauna that keeps all life forms in a reasonable balance so the system as a whole can continue to function and be productive.
What we know from gardening is that when nature does not supply a certain function, we have to step in ourselves to do that job. I would think that our main challenges follow from that: how can we invite nature back into our gardens to help us maintain the balance that an ecosystem needs?
We also know that a fully stable state system is unlikely, because things grow and evolve and not all species will be equally successful on any particular site. Because we want our systems to evolve to be (at least somewhat) productive for our own use, there will always be some maintenance we need to do.
To give the formation of any ecosystem a chance, one basic condition needs to be met: no spraying of chemicals, because any type of herbicide, insecticide or fungicide and even artificial fertilizer will kill or force out the beneficial species an ecosystem needs. For example killing off all weeds removes a lot of habitat and/or food sources for beneficial insects. There are numerous other bad effects but I think this is sufficiently known in the permies community.
For plants we can apply the following to help build the flora of an ecosystem:
- combine plants in guilds (companion planting) of species that are mutually beneficial
- thick mulch to reduce niches for unwanted plants
- create microclimates (wetter - dryer, shaded - full sun, higher - lower, etc)
- plant sacrificial species that attract pests so they leave our productive species alone
- create patches of guilds rather than whole beds with the same plants (this also confuses pests)
To attract predator insects:
- leave belts or spots in and around gardens to weeds to diversify species and provide predator habitat or food source
- rock or wood piles, also to create habitat
- little ponds (water source)
More insects means more birds, toads, lizards, bats, etc. This also increases the amount of fertilizer added to the garden.
- Are there people on permies who have experience with these methods?
- What did you try, which results did you observe, how did it affect the yields you receive from the garden?
- If you build habitats, do predators always show up?
We're now two years into building our system. Just the fact that we did not spray chemicals and got the 8 cows of the previous owner (way too many for the state the farm was in back then) off the land has lead to for example:
- changes in weeds growing on the land (a lot more diversity now)
- many more birds (from about 8 species to more than 30)
- increasing amounts of all kinds of little beetles
- more predator insects (many more praying mantis these days, see picture)
- lots of butterflies (not always good, also means lots of caterpillars)
- more lizards
We have now started our new garden system and we try to use these techniques. Leaf veggies are still a problem, so we have to see how that improves over the next months.
Two nice examples, the first one is a type of wood beetle, quite a rare sight around here. The second one a praying mantis, which started to show up regularly in our second year.
I have some experience with this. I garden two locations at present. A patio full of potted plants, and a 400ish square foot section that is far enough away I have to use zone 3 tools and tricks since I only see it once a week. I do not use any sprays. I do not weed unless it is prickly or I have something to plant there. I normally have a brush pile sitting around composting somewhere, and I have several perennial flowering plants for pollinators. There is almost always atleast an inch of mulch living or otherwise. Everything is polyculture. I have lots of good experiences, and several bad with this type of gardening. Definitely not for everyone.
Laziness - Eco system gardening is super easy to maintain once you have the ecosystem balanced-ish. Minor fluctuations tend to fix themselves in a year or two.
Insects - I have seen more insects in my garden in the last 3 years than I have seen anywhere else besides the forest. Most of them beneficial.
Stability - My garden does better with freak weather than all the other gardens in the area. Sometimes I lose one crop, but never as bad as others in the area.
Productivity - I get more food out of my section than my parents and both their neighbors combined.
Diversity - This is one of the biggest advantages IMO. If you grow in this style you can grow many things others simply can't and get amazing food some people don't even know about. (I love winecap mushrooms!)
Messiness - Not really a con for me, but it will look like a jungle every single july. If you can't tell a potato from a tomato growing in the middle of beans, then you're going to have a rough time.
Slugs and snails - They are a big part of a balance eco system, be prepared to accept the losses and plant more for it.
Surprises - This year nature selected against squash. I lost over half my crop. The Maize however is going to have the best year yet. Be prepared for ecosystem shifts that affect your harvests from year to year.
Time - Nature works on a different time scale than us humans. I have gardened on this plot for about 5 years now. The first two sucked. Year three and four I was king of dandelion land. Now on the fifth year my invertebrate population has skyrocketed. The earth blinks.
Hey Tyler. It's a little column A, a little column B.
I designed the heat trap effect that extends my season by a week on each end. I selected for plants that would attract bees throughout the year on the hugelkulture bed that I set aside as an insectary. I close what fungi I wanted to occupy certain niches. And I liberally seeded several plants that I wouldn't mind as weeds.
Nature decided that potatoes make better weeds in my area than tomatoes, but tomatillos are somehow ok. *shrug* She is also responsible for every invertebrate with exception to the nematodes I bought year one to not take chances. Although I breed slugs for cannibalism, she is the one that gave me the leopard slugs that are best at it.
Honestly I am too stupid to know if It is my efforts or just pure natural process, I like to think both. I am happy to go into more detail on anything you want to know more about.
Great to read your posts Shawn! We're just starting 'for real' after some trials in the past 2 years. We seed what we can, fully prepared for loosing most of it, which is a relaxed way to learn from what's happening, but we want to find our way to a situation where most plants will actually survive.
Things like bananas, papaya and pigeon pea grow well here, no matter where we plant them, and they provide some shade from the fierce sun in the tropics. So we plant those everywhere and then we try other plants in between and under them. That seems to work quite well, but it's no real ecosystem yet.
For now it's just wait and see. In the mean time I'd love to hear other people's experiences.
To start evolving an ecosystem, I think it is best to start small, and basic.
Regional native wildflowers are a great start. Most packaged mixes (for your region) have a variety of perennials, and annuals (that will reseed themselves if you just let them be). Since they are natives, they are acclimated to your temperatures and precipitation. Once started, they should need no care.
They provide food, and habitat for the native pollinators, and other natural insects. This is the basic building block in inviting the natural inhabitants into your system. They will help draw in the birds, reptiles, and other critters that will evolve into a healthy, vibrant ecosystem.
One thing I did notice that I am sure is unintentional on your part Rene. It's not just flora and fauna that make the ecosystem. There are 6 kingdoms of life. Don't forget the Protozoa, Bactria, Fungi, and Algae. Its easy to forget them, but keeping them happy can lead to great things in our ecosystems. I currently am cultivating in one form or another 5 of the six kingdoms; only because i don't have a place to grow out usnea for the algae kingdom.
Hi John, this being a 'developing country' the only seeds you can buy here are vegetables or exotic plants. But we can rely on weeds, so that's not a problem.
Shawn, thanks for mentioning that. I left it out initially because I thought it was better not to over-complicate the subject (the algae I actually did not even think about). It all starts with the soil and the life in it. I also hope this topic will be of help to other people. Things like an 'ecosystem' are very difficult to get your head around. Especially since we have all learned to think in the split between 'good' species and 'bad' species, where in reality many 'bad' species are simply nature's cleanup crew who help to keep things healthy (a big scale attack of anything 'bad' mostly means that either what you grow is already sickly, or your ecosystem is totally out of whack)
I'll put some pictures at the end of this post to show what we're working on. The first picture shows a part of the garden we're working on digging now. On the right the garden beds that were completed last week. Only the area at the lowest part still to go, that will have two small ponds and some more beds. To the left the part that we planted 3 months ago. It's very messy, but as Shawn also said that's the type of garden you get if you want an ecosystem way of letting the garden figure out itself a bit.
We threw up wood walls using all the sticks we got from cutting down the poor regrowth that had overtaken this part of the land. It doubles as swale, the other side is covered with clay soil. (Second picture)
Third picture is a mustard plant. When it was small it was nearly killed by caterpillars. But it kept on trying to grow and one day some small beetles appeared on its leaves that, we think, took care of the eggs the butterflies laid on its leaves. Now about 4 weeks later it's flowering.
It seems it's all beginning to work out. On a previously difficult and hardly fertile piece of land our first real garden is starting to thrive. On the first picture below a clear example of one of the garden beds: papayas, pigeon pea, beans, cucumber, water melon and pine apple. Not a sign of damage by pests and it's all growing like crazy now.
Second picture: papayas started flowering.
Third picture: a recently completed bed, fungi are showing up already
We still have so much to learn. Guilds for example. Or to get things properly build up, so more species can move in. I honestly don't know much yet, but we try to create conditions that increasingly favor life.
I guess the process we're going through starts to make more sense now. Our first year was trial and error, lots of error. Our second year was drought caused by el niño. That taught us a lot of very important lessons. And now we try to blend our existence on this place in with nature and she seems to have taken a liking to it. Very exciting to live through this and I hope that this cascade of experiences will make us not only good stewards of this place, but also great teachers and consultants.
I feel very happy that permies allows us to share this fantastic adventure!
I have started my permaculture adventure in my backyard three years ago. During this time a number of species of plants and animals that either live on or visit my land has increased enormously. Things that had the biggest impact on increasing biodiversity were:
- herb spiral with attached small garden pond - insect hotel
- nesting boxes for birds, bat house
- planting over 100 species of annuals and perennials, in polycultures
- mulching heavily (mostly with wood chips)
- hugel, piles of wood, branches, stones, other forms of hideouts for small fauna
- building microclimates and soils
Here is a picture of my first attempt - three very small raised beds on a bare sandy ground three years ago:
And here is how it looks like now:
Guests that have never been seen before backyard permaculture makeover (just examples):
and it is far from the end - everyday there is something new, an ecosystem (or actually many of micro-ecosystems) are evolving, changing, adjusting....
I can't tell if I am doing something special to help nature create a real ecosystem in my garden. All I do is trying to mimic what I know about nature. Diversity is the keyword. Diversity in levels: trees, shrubs, climbers, herbs, ground-covering plants (living mulch); and because everything was flat here, I created diversity in ground-levels (herb-spiral, Hugelkultur). Diversity in wet and dry parts (leading the rainwater to a small pond with overflow), in shaded, less shaded and sunny parts, in parts with stones/bricks, with dead wood or with only soil.
I have to learn a lot more about plant guilds. I try to create a polyculture, but some of the plants I put together do not seem to like eachother. I don't know about the invisible part of the ecosystem (but the algae are probably in the pond and the fungi in the dead wood).
I like gettin more and more 'wildlife' animals in my garden. There are toads now, at least one frog, bees and other buzzing insects in a wide variety, beetles, many different snails and slugs (First I wanted them to leave, but I understand they are part of the ecosystem) and birds. I hope there's a hedgehog, but they are such elusive animals.
My garden is small, about 8x8,5 meters. That's the front yard. There's a back yard too, about the same size, but with much less sunlight. I am still figuring out what to do. I do not design all at once, I prefer 'baby steps'.
part of the garden with herb spiral, raspberries and red currants. This is the part where I started applying permaculture principles 2 1/2 years ago.
"Also, just as you want men to do to you, do the same way to them" (Luke 6:31)
Hi Inge, I think you got it right. If new species move in I think it indicates you're on the path to ecosystem formation. It's great to see an example on a smaller scale. If you get way too many snails however, it might be that you still miss the species to control them. You might have to step in to reduce their numbers a bit. But if their numbers stay under control something else is already doing that for you.