Several years ago, when we moved into our new home, I knew we had our work cut out for us to bring the garden to life. The house was used as a rental property for several years with very little attention to the front or back yard. Very little was growing except a few bushes in the front yard and several trees in the front and one in the back. We knew the task was daunting but we had to start somewhere. With our new baby just born, we were very commited to our plan to create a sustainable ecosystem for nature to thrive without the help of synthetics or harmful chemicals. When planning an ecosystem for the garden, we followed very basic principles that would help provide the perfect balance to our small garden.
First let me explain a little about what an ecosystem is and why it is important, even on a small scale. Ecosystem is defined as “a system formed by the interaction of a community of organisms within their environment.” An ecosystem creates a balanced biodiverse interaction between animals, insects, pollinators such as bees, and native plants. The balance is delicate and takes a little extra effort to achieve but the results are very rewarding. Even if you are working with a small plot of land like ours, which is less than an acre in a suburban development south of downtown Dallas, don’t take for granted that your little yard won’t make a difference. These pockets, scattered around all through a city, can create just the network of sustainable habitat necessary to help butterflies, bees, birds and beneficial insects thrive.
From the ground up, these were the steps we took to create our perfect little ecosystem:
The first thing we did when we moved into the house was to make sure that no weed killers such as Round-up or synthetic fertilizers were used anymore on the existing grass areas. We managed the weeds by pulling them whenever we could. It is especially easy to pull them after a nice rain or early morning when the soid is moist. Try to pull up the roots. Using a small trowel or garden tool can help achieve a deeper grasp on the root. Use gloves if the weeds are thorny or irritating. Don’t try to do them all at once. Just work it daily and you will see an improvement soon. If you choose to use heavy equipment to till the soil, be sure to replenish the soil with organic soil amended with natural composts. The soil you choose to add to your garden will start the groundwork for healthy organic microbes to flourish and reduce any toxic chemicals found in most soils.
For any ecosystem to thrive, you need a water source for the wildlife. Birds, helpful insects such as dragonflies, butterflies, bees, ladybugs, lizards, geckos, etc. all need a water source to maintain a home in your garden. We decided to create a pond in the back yard. This was a very challenging part of our plan because the soil in the back yard is very hard, with a lot of rocks, and we knew the digging would be difficult. But, once we decided on the spot for the pond, we got the shovels out and started digging. My husband did most of the work but I participated as much as possible. We wanted the pond close enough to the house to enjoy the sound of the waterfall and see the wildlife close up. Once the pond was completed, I planted drought friendly plants that would easily reseed themselves or perennials for minimum maintenance and watering. I chose an organic Cosmos seed and dug up some morning glories I found growing in the back. Here is what the pond looked like in the Spring! We added a lot of water plants and fish to create a healthy bacteria balance in the water to keep it clear.
All the plants we chose for the garden were selected for our climate zone and whenever possible we chose plants native to our area. You want to choose a nice variety mix to create a diverse plant scape in the garden with plants flowering during different seasons. There are an infinite number of resources online to determine which plants thrive in your zone. We chose plants that were not treated with any harmful insecticides and tried to use organic seeds as much as possible. The seeds take longer for the plant to grow and flower but the excitement it brings when you start seeing the seedlings coming up and watching them grow is worth the extra wait.
Also, organic flowers are very difficult to find in your local garden centers. I chose my seeds from Seed Savers. There are many options for wonderful organic seeds for both flowers and vegetables. Not sure what zone you are in? Head to the USDA plant hardiness site for information.
4. No chemical weed or insect control
Avoiding chemical use in your garden for weed or insect control is one of the most important aspects to creating an ecosystem for your garden. To keep the natural balance you are needing, even the simplest non-toxic chemical can destroy the balance. If you aren’t too squirmish, you can hand pick off the small caterpillars, aphids and bugs you find. A wonderful extra perk of having fish in the pond is that you can just throw the bugs in the pond for the fish to eat, yummy! Hand pulling weeds is the only solution to keep the weeds from taking over your garden. It is an ongoing project and true labor of love for your natural garden. My husband and I find it very therapeutic. If you focus on the movement and the process and less on the “work” part of it, you may find your mind wandering to very relaxing thoughts. Meditation via weed pulling!
5. Helpful Insects and wildlife
As you create your ecosystem in your garden, you will start seeing more insects. Attracting beneficial insects help control harmful insects that may try to overtake your plant leaves or vegetables. Did you know that Dragonflies love mosquitos? Ladybugs love dining on aphids that can take over Hibiscus plants. Wasps love snatching up fire ants for dinner! Rolly polly bugs and worms help maintain a healthy bacterial balance in the dirt. Fish in the pond love eating insects and mosquito larvae. Lizards and birds are insect eaters. Praying Mantis love eating bugs. Green Lacewings larvae devour aphids by the dozen. Lady Beetles eat aphids, scale insects, thrips, mealybugs, and mites! Check out this image of beneficial insects.
If you are still having trouble getting your weeds or insects under control, you can follow these guidelines for ecofriendly natural alternatives for weed and insect control. Use these options sparingly if possible because even the most seemingly harmless option will cause some adverse affects. Weigh your options.
6. Create a diverse habitat
To draw wildlife near, you need to provide a safe home for them to live. Create stone areas for lizards and geckos. Plant a variety of trees for birds and squirrels. Leave a wasp nest up to help keep your fire ant population down. Keep some area of the garden in a natural prairie state with very little mowing to attract butterflies, bees and other pollinators. Place a bat house in your tree.
In your pond, planting a diverse landscape is also needed toprovide hiding places for the fish and create shade for the fish in the hot summer days. This can be accomplished by planting water pants such as lilly pads, under water plants, floating plants, and bog plants and lining the pond with rocks with small crevices and holes.
The amount of incredible resources is amazing. A great place to start is to find a local gardening course or online course with specialized information specific for your area and climate. In Dallas, we have The Farm Girls, who teach gardening classes online, at their Market location, or at your home. You can also find online courses, such as Wildlife Garden Academy, which have a wealth of knowledge. Gardening books are an invaluable resource as well.
I hope you enjoy creating your ecosystem in your garden. Good luck! I would love to see pictures of your gardens! Please feel free to share with us.
Written by Vivian Pflanzer
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