Everyone who successfully brings back Nature’s free ecological services to their gardens and farms – uses their local natural ecosystems as their role model.

Gabe Brown mimics his native Prairies, Mark Shephard the savanna woodlands which formerly covered the American corn belt, and Colin Seis the open woodlands and grasslands of central NSW in Australia. At Hill Top Farm, we get our guidance from the forest across the road.

This approach makes sense.

But, ecosystems have more wisdom to share than just mimicking the diversity and architecture of their vegetation.

Ecosystems are the basic functional units in Nature

Everything in nature is connected, from the biosphere to the microcosm on the underside of a leaf. However, within this whole are ecological systems – ecosystems, that have physical components (minerals, carbon, soil, etc), and living organisms linked together through nutrient cycles and energy flows.

The easiest way to understand ecosystems is to think of a pond or a remnant patch of native vegetation. Solar energy is driving the system and there are birds, insect, leaves, etc. – natural resources –  entering and leaving – Otherwise, the ecosystem is relatively self-contained.


Our farms and gardens operate the same way

However remote and irrelevant we may think nature is to what we are doing, all the systems we create are governed by the laws of nature and operate as ecosystems. In fact, ecology is as relevant to food growing, natural area management, and landscaping, as it is to cities and office environments. You’ll see how in a moment.

By looking at our farms and gardens from an ecosystem perspective we begin to see and understand the ‘gap’ between how our ecosystems operate and healthy ecosystems perform. We get ideas about how we can regenerate the ecological functions in our landscapes.

Step 1 – Create a simple model of your garden or farm as an ecosystem

Use a box to represent your property and arrows to show your inputs of:

  • Natural resources
  • Renewable energy
  • Non-renewable energy

and outputs of:

  • Natural resources
  • Waste and pollution

Vary the width of your arrows to show the relative amounts of inputs and outputs. For example, I use a wide yellow arrow to show that I mainly use renewable energy by generating most of my own electricity. However, I do use some non-renewable energy – my car, bush-cutter and chain-saw, and when I get a friend over to slash. So I show the non-renewable energy with a narrower arrow.

You are welcome to have a go at separating renewable and non-renewable resources in your model. I haven’t done this here to keep things simple. A resource is non-renewable when the levels of consumption and degradation exceed rates of replenishment. Most soils, for example, are unfortunately being managed as non-renewable resources.

Step 2 – Look at the differences between your ecosystem model and the model of a healthy ecosystem

What are the main things that stand out? In healthy ecosystems all the resource and energy inputs are renewable. In general, the resource inputs and outputs are small. Healthy ecosystems are relatively self-contained.

Step 3 – How can you improve your ecosystem

How can you create a healthier functioning ecosystem?

Which inputs would be good to reduce? The non-renewable resources and expensive stuff – fertilisers, pest controls, equipment, machinery, etc?

How are you using these resources currently? Can you change what you do?

How did you go? Share in the comments below any ideas – light bulb moments – you had to reduce your input costs and environmental footprint.

It is what happens inside the box that’s important

How an ecosystem is operating.

We’ve got the part of running our gardens and farms well organised using equipment and machinery – the lawn mower, slasher and direct drill seeders.

BUT, not the part of our operations run by ecological functions to use these resources efficiently – the nutrient and water cycling systems, solar energy capture, and beneficial connections. These are the key ecological functions which keep our eco-systems operating. Or in degraded systems at least stop them from breaking down!

When we get this part of our operations ‘tuned up’ and running well, we will reduce our input costs and the waste and pollution we create. Our farms and gardens will be more resilient, sustainable, self-maintaining, and productive with the resources and energy they have available.

Discover how with our Ecological Farming Handbook.

Illustration of pond ecosystem Laura Quincy-Jones