(An excerpt from Gaia’s Garden)
A movement is afoot toward more natural landscaping. Many gardeners are turning their backs on the lawn, in particular. People are digging up their resource-guzzling grassy swards and installing native plant gardens, wildlife-attracting thickets, or sun-dappled woodland habitats. It’s an encouraging trend, this movement toward more ecologically sound, nature-friendly yards.
Yet not everyone is on board. Some gardeners hesitate to go natural because they can’t see where, for example, their vegetable garden fits into this new style. What will happen to those luscious beefsteak tomatoes? Or ornamental plants–does natural gardening mean tearing out a treasured cut-flower bed or pulling up grandmother’s heirloom roses to make room for a wild-looking landscape?
Nurturing wildlife and preserving native species are admirable goals, but how do people fit into these natural landscapes? No gardener wants to feel like a stranger in her own backyard. Gardeners who refuse to be excluded from their own yards, but love nature, have been forced to create fragmented gardens: an orderly vegetable plot here, flower beds there, and a back corner for wildlife or a natural landscape. And each of these fragments has its weaknesses. A vegetable garden doesn’t offer habitat to native insects, birds, and other wildlife. Quite the contrary–munching bugs and birds are unwelcome visitors. The flower garden, however much pleasure the blooms provide, can’t feed the gardener. And a wildlife garden is often unkempt and provides little for people other than the knowledge that it’s good for wild creatures.
This book shows how to integrate these isolated and incomplete pieces into a vigorous, thriving backyard ecosystem that benefits both people and wildlife. These gardens are designed using the same principles that nature uses to create healthy plant communities, so that the different plantings and other elements interconnect and nurture one another. They are more than the sum of their parts. An ecological garden feels like a living being, with a character and essence that is unique to each. Gaia’s Garden provides tools to understand, design, and construct a backyard ecosystem that will serve people and the rest of nature.
Ecological gardens meld the best features of wildlife gardens, edible landscapes, and conventional flower and vegetable gardens. They are based on relatively new concepts such as permaculture and ecological design, yet use time-tested techniques honed to perfection by indigenous people, restoration biologists, organic farmers, and cutting-edge landscape designers. These gardens combine low environmental impact, low maintenance once established, and high yields with elegant aesthetics.
Ecological gardens are filled with beautiful plants that have many uses, providing fruit and vegetables, medicinal and culinary herbs, eye-catching arrays of colorful blossoms, soil-building mulch, protection from pests, and habitat for wildlife. With thousands of plant species to choose from, we can find plenty that do several of these jobs at once. Multifunctional plants are a hallmark of gardens based on ecological principles; that’s how nature works. We can choose food plants that support insects and other wildlife, herbs that break up hardpan, cover crops that are edible, or trees that add nutrients to the soil.
These gardens can even yield income from edible and medicinal plants, seeds and nursery stock, or dried flowers, and provide construction or craft materials such as lumber, bamboo poles, basket willow, and vegetable dyes. Yet in a garden designed along ecological principles, birds and other animals feel just as welcome in these living landscapes as the gardener. With good design these gardens need only infrequent watering, and the soil renews itself rather than demanding heavy fertilizing. These are living ecosystems, designed using nature’s rules, and boasting the lushness and resilience of the natural environment.
Copyright © 2001 by Toby Hemenway
Selected Excerpts from Gaia’s Garden: