Every person I know who is successfully bringing back Nature’s free ecological services to their gardens and farms – is using their local natural ecosystems as their role model.

Gabe Brown mimics his native Prairies, Mark Shephard savanna woodlands in the American corn belt, Colin Seis the open woodlands and grasslands of central NSW in Australia and, at Hill Top Farm, we look to the rainforests still surviving across the road for inspiration.

This makes sense.

But, ecosystems have a lot more wisdom to share than just mimicking the diversity and architecture of their vegetation and  dynamics of grazing animals.

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 relatively independent 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 natural resources entering and leaving – birds, insect, leaves etc..Otherwise the ecosystem is relatively self contained.


Our farms and gardens operate and are governed by the laws of nature just like any natural ecosystem

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 understand the differences between how our ecosystems operate and healthy ecosystems perform. Getting ideas how we can improve our landscapes and save money on fertilisers, pest controls and other inputs.

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 how I use mainly renewable energy. I generate 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 this with a narrower arrow.

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

In healthy ecosystems all the resource and energy inputs are renewable and, in general, there aren’t a lot of natural resource inputs and outputs. Healthy ecosystems are relatively self-contained.

(I didn’t suggest separating renewable and non-renewable resources on your model just to keep things simple, but you are welcome to have a go. 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 3 – Now have a think about how you could make your ecosystem function more like a healthy natural ecosystem

Which inputs would be good to reduce? Especially non-renewable resources and the expensive stuff – fertilisers, pest controls, equipment, machinery, etc. What are you using these resources for currently? What can you do differently to grow more with less cost and hard yakka?

You can probably see now that it is what happens inside the box that’s important.

How healthy ecosystems have developed ecological functions to create systems that are resilient, sustainable, self-maintaining, and highly productive with the resources and energy they have available.

We look at how we can improve our ecosystems in our Learning from Nature workshops.

Helping participants create gardens and farms that make the most of the energy and resources available. Bringing back effective nutrient recycling and storage systems, capturing more photosynthetic energy, and developing opportunities to use these resources more efficiently – like the healthy natural ecosystems we mimic!

How did you go?

It would be lovely if you could share in the comments below any ideas – light bulb moments – you had to reduce your input costs and environmental footprint.


Illustration of pond ecosystem Laura Quincy-Jones