Your Ecosystem Garden is a community of plants and wildlife that works together to create an ecosystem that supports biodiversity, ecosystem services, and creates welcoming habitats for wildlife who interact with those native plants.
Traditional gardening teaches us something completely different, that the goal is to collect “specimens.” You’re taught to choose this pretty plant from Japan, that plant from China, another from Russia, and yet another from South America.
The trouble is, these plants have no connection to each other in a community, nor do they support any interaction at all with your local wildlife. The goal is just to have the latest and newest cultivar from the most prestigious horticultural breeders.
If that is your goal, go enjoy yourself. But if you want to create a garden that supports the local ecology, does not harm the environment, and contributes to healthy populations of wildlife, some grounding in the principles of community ecology is very important.
The collector’s mentality creates nothing more than a Plant Zoo
Last time I went to the zoo, I became quite sad. I spent the afternoon crying for this wildlife who were so far removed from their native habitats. I don’t believe that observing a Lion in a cage really teaches us anything at all about that magnificent creature in its natural environment.
The reason that zoos make me sad is that we had to create them to counteract our own human actions. Habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation due to human action is the number one cause of species decline, along with the spread of invasive plants.
So, because we have destroyed or chopped up into tiny little fragments the habitats that wildlife needs to survive, now we are attempting to correct our error by protecting wildlife without the same amount of effort placed on protecting the habitat that species lives in.
No species is an island. The flora and fauna of a region are products of the interactions between them. So are we really gaining that much by attempting to protect a species that has been removed from the environment in which it thrived? Feels kind of like a losing battle to me.
The time to protect something is not after we’ve destroyed its habitat. Our time, money, and effort is much better spent in protecting the habitat as a whole.
But we’re doing the same thing with the way that we garden. We are creating gardens completely devoid of life as a showcase for our special ornaments, which provide very little, if any, benefits to wildlife.
When we have a garden full of “specimens” we may indeed have a visually appealing garden to our eyes, until we begin to look a little closer. we discover that there is no LIFE in this garden:
- No host plants for butterflies
- No birds feeding on seeds and berries
- No insects which form the base of the food web for all other wildlife
What we end up with in a “specimen” garden is a bunch of unrelated plants that:
- Require a lot of resources such as water and nutrients
- Deplete the soil
- Give nothing back for wildlife
Ecosystem Gardening creates a garden full of Life
Every plant in my Ecosystem Garden is there because it performs some function for wildlife: host plants for butterflies, seeds and berries for birds, a food source for other wildlife.
Over the course of ecological history, plants, insects, and other wildlife have developed specialized interactions. Some plants are only able to be pollinated by one kind of wildlife. Most insects are specialists, requiring a single plant or a single closely related group of plants for their survival.
The nutritional value of most native plants is not replicated in many “specimens” in the plant zoo. So while many birds may eat fruits and berries from some of these exotic plants, they are not receiving the nutrition they would receive from the plants with which they have co-evolved, and may in fact be starving as a result of this.
Moving Away From the Plant Zoo
Ecosystem Gardening teaches you to work with Mother Nature instead of fighting against her. Simply by adding more regionally appropriate native plants to your landscape will begin to increase its value to wildlife.
When you create areas in your garden that mimic the ecological structure of the natural areas around you, you will be contributing to the environmental health and ecosystem services of your region.
A healthy ecosystem is balanced. When the population of one group of organisms begins to get out of control, in a balanced environment there will always be some other organism to step in and restore balance.
On the other hand, when we create a plant zoo there is no connection between those plants and the surrounding environment, thus there is nothing to maintain balance. The most extreme example of this is that so many of these plants have now escaped cultivation in our gardens, become invasive, and are now running rampant through natural ecosystems, destroying the balance of nature and wreaking havoc in wildlife habitats.