I'm excited to have Australian landscape
designer and author Jonathan White here to tell us about ecological
Ecological gardening creates a system where nature works for and not against us.
Imagine a garden that never has pests, never needs digging, doesn’t need to be rested in winter, has no need for crop rotation, has virtually no weeds, needs very little water, and practically looks after itself.
To top all that off, this garden produces many times more than a traditional vegetable garden and regenerates itself year after year.
As a teenager I could never make my mind up whether I wanted to be a
horticulturist or an environmental scientist. So I got education in
My vegetable garden was no different to anybody else’s for many years. Some years I was keenly working in the garden and other years I ignored it. The years I ignored it still gave me results.
I began to think about why this was happening, the nature of plant relationships and how plant growth happens naturally in ecosystems. I started doing less in my garden, allowed nature to run the show, and it worked!
I did make a few changes to how I approached gardening:
Once I did this, I
noticed the garden taking on a life of its own. Weeds stopped appearing
in the beds and plants started living much longer. The garden could
endure longer periods without water, I was yielding far more than I ever
had, and I could harvest every day of the year.
I wanted to
know what was happening at a scientific level, so I applied my training
as an environmental scientist to understand why I was getting these
results. During this time, I had to completely let go of all my
preconceived ideas as a gardener and look at the plot through the eyes
of an ecologist.
I realized that I had created an ecosystem made up of edible plants, and it behaved in exactly the same way as a natural habitat.
The wonderful thing about nature is that she works tirelessly, 24 hours a
day, seven days a week. Nature follows very simple laws, and works in
the same way everywhere in the world. When we create an ecological
garden, her great stamina works in our favour.
Imagine a forest. A giant tree crashes to the ground after standing for
hundreds of years. Such a large tree filled an enormous space, which is
Hundreds of dormant seeds of all kinds spring to life, desperately fighting for their opportunity to occupy the best real estate. The space that the tree left when it fell is quickly filled as these formerly dormant seeds become a diversity of larger plants, and harmony is restored.
Now when we look at the traditional home vegetable garden, what we see is a very unnatural system. There is very little diversity and a lot of empty space. Nature enforces her will on vegetable gardens in exactly the same way she does a forest, and this means that empty spaces will be filled as quickly as possible.
However, in a traditional vegetable garden there are no desirable seeds waiting to fill the spaces, so weeds fill them instead.
It is actually quite easy to have a weed-free vegetable garden. You simply do two things:
The result is a dense jungle-like planting arrangement that can yield an unbelievable amount.
The denseness also creates a highly protected micro-climate. This ideal growing environment causes your plants to last much longer. Greens don’t bolt as soon as a hot spell hits and cold sensitive plants are more protected as well.
I have never heard anyone refer to ecological gardens as being unsightly or causing an issue with local authorities. The plots look different throughout the year, just like any vegetable garden, but each generally has a better plant cover at any given time. This tends to make ecological gardens look more attractive.
Pests generally locate their target plant species using sight or smell. Imagine how much more difficult it is to see your target plant when its outline is blurred by a sea of green. And how on earth could you smell your target plant when there are so many conflicting smells?
The dense mixed-up nature of ecological gardens creates a natural form of pest management.
People have asked this question a lot. However, there are thousands of ecological gardens all over the world -- a significant number of these plots in areas of high humidity -- and nobody has reported this problem.
Crop rotation is practiced by dedicated gardeners for a very
good reason. Different plants require different minerals from the soil
and in different proportions. After an area has been planted with a
certain species, the soil can be left depleted of certain minerals. To
lessen the effects of this depletion, a different crop will be planted in the area the following year.
In addition, many gardeners rest their garden beds periodically and grow a green manure crop, usually a legume such as Lucerne [alfalfa] or field peas. These plants add nitrogen from the atmosphere through a process called nitrogen-fixing.
However, crop rotation and resting the soil isn’t necessary with ecological gardening because in a mixed-up planting arrangement, a single species doesn’t dominate a single area and deplete the soil.
Nitrogen is topped up in two ways: through planting edible legumes such as peas and beans within the garden, and by the addition of compost to the surface of any bare areas.
Absolutely everyone, from farmers to inner-city townhouse dwellers.
It may seem strange, but if you have never grown food before then you are in some ways at an advantage. Experienced gardeners may like to see themselves as adopting some ecological gardening techniques, but they find it difficult to let go of the need to control the system.
all industries, the gardening industry can get stuck in doing things a
certain way and most seasoned gardeners will inevitably over-work the soil.
As a species, human beings prospered when we learnt to cultivate food using tilling and other traditional agricultural methods, so it’s difficult to turn back to nature. It might even feel like a step in the wrong direction.
But if we can let go of our need to control every living thing on the planet and start to work with nature, we actually gain more control by being able to grow food more efficiently.
One of the first things I tell experienced gardeners is to throw away the hoe! Natural ecosystems like forests and jungles have never required gardeners with shovels, tillers, and hoes to come along every season to turn the soil, and neither do ecological gardens.
soil upsets the soil structure which in turn reduces the soil’s ability
to pass on valuable nutrients to plants. The loss of soil structure also
reduces the soil’s ability to hold water.
Developing good soil structure is actually the best water conserving technique I know, and when practiced in conjunction with a dense planting arrangement creates a holistic soil ecology management plan. A dense planting arrangement will shade the soil's surface, which stops surface crusting, thus preventing runoff and nutrient depletion.
Good soil structure also allows soil organisms to do what they do best -- turn organic matter into available plant nutrients.
Any existing vegetable garden can easily be converted into an ecological garden.
First, get your pathways laid out so that you never have to walk on your garden beds again. After that, get a good composting system going and apply compost to the soil surface. Then plant densely and diversely.
You can find more information about ecological gardening in my program Food4Wealth, which shows you exactly how to proceed.
Thank you so much for talking with us, Jonathan!
Have you ever used ecological gardening as Jonathan White describes in your edible landscaping? If you'd like to share more about it with a group who loves edible gardens as much as you do, join the Tasteful Landscape community.