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The agro-chemical companies have really distorted our view of fertility. Many gardeners and growers have been convinced that three-number fertilizers are necessary to produce fresh fruits and vegetables, but that’s just not the case. It doesn’t take much to see that the most fertile places on earth, the ones with the most plants and diversity, are those that are largely left to nature.

Forests don’t seem to need fertilizers to grow. Prairies put out thick blankets of grass and wildflowers year after year without one bag of 10-10-10 to bolster growth. Why, it’s almost as if nature has a little more figured out about growing plants than Monsanto does. In fact, it wasn’t until humans began meddling in natural affairs that forests and grasslands began to struggle.

So, rather than imposing our will on natural systems, wouldn’t it be a shrewder move to look to nature for clues as to how we might better grow our gardens? Nature produces an abundance of food without even trying. What have we missed? How might we replicate nature—the most fertile place on the planet—in our own gardens?

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Source: NCDOTcommunications/Flickr

Mulching with Natural Materials

The most basic element of natural fertility is the cycle of life. Plants live, they shed, they die and it all rots into the ground to replenish whatever fertility that plant or tree or grass once took. Once we take this cycle away, clearing gardens to bare soil, we are robbing the earth of its future fertility. Natural systems don’t till. They don’t strip the soil bare. The continually add new organic matter—leaves, limbs, dead grass, manure—atop the soil. Mulching our gardens with natural materials, such as straw, hay, leaves, bark, and shredded wood, helps us replicated this.

Biodiverse Layering

Natural landscapes are never occupied by a single species. Rather, they are layered with diversity. Canopy trees stretch beyond understory trees, and vines are climbing up the both of them. Shrubs and herbs dot the floor below them. Roots and rhizomes and bulbs are growing along and within the humus at ground level. Fungi is processing the decomposing materials. Annual grasses and plants are growing when its warm and dying. There is a miscellaneous menagerie of flora out there working as a team. Our gardens should be diverse, too.

Companion Planting

Many plants make great friends. We see it in the wild all the time. Dock and nettles often grow near each other. Blueberries love the acidic soil that pine needles produce. For every crop we plant, there are crops that partner well with it to repel common pests or provide a certain nutrient or give off some shade. Part of biodiverse layering is putting plants into sensible guilds in which they work together for the better health of the members.


One of the most common issues with gardens is that we tend to grow only annual plants. Annual plants gobble up the most nutrients the quickest because they only have a short time to grow, flower, fruit and set seed out for the next generation. In reality, natural systems have tons of perennial plants that keep things stable, protect the soil from erosion, provide nutrients to the soil without taking too much, and many other relevant functions. Our gardens, too, need to have plenty of perennial additions.

Inviting Animals/Insects into the Space

Along with chemical fertilizers, we’ve become accustomed to growing with pesticides to keep animals and insects off of our plants. Of course, natural systems don’t work like this. Instead, there is an intricate web of herbivores (more numerous) and carnivores (dependent on abundant herbivores) that find a delicate balance that works for everyone. When we kill insects, we upset the system. The carnivores go elsewhere, and when the herbivores return—and they always do—the balance is severely out of whack. Instead, we should invite animals into our system, particularly the ones—predators and pollinators—that are beneficial for our means.

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Source: Center for Neighborhood Technology/Flickr

Creating Water Catchments

Another amazing thing we seem to overlook is that ecosystems don’t require human-engineered irrigation. Instead, certain plants utilize natural water catchments, growing next to streams, rivers and lakes. Mulch (and humus), too, helps to collect and hold large amounts of moisture. And, of course, other plants are adapted to surviving without much water at all. Since most stuff we’d grow in the garden requires water, it makes sense to create water catchment systems to harvest and store rainwater when it comes.

Filling Niches

In nature, there are no weeds. There are just plants going about the work that they do. Some plants grow in abundance, some don’t, but they are all serving a purpose towards the greater good: a successful ecosystem. Plants in natural systems find and fill the niches of space in which they can grow. Consequently, bare soil in the garden opens the door wide for unwanted plants to find a comfortable spot to settle. The plants that repopulate disturbed soil tend to be the most voracious and reproductive growers. When we fill all the niches in the garden, leaving no bare ground, we stabilize our ecosystem with what we want growing in it.

Strangely, despite the success we see all around us, during the “Green Revolution”, these ideas of replicate nature came to seem radical. But, we are wising up and wisely, once again, turning to Mother Nature for guidance. Our gardens are a great place to start expressing the lessons.

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