Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Working with Mother Nature: How Ecological Systems can Garden for You

Everyday, lawns are being mowed, leaves are being raked, and people are mechanically throwing away a viable source of fertilizer while actively working against Mother Nature.

In the garden, we level the ground, till the soil, mix in some compost, and repetitively plant annual crops year after year in the hot baking sun. Every year, most gardeners rinse and repeat the same methods ensuring their fate for the next year.

Work with the Flow of Nature
Instead of mowing the lawn or tilling the soil, annual and perennial weeds cover the ground adding nitrogen and other nutrients into the soil. Shrubs then move in and shade out the weeds, and as time moves on trees slowly colonize and create a forest.

The downside is that Nature is random and chaotic. If left to work by itself, you probably won't see the forest evolve in your lawn anytime soon.

Add the Human Element and Bio-mimicry
On the plus side, we can harness this natural pattern by using biological mimicry.

Recall your high school biology class. The Monarch butterfly is poisonous and the viceroy is not. However, the viceroy has similar patterns to the Monarch which makes predators weary of eating it. Like the viceroy, if mankind observes Nature's design in creating ecosystems, we too can co-create a food forest within a few years.

The Food Forest

The life in a forest is categorized in seven categories: the over story (canopy), the understory, vines, the herbaceous layer, the shrub layer, the ground, and the rhizosphere. Even with some shade, plants thrive with the help of taller plants nursing them and you from the baking sun.
Each layer in the forest provides an opportunity to grow all life's necessities.

Start Gardening with Nature
To begin gardening with Nature can be slow process. Tackling a yard or knowing where to begin can be overwhelming. My suggestion is to draw out the final layout (in a bird's eye view) of what you would like it to be. Trees don't come that big unless you're willing to spend money; so begin retracing back how the garden would look before the trees got that big and place plants around the tree that might work well with it. Continue to do this until you have a layout or plan of what you have to work with at the moment. Keep in mind this will only give you an idea of what your garden could be. Nothing goes according to plan.

The key is to work in small steps, and don't try to do it all at once.

P.S: In later posts, we'll show you how to minimize or eliminate watering in your initial setup and more.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

From Landscape Implementation to Community Cultivation

This past week, a group of Community Cultivators converged on the Sunflower Co-op, an independent housing cooperative in Austin, Texas, to transform a tired old landscape into a community. How did a landscape become a community? Through a simple blend of hard work, playful revelry, and a shared sense of purpose unrivaled in the co-op's long history.

Today, September 1st, 2010, Sunflower celebrates its 30th birthday and with it, a refreshing facelift. As we age, we tend to let some aspects of ourselves go. I'm sure you all know what I'm talking about - an extra chin or two, maybe some love handles, or the ever popular beer belly? In Sunflower's case, it was an entryway that had long lost its welcoming curb appeal. Invasive nandina had, like a few extra pounds around the hips, multiplied into a burdensome nightmare. Choking out the native species, a weedy mess dominated the landscape, leaving little room to enjoy the sweeping Live Oaks, stately Blue Agave or even recognize the winsome Agarita stationed right by the paved pathway leading up to what was once the Co-op's main point of entry (now a resident's bedroom door).

Over the course of 3 evenings, in true PermaBlitz fashion, several residents, a neighbor or two and an impassioned lot of cooperators, cultivators and friends of the co-op came together to contributed a little something of themselves to the space. Some local organizations also deserve recognition for their contributions:
Design~Build~Live provided advice and planning assistance; Wheatsville Co-op graciously donated an entire bale of recycled cardboard for sheet-mulching; and
Keep Austin Beautiful offered almost their entire library of tools to the project (making the work much less strenuous for all us humans!) Thanks to these volunteers, the monumental task of:
Clearing out a tangled mess of invasives;
Digging a luscious rain garden;
Creating an earthen berm for water retention;
Rebuilding a crumbling retaining wall;
Sheet-mulching 800+ square feet of garden space; and
Planting an attractive new selection of native plants
...all seemed more like a celebration of community than a landscaping project. So let us continue to celebrate the amazing achievements of our community and raise a glass to everyone who participated (even those who were unable to make it out yet still shared love, support and encouragement vicariously). With the contributions made to this project, Sunflower Co-op saved the entirety of their garden budget (yes, every single plant, every tool, every last shovel of mulch and stone placed was graciously donated by loving friends such as yourself)!

Best of all, the co-op has finally rediscovered some of those shapely curves and sexy lines that it remembers from it's more youthful days.

Happy Birthday Sunflower - we love you!