What Is Ecological Planting?

by | Environment, Gardening

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Ecological planting is a transformative approach to land restoration that everyone can participate in. The focus of this growing movement is to utilize the resilience and genetic diversity of native flora to restore ecosystem relationships, creating healthier habitats for resilience in the face of change.

What Is an Ecological Garden?

An ecological garden is a garden that is purposefully integrated into the natural ecosystem of the local habitat. This type of garden is designed to work in harmony with the environment, providing food and shelter for all aspects of those relationships from insects to animals.

A critical aspect of ecological gardening is the use of native plants, which belong to a specific region and are adapted to the local climate, soil conditions, and wildlife. This emphasis on native species is crucial for promoting genetic diversity and creating healthier ecosystems.

Native ecological gardening plays a vital role in preserving genetic diversity, which is essential for the long-term health and resilience of ecosystems. By planting native species, you support the survival of plants and animals that have evolved over time to thrive in the local environment. Healthy ecological habitats are places where plants and animals are biodiverse and within the right proportions for that environment.

A habitat of diverse native plants have (and can develop) genetic traits that enable them to withstand or develop better resiliency to regional challenges such as pests, diseases, and climatic conditions. Native plants have already established relationships with local insects, birds, and other wildlife, providing essential food sources and habitats.

By cultivating a proportionate variety of native plants in an ecological garden, you foster an interconnected web of life, ensuring the survival of pollinators, beneficial insects, and other wildlife species that rely on these plants for their survival.

Letting Go of the Victorian Era ‘Yard’

The idea of a pristine, manicured lawn originated from England in the 19th century. The trend was born out of a desire to emulate the expansive lawns of country estates that were accessible only to the wealthy elite.

The Victorian era lawn was typically characterized by a vast expanse of closely mowed grass, often surrounded by ornamental flower beds and topiaries. The desire for uniformity and orderliness led to frequent mowing, precise edging, and the use of chemicals and fertilizers to maintain its lush green appearance. These practices required significant time, effort, and resources, including regular watering and the application of pesticides and herbicides.

Despite the passing of the Victorian era, the idea of the manicured lawn has persisted and remains in common practice today as a symbol of cultural influence, cleanliness, and a sense of order. This has outgrown its origins and now, despite the prohibitive cost and environmental toll of these lawns, it has become a neighborhood expectation and a part of the social norm.

These traditional lawns suffer from compacted soil due to foot traffic and constant mowing, inhibiting root growth and water penetration. By transitioning to ecological planting, such as using native plants, trees, and shrubs, the soil’s health improves.

Native plants possess deeper root systems that enhance aeration, nutrient cycling, and overall soil structure. As their roots grow and decay, they enrich the soil with organic matter which improves the soil biome, and thus the stability and health of the soil.

The natural resistance native plants have to pests and diseases reduces the need for harmful chemical treatments and frequent watering. The relaxed philosophy of ecological planting reduces the need for meticulous lawn care and maintenance, saving time and effort.

Becoming an Ecological Gardener

In gardens lacking genetic diversity, or one where only a few plant species are present, a disease or pest outbreak can easily decimate the entire garden. However, in an ecological garden with a diverse array of native species, the chances of a single disease or pest wiping out the entire population are significantly reduced.

Preserving genetic diversity through native ecological gardening is not only essential for the environment but also for our own well-being. Healthy ecosystems provide us with clean air, clean water, and other ecosystem services that support our quality of life. By cultivating a garden that supports genetic diversity, we contribute to the overall health and resilience of the natural world around us.

By becoming an ecological gardener, you contribute to the conservation of biodiversity, promote environmental sustainability. These spaces provide us with benefits like clean air, water filtration, wildlife habitat, and aesthetic enjoyment.

Additionally, ecological gardening can inspire and educate others, spreading the principles of sustainability and fostering a deeper connection with the natural world.

Step 1: Discovering Your Eco-Region

The first step to intentional ecological planting is to determine what eco-region you are located in. An eco region is a distinct geographic area characterized by unique ecological features, including climate, topography, soil composition, and plant and animal communities.

In the United States, you can find your eco-region on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website. (1)

“Ecoregions are areas where ecosystems (and the type, quality, and quantity of environmental resources) are generally similar.”

EPA.gov

Finding your eco-region will give you a better understanding of the habitats near you. By selecting plants that are native to these specific regions, you are one step closer to facilitating a healthy and diverse ecosystem.

Step 2: Growing the Right Plants at the Right Place

Growing the right native plants in the right place is a fundamental principle of ecological planting. It involves selecting plant species that are adapted to your specific eco-region and climate, with a diverse wild range of genetic material. Getting to know the specific plants’ growing habits and climatic needs is essential, as this will help you understand how each species will develop in different locations.

It is also important to recognize the principle of proportionality in natural landscapes. Natural landscapes often have specific proportions and arrangements of different plant species that have evolved over time to maintain ecological balance and functionality.

Simply planting a mix of native species without considering their natural coexistence can disrupt these proportions and potentially lead to unintended consequences. Observing and studying similar natural landscapes in the wild can provide valuable insights into the appropriate proportions and ecosystem interactions.

Step 3: Let It Grow – Without Chemicals

Pesticides and herbicides, while widely marketed, are not safe for the environment. These chemicals have negative impacts on non-target organisms. By avoiding the use of pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers, you minimize harm to beneficial insects, wildlife, and soil organisms, while also reducing potential negative impacts on human health.

These chemicals have been associated with various health concerns, including respiratory issues, allergies, and potential long-term effects on human development and hormone regulation. (2) By prioritizing chemical-free ecological plantings, we reduce potential negative impacts on human health and promote safer environments for communities.

Allowing ecological plantings to grow without chemicals also supports the health and balance of soil ecosystems, ensuring long-term soil productivity and reducing the risk of soil degradation. Avoiding the use of these chemicals can also improve local water quality.

When pesticides and herbicides are applied, they can enter water sources through runoff or leaching. This can lead to contamination of aquatic ecosystems, harming fish, amphibians, and other aquatic organisms. By avoiding the use of these chemicals, ecological plantings help protect water quality, minimizing the introduction of harmful substances into aquatic environments.

Step 4: Invigorate Your Soil

The presence of a diverse soil biome in ecological plantings is crucial for nutrient cycling. Soil microorganisms break down organic matter, releasing nutrients in forms that are easily accessible to plants.

This natural cycling of nutrients ensures a nutrient-rich soil environment, promoting long-term soil fertility and productivity. This also contributes to soil stability, preventing erosion that can result in structural damage to homes and other structures on the land.

When a home is built, the soil is disturbed and compacted, ruining the soil structure and de-stabilizing the soil biome that lives there. Many ecological plantings occur at home sites, and a sustainable ecosystem of plants starts in the soil.

To re-invigorate your soil, it is important to adopt practices that avoid disturbing the soil and allow natural decomposition of plants. Adding compost to the soil surface or allowing leaf litter to naturally break down after fall can help jumpstart this process.

As the seasons go by, allow any native plant material to remain on the soil surface so it can decompose naturally. This enriches the soil with organic matter and providing nutrients for future plant growth, while allowing the soil biome to naturally recover.

Step 5: Encourage Diversity

Creating a healthy ecosystem by encouraging diversity goes beyond plant selection. It involves challenging our biases about pests by recognizing the relationships between all organisms in an ecosystem, as well as being willing to eschew societal expectations of the traditional lawn.

By embracing ecological balance, you can support the presence of beneficial organisms, nurture a resilient ecosystem, and create a sustainable landscape. Every species has a role to play in the ecosystem, contributing to pollination, nutrient cycling, pest control, and overall resilience of the habitat.

Take It Slow… You’re On the Ecosystems’ Timeline, Not Yours

For the modern gardener, one of the biggest struggles you might face isn’t figuring out which plants to grow. It may be about learning patience. In our fast-paced world, it can be uncomfortable to learn how to let things grow for a season or two.

Even more so when rehabilitating the landscape, it’s important to recognize that you’re on the ecosystem’s timeline, not your own. You can’t force anything to happen quickly, and ecological changes don’t occur in a single season. You may see minor differences; an increase in native pollinators, more wildlife, or different plant communities trying to establish themselves in the new space. The real changes occur over several seasons of this rehabilitation, allowing nature to regain a foothold in its space.

For some people, this becomes a lifetime mission, or one that occurs over several generations. Take Jadev Payeng for example: known as the Forest Man of India, he singlehandedly replanted an area outside of Assam, helping the ecosystem regenerate itself after it had been reduced to scorched sand. (3)

“Earlier, this was all sand. No trees, no grass — nothing was here. Only driftwood. Now, seeds of grass carried downriver from China wash up, and pollinate, on their own.”

Jadev Payeng

Starting in 1979, Jadev began replanting in hopes of regenerating the landscape. Seeing its reduced state of scorched sand and dying wildlife struck him with grief, and he began his quest. Now, the island thrives with humidity, lush grass and trees, and repaired ecological relationships.

Jadev’s dedication and consistency in planting native flora in the right places played a vital role in the island’s transformation. All it required was dedication and consistency in planting native flora in the right places and allowing nature to take its course.

Over time, the island began to thrive with increased humidity, lush grass, and the growth of trees. The restored vegetation provided shade, shelter, and stability to the island’s soil, preventing erosion and creating a more favorable environment for other plants and animals to flourish.

Combining Edible Landscapes with Native Plants

Continuing the example of Jadev Payeng, the critical element that helped him restore the balance of the ecosystem was native plants. Native plants are adapted to the local environment and provide essential habitats and food sources for indigenous wildlife. By reintroducing these plants, Jadev encouraged the return of various animal species, helping to rebuild the island’s ecological relationships.

Native plants have a remarkable capacity to provide not only a thriving habitat for wildlife but also a bountiful source of food for people. These native edible landscapes thrive in local climates, soils, and environmental conditions.

Native plants have evolved over time to thrive in their specific ecosystems, making them resilient and well-suited to their native regions. Their ability to withstand local pests, diseases, and weather fluctuations often reduces the need for excessive maintenance and chemical inputs.

When we integrate native edible plants into our landscapes, we create a more diverse and sustainable food system. These plants can provide a range of fruits, nuts, seeds, leaves, and roots that are not only delicious but also nutritionally rich. By cultivating and consuming native edible plants, we can embrace a more localized and seasonal approach to our diets, reducing our dependence on long-distance food transportation and the associated carbon footprint.

In response to the modern climate and biodiversity crisis, several seed initiatives have sprouted, providing ecoregions with seeds that are best suited to their region, with genetic diversity from wild plants. You can also help this initiative grow by supporting wild seed suppliers who practice sustainable and responsible seed collection, as well as requesting native plants at your local nurseries.  

References
References
  1. EPA.gov, Ecoregions, https://www.epa.gov/eco-research/ecoregions
  2. EPA.gov, Human Health Issues Related to Pesticides, https://www.epa.gov/pesticide-science-and-assessing-pesticide-risks/human-health-issues-related-pesticides
  3. NPR.org A Lifetime of Planting Trees on a Remote River Island: Meeting Indias Forest Man, https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/12/26/572421590/hed-take-his-own-life-before-killing-a-tree-meet-india-s-forest-man

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About Destynnie K. Berard
I am a lifelong naturalist who believes a good sense of humor is essential to staying happy. ★ After traveling for years, I settled in New England, falling in love with the diverse landscape the Northeast has to offer, and began pursuing conservation in earnest. ★ My career background is in enterprise marketing and communications, which provides me with a unique perspective of ecological relationships.

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