The past few decades have witnessed the emergence or revitalization of five important approaches to gardening, each of which incorporates elements of natural ecosystems into a sustainable garden.
Xeriscaping: This approach advocate’s water conservation through the use of native plants and adapted exotics that perform well based on the amount of precipitation typically provided by nature wherever the garden is located. The goal of xeriscaping (or dry gardening) is to eliminate the input of supplemental irrigation water. This approach was developed to correct excess water usage in the water-thirsty gardens and landscapes of the desert, where, in some places, maintaining inappropriate landscapes consumed as much as 50 percent of all available water. Even now many gardens in drier regions the world over spend a great deal of money and resources on maintaining gardens. Xeriscaping is a technique that can be applied to landscapes well beyond desert ecosystems, however. Every region of the country has a semi-predictable amount of precipitation that is distributed at a specific time of year. In each of these areas, plants that are naturally adapted to the typical conditions thrive. These plants remain healthy without supplemental water, because they avoid water stress.
Native plant landscaping. This gardening movement advocates restricting plant choices to species that are native to the region. It does not permit the use of exotic plant material, even if it is well adapted to local environmental conditions. Every region of the country has a native flora perfectly adapted to the characteristic rainfall amount and distribution, the winter cold and summer heat, and the pests and diseases of that region. Because native plants are adapted to these conditions, they are more resistant to pests and diseases. Wherever the garden is located, numerous attractive, native plant species can be selected to provide a close approximation to a natural ecosystem.
Wildlife gardening. Gardening for wildlife has also emerged as an important tool for the gardener, partly fueled, we think, by biophilia—the profound human need for contact with nature. This approach to the garden advocates incorporating plant material that provides habitat for wildlife. Although it is not incompatible with the previous approaches, wildlife gardening is not as restrictive as either xeriscaping or native plant landscaping when it comes to choice of plant material. Birdwatchers, in particular, plant gardens to attract numerous species of birds, both seed- and insect-eaters. Butterfly lovers include plants for butterfly larvae to eat, along with flowers that provide nectar for the adults. These gardeners embrace the concept of sharing their produce with the wild creatures around them. In addition, many of the wildlife attracted to the garden are also efficient partners that help control insect pests. Indeed, attracting beneficial wildlife is a major technique to use for the creation of sustainable gardens.
Organic gardening. Organic gardening has, of course, been around for a long time and, although not new, has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in recent years. Concern for the health and safety of our children, of ourselves, and of our environment has prompted us gardeners to avoid poisons in the garden, in the home, and on our food. This approach restricts the use of agricultural chemicals to natural substances mined from the earth or obtained from plants and animals. The use of modern synthetic pesticides is not permitted on plants grown for food or on ornamental plants. Nor is the use of modern processed fertilizers permitted; fertilizer is instead obtained from natural plant and animal byproducts. Organic gardening, as a philosophy, is applicable to xeriscaping, native plant landscaping, wildlife gardening, and all other gardening systems.
Permaculture. Permaculture (the word combines “permanent” and “agriculture”) is a gardening design system developed by Bill Mollison of Australia, in which productive plant materials (fruit trees, berry bushes) combine with herbs and perennials in permanent guilds of compatible plants. Permaculture gardens are designed around these guilds—combinations of plants, animals, fungi, and insects found in healthy natural ecosystems. They mimic the architectural and beneficial relationships found in a natural forest or other ecosystem, in which diverse plants coexist with animals foraging, cultivating, and providing manure. In such “food forests,” each “member” contributes something of value to the whole.
Each of these five philosophical approaches attempts to address specific aspects of sustainability. By synthesizing the best of each into a unified whole, we give ourselves powerful tools to achieve the balance we seek. We need gardens that conserve water, that promote native plants, that invite wildlife, that are organic, and that produce food. The new sustainable garden should do all these things.
Even with this new integrated approach, plants can get into trouble, and the system gets out of balance. When disorders, diseases, and pests show up, it is tempting to throw all our philosophies out the window, because we suspect we cannot maintain the balance we seek. But we can. Sustainable solutions are not as difficult as we imagine.
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