Simple as Looking at Your Own Garden

Can we see succession first hand?

We can because we create a “major external event” (source) each time we clear the land and till the soil to plant our crops or garden. We don’t think of it this way, but if you consider all the species above and below ground that will be affected, then it starts to make sense.

What we see immediately happen to open soil is that many opportunistic plant varieties such as swiftly grown grasses, will form densely populated communities if the newly prepared garden goes unattended. We all have experienced what happens next in our own gardens. But do we really consider how our gardens impact on a larger scale. This excerpt is from a paper prepared by Penn State University, New Kensington….

“These invading plants are what we call “weeds”. Now “weeds” have very important ecological roles and functions, but weeds also compete with the garden plants for nutrients, water and physical space. If left unattended, a garden will quickly become a weed patch in which the weakly competitive garden plants are choked out and destroyed by the robustly productive weeds.

A gardener’s only course of action is to spend a great deal of time and energy weeding the garden. This energy input is directly proportional to the “energy” inherent in the force of ecological succession.

If you extrapolate this very small-scale scenario to all of the agricultural fields and systems on Earth and visualize all of the activities of all of the farmers and gardeners who are growing our foods, you begin to get an idea of the immense cost in terms of time, fuel, herbicides and pesticides that humans pay every growing season because of the force of ecological succession.” (source) I added the bold emphasis to the quote. The rest of the article is rather interesting also.

We step in and decide what has the fortune to remain in the newly developing ecosystems of a garden. We determine what replaces and shapes the new ecosystem. We interrupt the natural process of nature and the driving force of ecological succession. Every time a weed grows, the force is in action.

I design for a living, whether it is clearing the land for a building or landscaping after a structure is complete, we make major land changes.

Each structure added to a site will impact that site to a great extent.

  • It will greatly impact surrounding structures and landscapes if not carefully designed.
  • Sun conditions and shadowing will shade adjoining structures and change the vegetation that grows.
  • We structure the new ecosystem by every single plant we install.
  • We reform the ecosystem by complex grading and excessive paving of the site.
  • We erect retaining walls, install berms, retaining ponds, swales, and change drainage patterns, often directed to roadway and storm or sewer systems.
  • We change the path and intensity of the wind with both structures and wind breaks.
  • We change where rain falls and how to remove it from a site.
  • Buildings and paving increase surrounding temperatures of soil and air.
  • Building materials raise surrounding pH levels.
  • Ecosystems will no longer be viable and what moves in will have to deal with a changing and sometimes harsher environment.

Many weeds are suited to these conditions some even prefer dry, hot and elevated pH. Just look at those popping up between sidewalks.

Did you know weeds are harder to control in these conditions? They grow more slowly and adapt by growing thicker protective leaf cuticles to reduce herbicide control. Some increase root systems also. That is why you find pulling them out near home foundations more difficult. More is often below the surface than above.

There is no doubt, this is not how nature would be if we did not effect the land. We fight nature to install anything, even gardens, while nature is trying to free itself from the forces set on controlling and taming the inevitable succession.

I know if I move and acquire property, that I would not have gardens in the traditional sense, except a small vegetable/cottage garden. I also would:

  • When we want forests, we can leave existing trees in place.
  • If we want wildlife, we leave their homes and food sources intact.
  • We want a meadow, well, just leave one develop. Certainly not create one, the actual ones by nature are far more appealing.

As much training as architects have to be considerate of the environment, it is inevitable that we make insurmountable change. Our job is to minimize the effects if possible. And change, as you can see, affects every plant and creature that makes its home on that site as the land leveler moves in. Even those deep within the soil during excavation are displaced.

Almost everything moves out. Out go the rabbits, voles, groundhogs, deer, raccoons, and certain bird species. Sure the opportunistic squirrels remain if we keep a few trees. But a whole new ecosystem develops with many new players.

Is there better ways to look at building and the making of garden? It all depends on the concept of garden and whether you view it in conflict with a natural ecosystem. Unless we are happy with what nature throws our way, there is only a choice of how or if we choose to plant our spaces. Succession makes a conflict a reality.

Traditional gardens are good for the environment and the reasons for gardening are sound if you value gardens as nature. Gardens are beneficial to nature, especially so if they are native gardens or sustainable gardens. But is that not what would grow if nature did the gardening, gardens with some native plants and the most sustainable ecosystems?

It is almost a silly concept if you think of it this way.

  • We want native plants.
  • We want less maintenance and expense.
  • We want environmentally conscious landscapes.
  • We want sustainability.

That is exactly what nature gives us. We just reject her offerings and prefer to make the plant selections and maintenance choices ourselves.

The only thing holding gardeners back from allowing nature to do the gardening is they would not like what grows. They would not have the need to care for it, and most of all, would lose any control over it. Aesthetics plays a huge part in gardening and many plants filled in by succession are not ones we would choose, like our dandelion or the untamed grasses.

So we will continue to create gardens. We will still see beauty in gardens created by man. But there will be a point when man will stop creating gardens when resources shrink. If water becomes scarce and it is between keeping us alive and keeping gardens alive, there will be no contest.

It really is something to think about as more and more of us inhabit this Earth. More and more of us equals less and less of everything else.

Was there ever a time when we lived sustainably? Up next we look at sustainability in a surprising turn of thought. And some really interesting dandelion facts. It is a sustainable plant, who knew?

I wish you all a Happy, Healthy Thanksgiving.

Dandelion Days Posts, Five-Part Series, I bet you noticed, not one dandelion in this post!


About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at:
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39 Responses to Simple as Looking at Your Own Garden

  1. A.M.B. says:

    Great post. It has given me a lot to think about as I consider our plans for our yard. I haven’t had as much time to garden as I had hoped, and so we have a small vegetable patch and a handful of other plants that were here when we moved in. The rest of our lot is wooded and we’ve decided to replace trees (only as they die) with native varieties. I still want a small flower garden, but that probably won’t happen for a few years (when my girls will be able to help me!).

    • I can refer you to my friend I told you about in Bryn Mawr. She owns a nursery (many native plants) and would be glad to talk plants with you. She also has a catalog. Email me and I will give you her information.

  2. Martha says:

    Like talking to myself, except much better writing than the words in my head. Lovely.

  3. HolleyGarden says:

    I’ve always thought of gardens as man’s dominance over a parcel of land. Pulling weeds, and planting what we want instead of what naturally grows there. But we do this even if it’s just a small vegetable garden feeding one person.

    • No doubt we dominate. No doubt we have to interfere and change the environment either. My last post mentioned this fact. We are nature too and all creatures change their environment somewhat. “A repercussion of living life is the alteration of the specie’s own habitat.”

  4. thequeenofseaford says:

    It is amazing how much of an impact we have when we build. Our wildlife is coming back into the area. For the first year we hardly saw one squirrel, now, well, there are plenty. We did leave a lot of untouched land, especially in the front yard.
    Very interesting about the ‘weeds’ holding on when in building environs.

    • Really we have even greater impact than I listed. I did not want to get too architectural, but from a gardening standpoint, what happens to the wildlife is what is most affected. Squirrels are the most domesticated of the critters. They move in and make themselves at home. The weeds that live on demo sites are the ones that amaze me. There is nothing but dead earth (hard pack) and debris and they still grow.

  5. I guess I look at it from a little different perspective since I have always moved into houses in developed or urban areas where nature was already long gone. For me it’s a choice between letting the lawn grow wild or digging up the turf and putting in the plants that I like. Since my plants are pretty tough and well-adapted the resources I use controlling weeds is almost entirely my own sweat.

    • My own urban front yard is filled with native plants, or at least those that grow somewhere in New York State, and it certainly is better than the alternative of turf grass. The trees and shrubs provide food and shelter from winter wind for wildlife, but will never be better than what the creatures find in nature on their own. They are not making their homes here, bar a few nesting birds. I currently have a similar garden situation as you and make the best of what I have at this location. I am so fortunate to live 1/2 block from the Niagara Gorge and that is a true wildlife habitat. Like you too, not pesticides or herbicides here, so it is a lot of work in the weed pulling arena, but in Fall I let them grow, yet not to seed generally. Many of the wildflowers in this series of posts are from my yard.

  6. What an interesting post. I have read it quickly on the train and it is one that will be definitely revisited to read again more then once. Thank you

  7. I love your post. You captured my approach to gardening perfectly. I am letting nature do most of the work in my garden. I want to enjoy my time outdoors and enjoy the wildlife around me. There are lots of plant options and design options. My body does not easily or comfortably fit into a size 8 jean. Why should I force my landscape into something that does not fit it?

  8. You remind me of Glenn Murcutt, the Australian architect who took the Australian aboriginal saying “touch the earth lightly” to heart. He knew his buildings were making an impact on the environment, but he strived to minimise that impact. (I’ve been fortunate enough to attend a workshop with him, and he’s truly inspirational.)

    We garden, we create something that nature would not have created. Our gardens are, by definition, un-natural. But at least we can strive to create something that impacts nature as little as possible – or even gives nature, i.e. local flora and fauna, better conditions.

    My garden is full of stuff that doesn’t “belong” in my area. Imported or hybridised plants, artificial landscaping, barren areas created as seating platforms/terraces. Yet there are also plants that might not belong but which are agreeable to local wildlife, landscaping that recreates habitats that are becoming scarce in the modern landscape. At the end of the day, if animals like my garden I have succeeded. (The plants will be fine in the area, since our local forest is stewarded in excellent manner, creating pools and clearings and meadows and groves and dense forest, all mixed in between each other.)

    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. I don’t know if you read the previous posts in the series, but you express many points from them. I have studied sustainability and worked with an architectural mentor in my professional life who was developing sustainable communities. The concept and practice is very dear to me.

      My own garden reflects my love of nature in the plants that are planted to aide wildlife, but there is only so much one can do in a city filled with yard turf. More and more need to broaden these urban oasis, yet still retain a sense of urbanism, a very delicate balance of design. I do not think cities should become weedy messes, but have a reasonable sense of order.

      The ideal scenario would have been what cities did in the first place. Building up in cities (highrise) with population density cores, was an example of keeping people centralized and using the smallest footprint for our existence. Presently, most want to live away from cities.

      Are there structures that have minimal ecological effect? Yes, but… they are subterranean houses and earth sheltered homes. There are structures built on stilts, or even in trees. There are ways to live ‘off ‘ the land.  There are oddly enough, even a few pretty amazingly equipped cave homes.

      These mostly expensive alternatives are not the norm and most probably never will be, but they do exist. This is not an architecture blog, so I will not bore you with this, but suffice it to say, we can build more in tune with nature than we currently do. One of the barriers to building more smartly and sustainably is bottom line unfortunately. Even shelters we are accustomed to in form can be better designed to leave a lesser carbon footprint.

      • Architecture will never bore me… I’ve had a passion for buildings since I was a child and even spent a few years training to be an architect before I had to realise I was more into the theory than the practice…

        Here in Copenhagen the authorites are actively encouraging (with financial incentives) “green roofs” to bring in more green surfaces in the middle of the city, not just as recreational areas but also to manage rain water in a sustainable manner and reduce polution. I think that’s a great way to go on living life as usual but with a slightly smaller impact on the environment.
        I get the impression that we’re slowly edging closer to “green by default”, where environmentally friendly solutions are becoming the standard, rather than the exception. Energy conservation and water conservation are thought into most new builds, not just because it’s good for the environment but because ultimately it makes economic sense. And there are so many great – and good-looking – solutions for making even ordinary houses more enviromentally friendly without sacrificing comforts that really, this is the way it HAS to be.
        (This is also why I never water my garden… Wasting pure drinking water on plants is simply too frivolous to even contemplate. Gardeners, too, ought to consider their footprint in terms of water and energy.)

  9. Lot of great ideas – what is our role in all of this? I have tried to remind myself that I am not the ‘center’ or the ‘source’ of all that we call gardening, Just the caretaker. Quite humbling. Thanks for a excellent article.

    • Our role is no more than we make it. Whether hand weeding our flower beds or allowing a portion of our property to remain wild. Both are providing nature a service, but one better than the other. What I notice at the farm or Falls, as opposed to my own garden, there is far more wildlife visiting the wildflowers than my ‘native flowers’. I find the Caryopteris which is not native, gets a wider variety of insects than does the Monarda or phlox which is naive in my garden. Many of my plants are insect magnets, but I see what appears to be insects getting a ‘balanced diet’ out in the fields and meadows. They visit so many more plants. What I do notice in my own garden is bees being selective. Some bees have pollen baskets that are filled yellow, and others have baskets filled with red, meaning they are visiting the veronica.

  10. Happy Thanksgiving and what a thoughtful post. If I contrast my property in ME with PA, I conclude that unlike most gardeners I would be happy with what nature provides if it is an in tact ecosystem. As you know, in Maine I don’t garden because I enjoy the native plants that naturally surround me. In PA that functioning system was destroyed by humans long ago and there is no chance to get it back. There I have a choice: garden or be surrounded by the worst of the invasives.

    • Invasive is so relative because if man did not fashion the landscape to his own desires, nature would take care of anything invasive with the process of succession eventually. Unfortunately, the plants native to a locale get switched out through succession also. New ecosystems form. The only way that the Earth could have its own sense of ecological balance is without us as a species I believe. But, the ironic thing is, we are nature too and were put here for what ever reason nature saw fit to have us, all 7,080,655,522 of us.

      • I hear this said all the time and think it clouds the issue. Yes, succession as in evolution is completely natural and to be expected. Native plants are moving north in the US because the climate is changing. But an invasive plant like bittersweet, which can come in and destroy a native ecosystem in 20 years or less, is not a case of natural succession.

  11. Andrea says:

    I hope many more will read your posts. The words “gene flow” and “carrying capacity” just come to mind. I wont write anymore as, that i love so much that blue flower!

  12. Patty says:

    One of the reasons that I enjoy reading your blog is that it spurs a reaction to your thoughtful commentaries. A Happy Thanksgiving to you Donna.

  13. Marguerite says:

    I did wonder where the dandelion was. Great quote about agriculture. I’ve got farming on the brain right now as I’m attending an organic farming conference this weekend. We create so much work for ourselves growing food and seem to be convinced it’s the most economic way possible but is it really the best way?

    • Agriculture is the biggest user of pesticides and herbicides, yet what economical alternative is there? Even the smaller farms need to keep costs down and production high. We can’t pay American workers pennies to do this and even the guest workers that do the picking and planting get a very decent wage, free transportation and housing. That is why they come here. I know this because I have for the past three years been involved in all the government paperwork to get them here for the tree farm. I am always astounded how the American workers will not work for their wage, but what these workers do is very hard work. American workers seem to quit after a few days. That says a lot about American ambition I think. My next post talks about sustainability and to be sustainable requires HARD WORK.

  14. How nice to see all those lovely flower photos. Since I began planting deliberately to bump up the flower quotient in our yard…both to delight weary passers-by and to attract and support wild bees and bumblebees in particular, we have seen many, many more birds and bees in our back yard. I do let the weeds do their thing in the quieter corners of the garden beds. They are often preferred butterfly hosts. Our honeysuckle and abelia brought the first Sphinx moths I have ever seen, commonly called hummingbird moths as you could easily mistake them for hummingbirds. That was a thrill! We had legions of bumblebees this year, several species. The borage plantings really delighted them, closely followed by Joe Pye Weed and fennels.

    • I am always amazed at the Falls and farm meadows. I see so many dragonflies, butterflies and bees in these pollinator heavens. I have a much harder time photographing them there since they can fly off blocks away from me. In my own yard, with less within range, I get great photos. I have photos of the hummingbird moths. They visit my garden and like the Duranta and Monarda. I never had a Sphinx though, at least the true Sphinx. They are very beautiful. I get the Snowberry Clearwing quite often. If my garden was bigger I would put in milkweed for the Monarchs.

  15. After the construction it has been hard to restore natives and not weeds…and I have had fun letting them seed around as mother nature would dictate…I love seeing the cattails and milkweed find their way into the garden. I find less stress trying to exert my dominance anymore.

    • You must have a marshy area around you for cattails. They grow in the drainage ditches at the farm. Even the large Koi pond does not get them. I wish I could put in milkweed. It would take up too much garden if I did. But the images I show all the time of milkweed and butterflyweed all come from the Falls meadows. I walk there from my house, so it is kinda like having in my own back yard. The gorge is only 1/2 block away and it is a nice walk to the meadows from there.

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  17. b-a-g says:

    I am really enjoying this series. I always used to clear whole beds of weeds but they usually refilled with weeds faster than my planting schemes materialised, after cats spied the fresh soil and dug up my new plants, or slugs attacked the fresh young leaves. Now I leave the weeds in situ and plant new plants amongst them – they seem to be more protected.

    • One thing about many of the weeds, they have their own specified pollinators and insects that damage the plants, which means the insect damage is not going to happen to an adjacent species in some plants. That is a good thing for plants we like.

  18. Very insightful and thought-provoking, Donna. I try to strike a balance, and included a post with a similar theme early on when I started my blog: Your prose and photos show how important these decisions are in our habitats and our lives. Thanks for this great post.

    • Thank you, I did see that post and commented. I like how the botanical gardens had the definitions. They do vary depending on where you read them. NYS has slightly different definitions concerning natives. Cornell is also slightly different. Native is hard to define. How far do you go back? Plants such as Queen Anne’s Lace, dandelion and others that came here so long ago, yet were not native to begin with have provided much food for insects. I get a little annoyed with what is native and now what is invasive. There is no definitive answer. Part of the reason there will not ever be an answer is because climate change has affected what is growing in what locale. Many plants have moved northward and so have the insects. The problem though is the insects have moved in ahead of the their main feeding plants. This is causing a concern for biologists. I have been following it and waiting to see what data they produce on this. I wrote on this last year and this year it only seemed a tad likely we will be seeing much change to come.

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