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This is the second diary in a new series on ecological gardening that I will be writing for the Practical Survivalism and Sustainable Living group here on Daily Kos. Diaries will be posted on Sundays or Mondays. A specific time will be decided upon once I return to the States in January.

The purpose of this diary series is to share my limited knowledge about a revolutionary mindset that is nothing short of a paradigm shift in our relationship to the natural world. What this diary will not be is a definitive, earth shattering work that claims to understand everything. What will be described here is not "Finchj's way" but rather my understanding of the concept of agroecology and how I tried to internalize and apply it.

The first diary can be found here. As this form of land stewardship is knowledge based, I highly recommend readers to follow the series through- at least reading the diaries with "Introduction" in their title.

I will include an introduction simliar to this one in each diary for sake of continuity and disclosure.

I want to stress that ecological gardening is possible without formal training and is a DIYer dream. Nature will teach you everything you need to know, but since we have limited time here on earth, my aim is to share what I know and where I learned things so the growth will be exponential.

Last time here...

In the first diary of this series, I explained how ecological gardening fits within the larger concept of agroecology- as a question of scale, not substance. Rather than attempting to describe the concept with words and therefore make a feeble entreaty, I allowed three inspirational examples of agroecology and permaculture at work to make the case for me.

From these three examples, we have learned:

-It is possible to help nature restore rain forests and do so in a way that benefits all parties
-We can alter weather patterns and bring rain by reforesting large areas
-Groundwater levels are raised by forests
-Almost any site can be remediated
-Industrialized/"Modern" agriculture is not the only way we can feed our growing population; in fact, in comparison to these examples, we can see that nature will provide if we allow for it.

These are just a few of the many lessons to be taken away from a reforested rainforest cum orangutan preserve, an alpine paradise, and an almost miraculous reforestation project in the Dead Sea Valley of Jordan.

What makes these methods work are not the methods themselves, but the mindset of the individuals and organizations which undertake them. To bring the methods into a synergistic whole, one must alter their world view and submit to the reality that humanity is a part of the web of life. Our attempts to step outside of nature and isolate ourselves and actions has brought about destruction, famine, and degradation.

Humanity has a unique role to play, if we so choose, within the web of life and the natural world.

That web of life and its relationship to the physical world, as it pertains to the garden's ecosystem, is the fundamental topic of the next few diaries.

Basic Garden Ecology: Introduction

A diary on even basic garden ecology could run much longer than just about anyone's attention span would allow. Trying to distill what is happening outside your window, even in the midst of winter, into a short and sweet entry has taken me the better part of this week. I played with a lot of different concepts, but ultimately came up with this. I'd like to state up front that I have not done this justice, but given our medium, I think it'll serve as a first step.

Ecology is an immense subject. My own understanding has been deeply influenced by the work of Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier in their landmark work Edible Forest Gardens- a two volume book on ecological garden design. If one wants to really get in depth with the subject, I highly recommend purchasing or borrowing these volumes.1

I'm going to keep this simple and trust that this audience is fully capable of pursuing this topic further if they feel compelled to do so.

Let's start out with something simple: there are very few things in this world about which we can use the word "always:"2

  • Water flows through the landscape perpendicular to contour, unless impeded
  • Solar angles can be determined by your physical location on earth
  • The sun is the primary engine for life on earth
  • Soil must be protected from the elements
  • Nothing is ever in isolation

There are probably a few other things, but those are the main ones. The rest of the time, "it depends" will be a common refrain from practitioners of ecological gardening and permaculture.

These simple "truths" are the driving force behind system design and ecological stewardship/gardening. They are pretty much self explanatory, as any good "truth" should be. Life is complicated, but if we keep this list in mind, we will always have fallback positions to head to if we are in over our heads. Everything else depends upon another element in the system.

Even a cursory survey of ecology and its lessons tells us that systems and cycles are integral to the workings of our biosphere. Over the course of this diary, I hope to explain- as briefly as possible- the main systems at work in your garden. It should become apparent over the course of this diary series that the way most people are gardening serves to destroy, inhibit, delay, or otherwise obstruct nature's unending course towards stability.

1. For Sustainable World Radio's interview with Dave Jacke about his book and the concept of forest gardening, you can click here.
2. The first two examples and the general idea: Podcast 099 "Lessons from the Forest". Paul Wheaton w/ Jack Spirko. Richsoil.com/permaculture Warning: Not Safe For Work or those with weak sensibilities (language). Paul Wheaton has his own style that some might find a bit brash, but he is fun, informative, and providing a platform for ideas to spread.

A section of our garden on July 7, 2011. The beginnings of polyculture, at least 20 different species are present here. Note the sunflowers form in relation to other species. Edit: The sunflowers are immediately to the left of the orange flowers from our cosmos- they are upright with huge leaves- one of them is actually topping the fence

A Short Sunflower Story

Remember: this is a basic outline of how life works in your garden!

The sun powers almost all life on earth, without its energy the biosphere as we know it will collapse. In the garden, plants are your primary converters of solar energy into biomass that is useful to us and the rest of the living world. Through photosynthesis, plants convert water and sunlight into sugars. These sugars are then used for the plants own life-maintenance. But plants do not operate in a vacuum. As we all know, plants grow both above and below ground. While most gardeners tend to focus on the visible, we should be focusing on what occurs below the surface with just as much diligence, if not more, than the visible growth.

Plants communicate with and directly support an incredible web of life below the soil. They trade their production of sugar for the services of other organisms. Fungi play a crucial role in plant health and for over 90% of known plant species, they form a symbiotic relationship.3 These are known as mycorrhizal fungi- literally "fungus root." Some fungi enter the root of a plant (endomycorrhizae) while others form a "sheath" around the roots (ectomycorrhizae). The fungi then search through the soil and humus layer in pursuit of water, minerals, and other plant roots to connect to. Eventually, a network of fungal hyphae will stretch literally hundreds of thousands of miles through the soil and provide key services to plants. Mycorrhizal fungi are just as important as your plants!

Picture a sunflower growing happily in your garden- converting the solar energy into useful "products" that it shares with soil microorganisms and fungi. In order to reproduce, our sunflower develops its flowers which need to be pollinated. It attracts pollinators through brilliant color and "pays" them to do their business with nectar. The flower eventually develops seeds, which can then be spread through consumption by other animals. The sun's energy is being put to use in many ways by just one plant.

Before our lovely sunflower perishes, it has made sure to lay the groundwork for healthy soil for the next generation. When it finally succumbs to old age (or any other factor), the "body" of the plant then serves other purposes. The flowerhead can serve as an overwintering site for spiders and other creatures. Maybe a boring insect will take up residence in the stalk in order to escape the coming winter. A strong storm, whether with its wind, snow, or rain, knocks the plant to the ground.

Through late fall and winter the decomposers of the world break through the once resilient defenses of the plant's cells and begin to dismantle our sunflower. Fungi are our primary decomposers, but earthworms and other creatures perform their duties as well. Over the course of time, our sunflower will have been effectively composted by a whole host of species- all without human intervention.

But this isn't the end. Another species, whose environmental needs are beginning to be met, can now emerge and take its place in the sun.

3. Paul Stamet's TED talk on fungi explores different ways fungi are keystone species on our planet and how we can pair with them in order to lead more sustainable and regenerative lives. H/T to DamselleFly for reminding us of it in my last diary.

Niche: Roles to Fill

The sunflower in this story filled a niche in its ecosystem. Every species occupies at least one of these, so we would do well to understand what a niche is:

The ecological niche describes how an organism or population responds to the distribution of resources and competitors (e.g., by growing when resources are abundant, and when predators, parasites and pathogens are scarce) and how it in turn alters those same factors (e.g., limiting access to resources by other organisms, acting as a food source for predators and a consumer of prey).

Let's quickly examine the sunflower in this light:

Our Hungarian Sunflower grows rapidly in an upright fashion. Due to its annual nature, it must reproduce in less than a year. This helps explain its appetite for sun, water, and nutrients! Sunflowers also fill what I would call a "master nectary" role. That is, they serve not only "generalist" pollinators such as bees, but also provide nectar to "specialist" species such as parasitic wasps. As you can see, they perform more than one function in our garden.

Multiple functionality is all around us- and it is this interplay between species where things become interesting. Each species can play many roles at once- we can look at nutrient cycling, habitat provision/requirements, form (above and below ground), light and water requirements, etc. Ecologically speaking, the sunflower provides more ecosystem services than meets the eye. Parasitic wasps, for example, are needed to bring balance to the system by preying upon what we would deem "pests."

But there are no pests in nature. Weeds also do not exist in nature- nature abhors a vacuum and will work tirelessly to fill them. There are no "good guys" or "bad guys." There merely exist species that fill stabilizing functions by acting as checks and balances in a system. Living things grow, reproduce, and they die. In death, their mineral components are recycled in the system. Throughout their life cycles, species interact with their environments and neighbors in almost countless ways. Functions and roles quickly combine to create an intricate web of life.

We can choose species that are useful to us and fill all the niches under our influence. If we don't, nature will.


The same garden patch as above, taken three weeks earlier (June 14, 2011). The sunflowers are only one element, but fill help fill multiple niches. As this was our first year, our ability to identify and fill niches will only increase over time.

What's Next? Cycles and Systems

I've shared with you a short story on the sunflower- a favorite in almost every garden.  What I've described is but a single element in a wider system. We've followed part of its life cycle and examined how it makes a living and what it provides for others.

In the next installment, I will begin to step back from this single element and look at the wider system in which it inhabits. We will look at soil, garden "layers," and how this relates to competition and cooperation through space and time through the context of our sunflower. As next weekend if the Christmas holiday, expect the next diary a few days later.


A north facing view of the garden from July 7, 2011. There is more behind the vantage point, and much more lies beyond the mass of bamboo trellises. This isn't your typical "organic" garden, nor is it even approaching the potential of a fully fledged ecological garden with permaculture principles.

Thanks for reading!

Friendly reminder: I am in Helsinki, Finland which is 7 time zones ahead of EST. When I notice that the diary has been published by the Practical Survivalism and Sustainable Living group, I'll begin to comment.
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Comment Preferences

  •  I Planted A Huge Garden This Year (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ladywithafan, FinchJ

    and it was a totally cluster fuck. Excuse my language but that was what it was. Maybe why you have outlined.

    BTW: I find it more interesting you are in Helsinki. I am waving to you form southern Illinois.

    When opportunity calls pick up the phone and give it directions to your house.

    by webranding on Mon Dec 19, 2011 at 01:13:25 PM PST

    •  It takes more than luck, but luck helps. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      FinchJ

      speaking as a somewhat lucky gardener who believes in co-existance in nature, complementary planting and no chemicals.

    •  Haha, I thought the same thing about my garden (0+ / 0-)

      when I returned from my summer stay in Finland. It was overrun by morning glories, but a lot kept on chugging regardless. Damn morning glories in the city mulch we had bought (which was a 1 time deal because I had stripped our grass off and needed an organic layer).

      Keep following this diary series over the winter and maybe we'll be able to help you get on your way! This whole series will really just be an introduction because you will learn everything from doing- this isn't really something that, beyond the basics, one can say "do this, that or the other."

      It almost always "depends."

      /waves from Helsinki!

  •  It is now 3 til midnight here in Helsinki, (0+ / 0-)

    I'll be up for a little while longer. Feel free to comment and I'll get back to you tomorrow!

  •  i'll be following (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    FinchJ

    we have both flowers and vegetable gardens, on a small scale, on about two acres with a house and pool; in the northeast, in the catskill mountains, a zone 5

    not overabundant in light, as our southern side has very tall trees over most of it, so only in high summer do we get a lot of sun

    we usually have enough water available, both in rainfall, with a runoff from the hill across the road, which comes through a conduit under the road, and a ditch we dug, and also through the soil, all of which goes into a stream along our northern boundary;

    the soil in the field where we put a veg garden is good for about two feet, as we put in manure, compost, topsoil; but below that there is a layer of clay, which is so impermeable that water collects on top of it; this doesn't seem to hamper productivity;

    we use compost, manure, organic fertilizer only sparingly

    btw i couldn't identify the sunflowers in the first photo

    i'm glad you're doing this, i'd like to know more

    •  Thanks for reading isabelle hayes :) (0+ / 0-)

      Two acres sounds about ideal right about now. And your property sounds lovely. Is your pool a "swimming pool" or a small pond?

      Zone 5 is supposed to be what southern Finland is, so I am glad you are following and interested! Maybe when you try some things and let me know I'll be able to take cues from your experience when I finally move.

      You'll find that being on a slope actually facilitates a lot of the design process and allows for some amazing opportunities. Did you happen to see the documentary I linked on Sepp Holzer (its in the first diary)?

      About those sunflowers in the first garden photo: its funny because I thought for a moment that people wouldn't be able to identify them, so I wrote another descriptive sentence real quick. Then, I was like, "nah, they'll see 'em!"

      Sounds like I need to go back and edit that (haha!)

      I'll keep on writing through the winter, its great to have something to do when it gets dark at 3pm :)

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