If you are a regular ModGrow reader, you will have no doubt notice that my posts have slowed down since the new year. I have been hard at work on some new projects that will change the blog dramatically and present the information in a new format. I have decided that in order to focus on the changes I will take some time off from regular posts. ModGrow will be back in a few months with a new format and fresh content.
In the natural world plants have beneficial interactions with all the other living things around them including animals. You are probably already aware of the benefits of polyculture in your garden where having a mixed variety of plants can provide benefits in pest resistance and fertilization among other things. Working animals into your polyculture will add further benefits to your garden.
There are two paths to adding animals into your garden. The first way is to attract wildlife. By selecting certain plants that beneficial birds and insects are attracted to you can bring in a team of workers to eat the pests and drop some fertilizer for you.
Another way to bring animals into the garden is to raise them yourself. There are a few great options for small scale livestock at home. The most commonly used are chickens, geese, ducks and rabbits. Chickens are great creatures to have if you are also going to be growing at home. Not only do they produce eggs but they will also provide you with an excellent source of manure that can be composted. You can also let your chickens into the garden to eat up some of the slugs, weeds and other pests. Use caution when letting chickens in your garden however, as they can also cause damage to the plants that you want to keep either by scratching or direct consumption. Geese and ducks offer many of the same benefits as chickens. If you plan on growing any sort of aquatic plant such as rice, waterfowl can provide you with useful fertilization. Rabbits do not provide eggs, but if you are not squeamish about killing them, they can become a source of meat. If you don’t want to eat your rabbits they can still be quite useful for their manure which can go directly into the garden without composting if you so desire. You can also create a mobile pen for your rabbits with an open bottom that can be moved across the yard. Such a setup can allow the rabbits to mow down your yard for you, all the while providing excellent fertilizer.
It is inevitable that some of your plants will be lost to pests. Accepting this as a fact and planning to lose a few things will go a long way toward maintaining your sanity and enjoyment as a grower. That said, pest control should be incorporated into your growing strategy. When you think about pest mitigation, as with anything in the garden, you should think about the entire system. The immediate temptation with pest control strategy is to just use pesticides and be done with it. The problem with this strategy is that not only does it introduce potentially harmful toxins into the greater environment, but it is also ineffective in the long run. The problem with pesticides is that they don’t just kill the pests but they also kill the things that eat the pests either directly or through the removal of the food source. When the pests inevitably come back, there will be no predators in place to thin their ranks and they will become legion. A more ecological approach to the problem of pests is to use polyculture in plantings, build healthy soil and make sure that your beneficial organisms have an easy time taking care of the problem creatures.
Choosing pest predators over pesticides has many benefits. First and most obvious is that attracting your local predators is free while poisons can be expensive. Another benefit is that you don’t have to worry with finding storage in your house for highly toxic and potentially lethal substances. Your herd of pest predators also has many advantages in effectiveness. First of all they are proactive and will consume the pests before they become a problem. With pesticides you will either have to spray everything preemptively which can be wasteful, or wait until something has become noticeably overrun. Who do you think will notice the problem insects first, you or a hungry spider? The predators will also provide a targeted attack with fewer innocent bystanders. Not only will the pesticide affect your pests and the things that eat your pests, but you can also harm the third party insects that are doing other beneficial tasks such as building soil or pollinating.
If you want to make your garden friendly to useful predatory species, you will have to provide them with some habitat. For spiders, beetles and other tiny predators a nice layer of mulch on your beds will provide a sufficient area to hide in. It can also help to leave some portions of your growing space a little wild and overgrown. Weeds and shrubs can make a great home for birds, lizards and other creatures that will help you with your problem insects. This is yet another reason to leave your unused areas to their own devices.
When an area needs rehabilitation due to a natural disaster or deforestation by humans, it is not always possible to just bring in the original plants and let them do their thing. The forest that was there previously had a large number of plants and animals that had symbiotic relationships to keep them healthy. Many species require other plants to protect them from wind, sun and other elements. If you want to bring vegetation back to a space you may have to use nurse plants. Nurse plants are plants that can help other plants grow by providing shelter or nutrients for other plants. Under the protection of the nurse the fledgling plant will eventually begin to thrive. In many instances the young plant will over take and eventually kill the nurse.
In your garden, if you are planning on putting in a perennial shrub or tree in an inhospitable area it may be worthwhile to start with a nurse plant that will protect your desired plant while it grows. An added bonus is that you can select nurse plants that produce fruit and other valuable products so you will have something from that area while the other plant is still growing. You can also make use of nurse plantings on a smaller scale in your vegetable beds. Vegetables like asparagus can create a wind break to shelter weaker herbs and vegetables. A trellised bean plant can provide shade, wind protection and nitrogen fixing for other plants.
Pioneer plants are plants that can rapidly take over an area that is otherwise inhospitable to growing. These plants tend to have root systems that are hardy and long so that they can push deep and make use of nutrients where other plants could not. Many are also nitrogen fixers. In natural settings pioneer species are the first to take over after a fire or other event that removes existing vegetation. These species can help to make the soil more hospitable for the next wave of plants that will ultimately replace the pioneers.
In your garden you will recognize pioneer species as the weeds that frequently make your growing life difficult. You should keep in mind that these plants can provide you with some value. If they are taking over your active plantings, you will need to lay down additional mulch and pull the offenders. If they are taking over an area that you are not currently using you may want to allow them to grow. As mentioned previously many are nitrogen fixers and will help improve your soil. Many pioneer species are also annuals so they will die back at the end of the season and provide a useful mulch that will break down and further enrich the soil.
Plants can serve many purposes in your garden aside from providing you with food or aesthetic value. Some plants create microclimates to help your other plants thrive. Others provide shelter for beneficial wildlife. Still others will provide you with another great service by building your soil quality. One of the ways that plants can help to improve your soil is by serving as nutrient pumps that pull nutrients up from the soil.
These plants are very good at taking nutrients up from the soil and will store these nutrients in their leaves and other parts. When the plant dies back at the end of the season and sheds its leaves, the leaves will accumulate on the surface and turn into a rich mulch that breaks down over time and delivers the stored nutrients to the soil and ultimately the nearby plants. In order to speed up the whole process many growers will let these plants grow for a while and hack back the foliage earlier in the growing season. Some common plants used for this purpose are fennel, lamb’s quarters and comfrey among many others.
When selecting a plant to act as a nutrient pump for your garden you should do diligent research and figure out just which nutrients it is good at taking up from the ground. Some plants are actually well suited to taking up lead, copper and other substances that you do not want in your garden and that you certainly do not want to have in the food that you are producing. It is always a good idea to have your growing soil tested for these harmful elements to ensure that you will not end up with them on your plate.
When you are designing your garden, you should try to take a systems approach and think of how each plant will affect the rest of your garden. You want to have companion plantings that help with mutual productivity along with some plants that will provide you with some added benefits such as shade or aesthetic value. Whatever your goal, you should aim for each plant to solve as many problems as possible. Multifunctional plants will help to bring versatility to your garden and maximize the value of your limited growing space.
A very simple example of making use of multiple functions in your plants is having the plants in your front yard provide both food and aesthetic value. Plants such as rosemary or Jerusalem artichoke will both enhance the beauty of your garden and provide you with some tasty produce. Another simple way to get multiple functions from plants would be to train a vining fruit plant up a trellis to provide shade for and outdoor sitting area. In the summer you will have a cool place to sit and enjoy the delicious fruit that your garden has provided. Permaculture practitioners have taken the concept of versatile plants to the next level by using plants that are less commonly known to the general grower but provide an abundance of benefits. Goumi and Siberian pea shrub are both plants that are popular in the permaculture community and both are perennials that provide edibles, shade for less hardy plants and nitrogen fixing benefits.
Something that struck me recently is that before I started growing food at home my view of nature was far more negative than it is now. I have written before about how growing at home will help to cultivate a greater love of nature in the grower. For me I already had a strong appreciation for the natural world but there were still some things that I found to be irritating and annoying. My appreciation was certainly accelerated by the awesome products of our garden, but my real love for growing and nature were enhanced most by learning about ecology, permaculture and other systems approaches. Thinking about my plants as part of an intricate and dynamic system appeals to the nerdiest part of me.
I have learned from ecology that many of the things that I disliked about nature before were the result of human actions that interrupted some of the built in balancing mechanisms. A great example of an annoyance that we frequently curse is mosquitos and other stinging or biting insects. Although these insects will always be present they are mitigated by birds, frogs, fish, predatory insects and other animals that will eat them. In our modern suburban and urban environments we have destroyed the habitat of these beneficial creatures and allowed the offensive bugs to run out of control. As a result we have to spray poisons to keep the insect populations under control. Interestingly, in pre-modern cultures mosquito control was achieved by placing fish in every small body of water possible. The fish would keep the insect population under control and they also provided a source of protein. How many other annoyances can you think of that are the result of an imbalance?