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Gardens are places for growing, and while most of it is largely centered around plants, there are many other things of benefit that are important for a healthy, self-sustaining polyculture garden system. In other words, cultivating a good garden can and should be about a lot more than growing flowers or food.

It’s not rocket science (or organic chemistry), really. A quick look at most natural systems with abundant plant life will reveal a diverse collection of rocks, organic debris, animals, insects, and bodies of water. These elements are working together to help one another thrive and survive.

While all such elements might not be necessary in every garden or ecosystem, the inclusion and combination of many is certainly a good idea that’ll help landscapers produce positive results. And, there are tons of options out there.

1. Rockeries

Stones can play a vital role in gardens. They provide an aesthetic break in the greenery, while also fulfilling several practical needs as well. Rocks help to create borders for keeping raised areas of the gardens intact. Beneficial insects and animals like to use them for shelter. They trap heat in the day, helping the plants surrounding them stay warm at night. The interruption in the landscape also becomes a natural (even if unnaturally put there) place for water and nutrients to congregate, making the soil around rocks extra fertile.

2. Ponds

Landscapes with an abundance of water tend to Support a lot more greenery. The better we can trap and store water in our gardens the more beneficial. Ponds are a great way to do it. Not only does the moisture help plants, but it provides garden animals with a place to drink, bathe, and cool off. Ponds also help us with keeping the land hydrated, even when it’s not raining regularly, and can (actually should) even be used as a component for irrigation and drainage. Plus, like rocks, they hold temperatures for longer, so water can provide some warmth at night.

3. Insect Hotels

What is an Insect Hotel, How to Build One and Why You’d Want to

Jim Linwood/Flickr

Most of the time gardeners are taught to fear insects, those pests of propagation, and while some can be very damaging, insects on the whole are a good thing for the garden. They aerate the soil. They maintain healthy life cycles, with pollinators pollinating and larvae converting organic matter into compost and, yes, even with predatory insects keeping the pest population at a workable level. Insect hotels provide habitats for the whole six-legged menagerie because a garden with poly-bug-culture is much better than monoculture.

4. Animals

We’ve been hinting at it with rockeries, ponds, and insect hotels, but we can also just come out and say it: though we sometimes begrudge them for digging holes or pinching seeds, animals are good for gardens, especially ones built to perform like a sustainable ecosystem. Not only do they keep life cycles turning (also planting those seeds they pinch), but they provide valuable manure to the garden soil, not to mention helping with naturally tilling the earth. Plus, animals control pest insects, especially things like mosquitoes.

5. Water Barrels

Ponds are fantastic for garden landscapes, and similarly so, water barrels can also be very useful for the irrigation side of the garden. They can be left out to capture rainwater so that it can be distributed to the plants during dry spells. They also create edges in the garden (like the rockeries), which increases area fertility, and they can provide shelter for all those frogs, toads, and lizards working to keep the mosquitoes down. Plus, water barrels are an effective way to use rooftop runoff.

6. Compost Bins

7 Things to Do With Compost if You Don't Garden

Joi Ito/Flickr

For some reason, compost bins often receive a special, segregated space separate from the garden, but this exclusion isn’t necessary and prevents the plants from getting the entire benefit of composting. Incorporating compost bins or buckets directly into the garden design allows us to create the compost right where it’s needed (lessening the work of transporting it there) while utilizing the nutrients leached into the soil during decomposition. Plus, again, beneficial insects and animals (think worms!) are attracted to compost.

7. Mulch

Most mulch is technically plant matter, some of it even still alive (check living mulches), but whatever the case, this is probably the most important thing — whatever climate — we can include in our gardens. Mulch prevents erosion, retains moisture, stops the rain from compacting the soil, creates habitat, breaks down into valuable nutrients, stunts weed growth and equalizes the soil pH balance. It is the essence of gardens and natural systems, how everything stays sustainable and continues to regenerate rather than turn to desert.

There are others things, too. Benches or picnic areas should be part of the garden so that we can enjoy it. Pathways and stepping stones are integral as we don’t want to step on the soil and compact it. In short, we shouldn’t just be thinking about the plants when we are making our gardens. We should think of how to make them so much more.

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