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Most of the time when we picture gardens, particularly vegetable gardens, we tend to think of rather featureless areas with rows of plants. However, these types of gardens are often some of the least healthy. On the industrial scale, they tend to pillage the land of all its nutrients and leave little for wilderness, and on the home scale, they ultimately require an annual bevy of amendments to keep them rolling.
Of course, our gardens could be different. They could be their own small ecosystems, with special attention to biodiversity, fertility, and habitat, as well as food production. One important step to creating these types of gardens is realizing garden health is not based on how much is produced per square foot. Including extra features in the garden is what creates a healthy environment.
A healthy garden is built on healthy soil, and it’s become all too common to simply assume that healthy soil is created with store-bought products. In reality, healthy soil comes from the soil life living in it. The soil life is constantly cycling nutrients to keep things fertile and moving around to keep the soil aerated. Healthy gardens should have features — worm bins, compost heaps, cover crops, chop-and-drop legumes, mulch pits — that are there simply to build soil.
Typically, when we think of water and gardens, we are thinking along the lines of irrigation, and while watering the plants is certainly a priority, it’s not the only reason we need water around. All life — plant and animal — requires water, and a healthy environment has plenty of life. Thus, putting water features — ponds, birdbaths, fountains, rainwater tanks, swales — is vitally important to creating a well-rounded environment in the garden.
Rocks have long been removed from gardens because they are nightmares for tillers, prone to dulling and breaking tines. However, in terms of the environments, rocks are often good things. They very slowly release minerals into the soil, and they provide fantastic habitat for beneficial animals, such as snakes, toads, and lizards. They are also great at trapping moisture and preventing it from evaporating away, so plants are able to get a drink when the weather isn’t cooperating. Rockeries, rock borders, stone walls, gravel paths, and large stones are great garden features.
Little can be said that captures just how important organic matter is to a healthy garden. It revitalizes the soil nutrients, protects the soil life, and captures natural moisture. It has to feature in a healthy garden. Old logs are great for animal habitat and slow-release nutrients. Leaves are fantastic for mulch, as is dried grass (hay) or straw. Then, fresh organic matter, such as kitchen scraps or fresh grass clippings, add a lot of new, “hot” nitrogen to the garden mix. Something should always be growing if only to add back to the garden.
Cultivating wildflowers can offer many garden benefits. Aside from the obvious beauty that comes from it, wildflowers are essential to encouraging pollinators — bees, butterflies, and more beauty — to stick around. Where possible, flowers should be worked into garden designs. They can be used to create butterfly gardens or colorful garden borders or edible ornamental gardens. They can be cultivated as native gardens, or they can be included in seed bombs.
As is evident by now, a healthy garden is full of animals. Though many gardeners can come to despise certain insects and burrowing animals, the truth is that all of them go into creating a balanced ecosystem. They feed other animals, loosen up soil or various other things that, while sometimes inconvenient for the cultivator, might help with the ecosystem. The trick is to encourage the right animals by building birdhouses, insect hotels, and bat houses. Perches and hedges can also be very helpful.
Ultimately, most gardens and lawns are working on the slow, evolutionary climb back to being a forest. Trees are the pinnacle of the plant world. They can harbor entire ecosystems all on their own. So, they should find a way to work into our garden plans. Small orchards and woodlots are vitally useful for food and fuel. Living fences can be amazingly protective and productive ways to surround an area. Shade trees can provide a good place to sit and/or cultivate cool weather crops later in the season. A food forest would be the loftiest of goals.
While the likelihood of being able to have each of the features in any one garden is slim (and would require a lot more space than most of us have), the fact is that one or two examples from each section is entirely possible in most suburban lawns or home garden spaces. The garden (and we) would be much healthier to include some features like these.
Lead Image Source: Pixabay