When presented with the concept of resilience in relation to garden practices words like sustainable, hard-wearing (as in strong) and healthy came to mind. All of these words describe any vibrant eco-system. The opportunity for the gardener is then to take our lessons from nature if we want gardens that will thrive without too much intervention. It is no coincidence that nature just goes about her business (if not interfered with) in a sustainable and resilient way. These are some of the lessons I’ve learned on my gardening journey:
During autumn nature provides her most important harvest: fallen leaves. This is the perfect cycle of replenishment to the soil and the provision of nourishment for all life in the ecosystem; yet we sweep up this abundant gift into plastic bags and send it off to land fill. Come spring we drive to the garden center and buy compost in more plastic bags. Mulching is vital for soil health and the quality of store-bought compost is not the same as that of its natural counterpart. Worse still is the application of chemical fertilizer. Over time it throws out the natural balance of minerals and nutrients and impacts on microbial and other life. So get mulching and with all your excess leaves, lawn clippings etc. then start composting to improve your soil health. Next investigate the fascinating world of vermiculture (worm farming). These little creatures can take your soil health even further.
Applying chemical pesticides is at best a short-term solution. It might kill the insect that you believe is destroying your plant but which has, in fact, been providing an important service. I’ve seen Cussonia spicata and Erythrina lysistemon infested with the most fascinating caterpillars, devouring every available leaf and yet the plant emerges stronger and more beautiful than before. (Don’t forget that a caterpillar is also a moth or a butterfly and who doesn’t want those lovelies in their garden!). Bear in mind that a poisoned insect often poisons other wildlife who feed on it and so on up the food chain. If you are desperate to remove insects, do some research on organic alternatives.
COPY NATURE’S ECO-SYSTEMS
The most fun I’ve had gardening is copying what occurs naturally. I’ve done this on a largish scale at my conservancy (converting sugar cane into four biospheres) and on a tiny scale in my 1 500sq my town garden. What I have learned is that bio-diversity = healthy. Monoculture requires a lot more maintenance (intervention) and is therefore less resilient. Even surrounded with neighbours paved yards one is able to create, even in the tiniest garden a beautiful haven filled with birds, butterflies, gorgeous colour, cool tranquil spaces, movement, energy, sound and joy. I would recommend developing your garden with these plant groupings in order of priority:
Woodland section: Trees enhance even very small gardens giving us somewhere cool to escape the heat of summer and our homes are more comfortable without excessive direct light. When researching species, look for trees/shrubs that don’t grow to great heights and give you great ROI. By that I mean look for trees that attract birds and butterflies and have an appearance that you like i.e. great value in one plant! Don’t worry about planting them close together, in the forest they have to compete for light so they will make their own way. Think about which side of the garden you want the shade and plant accordingly. Bear in mind that some trees are deciduous (good for leaves) but you may lose the shade you want on your veranda in winter. Most importantly though, if resilience is what you are after, plant locally indigenous as they will need no attention once they are established. Once you’ve got your trees in think about your understory. These plants will need to change over time as the shade area increases. Once again, take a walk through your closest nature reserve and see what is growing happily. If it is attractive looking there is a very good chance it will be available to buy.
Grassland section: Large expanses of lawn are much overrated. The argument for soccer and cricket falls short in most urban gardens as they are generally too small. Lawn requires more water, fertilizer, weed and insect treatment (and labour) than other parts of the garden. Grass is also mono culture and as far as attracting wildlife to your garden it has little to redeem it. Why not create a natural grassland habitat? There are so many gorgeous grasses that attract seed eating birds and an abundance of flowers, aloes, bulbs, small shrubs etc that are a visual delight and will provide hours of entertainment because of the wildlife they attract.
Wetland Section: Ok, the term Wetland may be pushing it for a small garden, but even the tiniest of gardens can support a small pond. They bring a wonderful element to a garden and require very little work. Even a large plastic tub filled with some water plants (e.g. Cyperus prolifer, Nymphaea nouchali, Nymphoides indica, Zantedeschia aethiopica) works. My pond is about 1.5 X 1 M and attracts multitudes of dragonflies, and birds including Woolly necked storks! If you’ve got plants in the water you don’t need to fuss with pumps and the like, the plants keep the water clean for you. You can even add some fish. My indigenous tilapia have been going for years in my tiny pond.
Veggie garden: On a macro environmental scale, agriculture (monoculture) presents a huge threat to the
environment and therefore the capacity for resilience of all life. If we all carved out a small space (even if it’s just a sunny windowsill) to grow some food we would be making a contribution to the resilience of the planet as a whole!