Gardening with Ecological Succession

Connecting with natural cycles, working with plants, and growing food for my community has always been a healing, empowering, and revolutionary practice in my life -- an act of both love and defiance. I hope that you too can find some solace and healing in these turbulent times.  

June 20th marked the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year. It's a really exciting time in the garden as greens, berries, and fresh foods start really piling high. The flowers liven our senses, inspiring us to be more active in our own lives.  And it's a good thing too, because there is lots to do in the garden.

Many struggle with the persistence of "weeds" in the garden, but today I want to share a different possibility with you -- A possibility where we let go of perspectives that have been culturally handed down to us and look to the natural systems for new perspectives and guidance.

By definition, a "weed" is simply a plant growing where it's not wanted or where it's in competition with other purposely cultivated plants. By this definition, no one specific plant is a weed, as we are often taught. Plants only become weeds when the individual defines it in that way. Liberating, right?

In fact, in ecological terms weeds are simply hardy species which are the first to make a home in previously disrupted or damaged ecosystems, starting a chain of ecological succession that ultimately leads to a more biodiverse steady-state ecosystem. These species are often called "pioneer species" and they are the first in a process of ecological succession. I prefer not to use the term "pioneer species", so I will use the term "early succession species" from here on out. 

  After the Mount St. Helens eruption of 1980, lupine was the first species to take root in the ashes of that massive disturbance event, followed by fireweed, and other early successional species that helped create evermore habitable conditions for other species of annuals, perennials, shrubs, and trees over time.  

After the Mount St. Helens eruption of 1980, lupine was the first species to take root in the ashes of that massive disturbance event, followed by fireweed, and other early successional species that helped create evermore habitable conditions for other species of annuals, perennials, shrubs, and trees over time. 

Early successional species thrive in adversity and disturbance. Disturbances can be major, such as a forest fire, flood, or volcanic eruption, or they can be minor, such as a falling tree, a grazing heard, or a burrowing animal. And humans are just as much a part of this cycle as any grazing heard or falling tree. We are truly the ultimate disruptors - more than any volcano or forest fire.

In our urban environments, large-scale deforestation, industrialization and development have created the perfect environment for vigorous, early successional species as well as what are often called "invasive species", such as blackberry, knotweed, and ivy.  The land's history with both geomorphic, biological and human disturbance is complex, but luckily our impact when weeding or gardening is not. 

When we till the soil, weed, or do anything that exposes the soil to sun, wind, and water, we are creating tiny disturbances in the soil surface. This is important because we often think we are making good headway. We are out there ALL DAY in the hot sun "weeding", but in actuality we are creating the perfect conditions for early successional species to take root again and again. This is why the weeding can feel frustrating, the cycle continues in an endless loop if we don't take further action. 

So, what do we do now? How do we transform our practices in a way that works with nature and creates less work in the long run? We look to nature!

The truth is, every site and garden will be unique and will require adaptations and adjustments. That said, there are some tips that I hope will help you be able to work with ecological succession to heal the land and create a garden ecology that serves your life best. 

TIPS:

1) We work WITH the weeds. Building a relationship with the plants and utilizing their unique gifts is an option

I know, I know, this is a really extreme option and it's not going to be for everyone. However, I want to share it as a possibility. We can utilize the early successional plants that are here to help us. As I've mentioned, these plants often transform the land into what's called a "steady state" with increased biodiversity and a wide variety of ecosystem services.  For instance, we can let the dock, chicory, dandelion, and burdock bust through our compacted clay soils with their deep taproots.We can "Chop 'n' Drop" the organic matter to help build nutrient-rich topsoil over time. This option requires that there is an appreciation for these plants and a pretty good understanding of their functions, habits, and distribution methods for optimal ecological outcome.  

 Burdock is not only a delicious food and potent medicinal plant, it's a "nutrient accumulator" and pollinator beneficial. It's deep taproot busts up clay soils, while it's large leaves produce lots of biomass for building nutrient rich topsoil. Chop 'n' drop to avoid it's burs. 

Burdock is not only a delicious food and potent medicinal plant, it's a "nutrient accumulator" and pollinator beneficial. It's deep taproot busts up clay soils, while it's large leaves produce lots of biomass for building nutrient rich topsoil. Chop 'n' drop to avoid it's burs. 

2) "Sheet Mulch" with woody or "Ramial" mulch

Sheet mulching can be as complex or simple as you want to make it. It can be many layers of materials, like an organic matter lasagna, but my approach is typically very simple. I collect non-waxed cardboard, with minimal ink if possible, and remove as much of any existing tape as I'm able.

While I'm collecting cardboard, I submit a request for mulch on "Chip Drop" (https://getchipdrop.com/). Create an account and make sure to read and follow the directions and recommendations closely. Also, make sure to identify trees/plants you might not want to bring on site (Tree of Heaven, Blackberry, Pokeweed, Ivy, Knotweed, etc.).

Please understand that Chipdrop is a FREE service that mutually benefits gardeners and arborists. This is not a typical service/consumer relationship. You get WHAT they bring you WHEN they bring it to you. We have to be willing to go with the flow here, but it's well worth it. It's really the best! If they bring more than you can use, put it up on Craigslist or Nextdoor. It'll go fast. If they aren't bringing you anything, try offering a financial incentive. Your home might be further from their work sites than other households, throw down a little honey to sweeten the pot. 

Now that you have your materials (cardboard and woody mulch), lay the cardboard down in the areas where you want to build soil and suppress "weeds". If it's summer, water the cardboard until moistened. Otherwise, let the rain do it's thing. Now, cover the cardboard with 5-8 inches of mulch. Pile it high, it'll settle and break down. Go big!

 Note: Typically native gardens will prefer an evergreen or pine/conifer tree's wood chip mulch, while fruit trees prefer a deciduous tree wood chip mulch. If you can manage, try to give these plants what they would experience in their "natural" environment. 

Note: Typically native gardens will prefer an evergreen or pine/conifer tree's wood chip mulch, while fruit trees prefer a deciduous tree wood chip mulch. If you can manage, try to give these plants what they would experience in their "natural" environment. 

3) Planting Perennials & Living Ground Cover

For many gardeners, getting to the stage where your soil is protected and covered with luscious, delicious and beneficial plants is ideal. This is that "steady state" we keep talking about. However, this can also take some time. It's best to work towards this goal in phases. 

Start by making a commitment to nurseries who say NO to Neonicotinoids (Neo-nic-uh-tin-oids). Below is a comprehensive list of local nurseries that choose NOT TO CARRY TOXIC "NEONIC" PLANTS or SEEDS. Please check it out -- for the bees! 

 Pollinator Parkways LINK HERE (http://pollinatorparkways.weebly.com/bee-safe-nurseries.html)

Second, plant selection and placement are key. Choose regionally appropriate plants to build out a well-rounded canopy and garden ecology that looks beautiful and functions for YOUR LIFE. Always be realistic about how much time, money, and resources you are able to put towards your garden when selecting plants. 

Get to know the plants and the conditions they need to thrive (sun, soil, water, etc). Do your research and make sure your site and placement will be that ideal condition for them to thrive in. If it's not, find other plants that will be better suited for that site. It's all about observing, planning, and learning to adapt with vision and creativity. Maybe just as important, make sure to "tuck them in" with a woody mulch and keep them watered, especially in their early years.

Over time, they will "naturalize" and provide the soil with cover, organic matter, and other services if holistically managed and maintained correctly. Check out local planting guides for more information, or call me for a site visit and estimate for a full planting plan and site design. 

There is so much to explore in the garden, but I hope that this alternate perspective towards early successional species will help to shape a more enjoyable gardening experience for you, and that these tips on Gardening with Ecological Succession will help you improve your garden's ecology over time. 

Remember, it's inside ALL OF US -- growing and sharing food, and building relationships with the land, the plants, and one another.  It's in our nature. Let's keep growing!