In the grand scheme of things all parts of nature are interconnected. If you look at a forest there are multiple layers of plants all intertwined, each layer benefiting the next right down to the soil. Within these layers are spaces for wildlife to find food and shelter. There are flowering plants that provide food for pollinating insects like bees and butterflies, which in turn increase fruit and seed production feeding other wildlife.
The soil is an extremely important component of this interconnection. It is where root systems, a multitude of microbes, and organic matter all interconnect to provide nutrients to the plants. An important example of this is the Nitrogen Cycle. Nitrogen is essential to life. It makes up 78% of the atmosphere. Atmospheric nitrogen is trapped in the roots of nitrogen fixing plants or legumes and is converted to ammonia by rhizobia bacteria. Nitrifying bacteria then convert the ammonia to nitrates which is released into the soil and made available to the plants. They then absorb the nitrates and convert them to proteins. Animals eat the plants and excrete nitrogenous waste which decays into the soil and the cycle begins again. Fallen leaves, branches, and other organic matter decompose and are converted similarly. Lightning can also convert nitrogen to nitrates through a slightly different process.
Healthy soil that contains plenty of organic matter and hence lots of microbial life is crucial to plant health. It allows good root systems to grow that support and nourish the plants for healthy green foliage and also makes them far less prone to disease and predatory insect damage.
When we create landscapes for ourselves, we tend to see each plant individually for what it offers us, as opposed to what they offer each other. When planning out your yard consider groupings of plants that serve multiple functions rather than single plants. In permaculture the term “guild” is often used to describe a grouping of plants. These guilds often include fruits, vegetables and herbs of varying heights and layers, nitrogen fixers, pollinators, mineral accumulators, chop and drop plants, and groundcovers. This web of interconnections not only creates a healthy landscape and abundant food, but also reduces weeding, watering, fertilizers, and work overall.
Once you define your goals of your guild and pick out your focal plant it is easy to get started. Here is an example of a guild for a sunny spot. You could plant a moringa tree as the central focal point. Moringa gets 10 – 20’ tall and has edible leaves, flowers and pods. The leaves are extremely high in nutrients as it is a mineral accumulator and it grows very fast making it a good chop and drop plant. Shrubs such as Cranberry Hibiscus and Pigeon Pea would make really great under story plants. Cranberry Hibiscus grows into a nice 3-4’ bush if pruned frequently also making it good for chop and drop. The new leaves and flowers are edible and high in Vitamin C and make a great addition to any salad. This plant is short lived but will readily seed itself. Pigeon Pea grows fast and is also best kept to 3-4’ pruning regularly as a chop and drop plant and nitrogen fixer. The pods produce edible peas that can be eaten raw, cooked or used as a dry bean. A clump or two of Lemon Grass would also be a great addition to this guild. It is a great perennial herb that grow 3-4’ tall and can be harvested for tea or flavoring for cooking. It can repel harmful insects and can be cut back and used for mulch. Our naturalized orange Lantana, which can grow 2-3 ‘ tall, is a nice addition to the guild for attracting butterflies and other pollinators and to shade out weeds. Sunshine Mimosa is a great choice for your final understory layer. It is a vigorous ground cover that will help retain soil moisture. It has beautiful pink puffy flowers that attract bees and butterflies and is a great nitrogen fixer.
Another potential guild would begin with Loquat as the focal plant. Loquat is a mid-sized fruit tree with delicious apricot sized fruit, flowers that attract pollinators and large thick leaves that would provide shade for plants below. Underneath, plant Katuk, a shade loving bush with edible nutty flavored green leaves. It can also be chopped and dropped as it has the tendency to grow fast in the summer months. Longevity Spinach is a great fast growing ground cover for shade. It has highly nutritious edible leaves that have multiple medicinal benefits including lowering blood pressure.
There are numerous combinations of guilds that can be created. So when planning your future garden consider these interconnections and the benefits they have to offer our landscapes and especially the environment.
Greg and Linda Nelson are landscape designers who have transformed their
Englewood yard using Permaculture techniques. They offer consultations, design services, and free monthly tours through their business: Love Your Yard. Contact them
at email@example.com, 207-449-9012 or visit https://weloveyouryard.