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Tips for managing land ecologically

We move about a lot. Having returned to New Zealand’s beautiful Bay of Plenty recently to discover our edible garden regeneration and sustainable design project in a bit of a state, I was forced to take stock and evaluate what had gone wrong, and what had gone right in the two years since I had planted it and set it up (in a heroic race against time). This period of reflection before and during the following clearing and cleaning efforts reminded me that the principles behind managing land in a productive and ecologically healthy state are the same no matter the scale - whether we’re taking about a home garden, orchard or larger scale agricultural property.

While it’s mostly the techniques and equipment that changes with scale, the approach to promoting and maintaining healthy plant growth is pretty common across all applications because the ecological processes and forces at work remain constant (nature is nature everywhere) - and thus the benefits of using these forces at work to your advantage (working with) rather than expending effort, energy and resources to fight (working against) them are also consistent. 

So while toiling under the hot sun re-staking trees, clearing invasive grasses and vines alongside other tasks I found it helpful to muse on the key principles behind ‘what works’ in regards to managing land ecologically, and decided to share them with you in the hope that it might be helpful. 
It may not be an exhaustive list, but I feel these points are important enough to bear in mind when planning your own management regimes.

  • Nature abhors a vacuum - if you don't select a plant for that space, nature will. Every niche in an ecosystem needs to be filled - and will be, sooner or later - whether you choose by what or not! Bare ground wont stay bare for long, and the natural world has an entire arsenal of plants who’s job it is to turn that patch back into forest after disturbance. Seeds of the appropriate species often lay dormant waiting for the right conditions - too exposed, too compacted, too salty, too dry, too wet, nutrient poor - whatever the situation is, there’s a plant out there that will be waiting for it’s time to shine. We call them weeds but they are nature’s paramedics, starting the journey of moving ecological succession forwards (eventually) to forest again. Fighting nature’s selection with muscle or chemicals may win the battle but never the war. So, if you have a niche un-filled, think about what you might like to grow there - or the decision will be made for you!
  • Keep it covered - Mulch, mulch and more mulch. Keeping the area around productive trees and plants (at least to the drip line) will protect the soil underneath from sun, wind and frost as well as help feed the soil and reduce competition from other plants, it can also provide important habitat for beneficial organisms that control pests and maintain a healthy soil food web. 
  • Don’t muss or fuss - try to disturb the soil as little as humanly possible. It’s a living, dynamic world down there with economies and civilisations rising and falling, surviving and thriving every hour - so leave it to get on with things without any godzilla like human intervention. Keep annuals and perennials separate and (once planted) perennials should be left to get on with it, and disturbance of soil even around annuals should ideally be kept to the bare minimum. Fungal hyphae (strands) in the soil - which we value - get broken and torn easily and structure is affected when disturbed. All the useful and beneficial microbial life we want to nurture and cultivate hang around our plants' root zones so try to keep all root zones as un-molested as possible, and you will reap the rewards.
  • Life feeds life - When it comes to managing plant health humans are (comparatively) a bit thick and hugely ham-fisted, so don’t use any synthetic chemical additives. A radical and controversial idea to some, but the fact is that a couple of billion years or R&D on the planet’s part has already sorted out how to grow plants pretty well, (and has been doing consistently well since before we existed), so in most situations, the best thing we can do is get out of the way. The big ‘if’ is usually whether we have damaged the soil biology to the point where nutrient cycling has stopped. If so, then adding a beneficial microbial inoculant in the form a good quality aerobically aerated compost (or extract / tea) is all that should be needed to kick things back online. You can find out how to do this by looking up the 'Berkeley Method’ or another good ‘hot composting’ method, or even by taking a class in aerobic composting such as the ones provided online by Soil Food Web inc (highly recommend), or even do some reading - books such as “Teaming with Microbes” are good place to start. Get the right biology back into your soil and more than half the battle is won. 
  • It takes all types - Resilience through diversity: It’s just as true for financial investments as it is for natural systems. Whether you’re risks are commodity prices, plant pests or climatic, the strategy to increase resilience and mitigate those risks is always the same - diversity. While farmers are led to believe that greater efficiency and profits are to be had through leveraging economies of scale (and thus going big and specialised) both common sense and seeing what’s happening agriculture around the world tells us the opposite is true. While smaller properties have an advantage in this area, the principles of ecological diversity bring increased resilience no matter what size you are - so grow a variety of species, shapes and sizes to ensure there’s always somewhere for friendly creatures to live, and always something to harvest and you’ve gone a long way to insuring yourself against the uncertainties life throws your way. This also especially true in controlling pests and diseases, as it's crucial to provided habitat and food resources for all pest predators if you want to maintain ecological function and healthy landscapes, which leads nicely into:
  • Everything gets eaten - Pest control can be an emotional topic. Nothing drives a gardener, farmer or orchardist wilder than seeing animals eat that precious crop they’ve spent time and money producing. The important thing to remember is that if you have a major pest problem, that’s an imbalance. Whatever is eating your plants, is eaten by something else - an abundance of pests is an abundance of food for what eats them - so ultimately the answer is to decrease the food resource and/or increase what predates upon them. Now, when we’re talking about needing more tigers or wolves to control your deer problem it starts becoming a more complex management challenge, but lower down the food chain (where most of us are operating) these things can (with a bit of careful thought and patience) often be brought back into equilibrium in all but the largest of monoculture (single species planting) systems. Think about the webs of life that are needed or that have been broken and set about restoring them. Often providing appropriate habitat is all that’s needed as the food resource (pests) are already there, but in other instances a small adjustment to management practices (like harvest, or waste management) can help bring things under control. Grazing pigs under apple trees, or chickens in orchards or behind cattle to eat pest larvae are all cleverly design examples of integrating pest control with productive output.
  • Observation is key - Every tree and plant tells a story. If you start to learn the language you can read the land almost like a book. If you know that some species are pioneers (perhaps even nitrogen fixers) then their presence indicates disturbance. That weed in your garden, when you pull it up it brings a clump of earth up in its hair-net like roots - that’s a specialist in holding loose soil together. You got dandelions in your lawn or pasture? Their seeds (whether dormant or blown in) will do nothing if the proper conditions aren’t present. So if you have a lot of them that should tell you something. Pull one up and notice its taproot, a clear sign that it favours compacted situations. This is all telling you something useful about whats going on. Unfortunately I had plenty of these lessons staring me in the face recently, but they were all valuable insights into what was going on and guides to what kind of strategy I needed to use to bring things back to health. The nitrogen fixing pioneer plants I had put in had grown like gangbusters and some of the the fruit trees nearby not so much - this is telling me that the soil in those areas are nitrogen poor (or else those pioneers would not have grown SO well in comparison and not formed nodules on their roots), and that my nutrient cycling is less than optimal. Conditions are still sufficiently 'disturbed' that I need to help that biology along. By observing and listening to what the land in front of your eyes is telling you, the path of how to respond becomes a lot clearer.

The land I’m working with here is (in many parts) either compacted, biologically poor or smothered in kikuyu grass (or all three). It also needs a richer mix of species at different levels (tree, shrub, herbaceous etc) in several areas to fill out more of the niches and increase habitat as well as productivity. That being said, there were also plenty of modest success stories where some forethought and clever design had insured against even the hostile takeover of unchallenged kikuyu. So while our two-year absence was known in advance (and designed for as far as possible), it was highly interesting to see the results of planting a wide variety of plants and trees to see what would thrive and what wouldn't in this region/climate/scenario - especially (as no reliable caretaker could be found) under what essentially ended up being the patented management technique promoted by veteran restoration agriculture figure Mark Shepard known as STUN (sheer total utter neglect). Great way to sort the tough adapted species/varieties from the weak, needy ones that we have no time for that's for sure.

So in summary, no matter what land you are stewarding, you can use the principles outlined above to turn things around to your favour.
I certainly intend to one day be showing people around an ecologically rich, healthy, sustainable and abundant edible garden here and demonstrate what is possible even in a typical suburban space - showing that with enough thought, care and preparation you can do this anywhere.