Natural ecosystems are exceptionally efficient at using the energy and resources they have available.

Wouldn’t be great if we could achieve these resource-use efficiencies, and grow more food with fewer expensive inputs?

Less fertilisers, fuel, pest controls, machinery and equipment …

How do natural ecosystems manage to be so efficient?

grow-more photo of legume flower

They have an enormous diversity of plants, animals, and microbes working together, making sure that virtually every bit of solar energy captured by plants and nutrients recycled by soil organisms is utilised productively.

Connections are important, not just biodiversity.

The connections made through food – predators, parasites, and herbivores, are just the tip of the iceberg!

Designing our systems to have the diversity of natural ecosystems is a lot to ask!

What can we do?

We can get a helping hand improving the resource use efficiency of our gardens and farms by adding Ecological Support Species.

These are plants and other living organisms that help us create beneficial connections in our gardens and farms.

Plants with nitrogen-fixing bacteria are an awesome example.

79% of the air we breathe contains nitrogen, but we can’t do anything with it. It needs to be converted first into a non-gaseous form. Some nitrogen is converted by lightning strikes, but most is converted by bacteria living in our soil or in the roots of ‘nitrogen-fixing’ plants.

It’s an amazing connection and also hugely important – the average nitrogen content of proteins is 16%.

Insectary plants are another useful tool.

Insectary plants provide pollen and nectar supplies for beneficial insects and birds – the natural enemies of our insect pests.

Planting Insectary plants helps us reduce insect pest problems.

I thought I was doing a good job in the orchard at Hill Top Farm, by introducing plants that flower for a long time, but growing nectar and pollen supplies for beneficial insects is more sophisticated than that.

For example, we can get better results by selecting plants that flower at the times when our beneficial insects are adults and by planting species with small and relatively open blossoms for parasitics insects. Many parasitic wasps, have short mouthparts and need short-tubed flowers to get a feed. Plants in the composite, umbel and mint families (Asteraceae, Apiaceae, and Lamiacceae, respectively) provide great wasp dinners.

> I have put together a checklist of useful Ecological Support Species.

They’ll help you where ever you grow.

What Ecological Support Species would help you right now?

Plants improving your micro-climate? Fungi helping your plants get nutrients?

Here’s a couple of videos showing how Hydroponic growers and market gardeners are designing beneficial connections into their production systems.

What species can I plant?

It depends on your growing conditions, but here are some lists to get you started.

  1. Dave Jacke with Eric Toensmeier, 2005, Edible Forest Gardens Volume 2: Design and Practice. Chelsea Green
  2. Bill Mollison, 1988. Permaculture A Designers Manual, Tagari Publications
  3. Martin Crawford, 1998. Nitrogen-fixing plants for Temperate Climates
  4. Wendy Seabrook, 2013, The no mower food grower’s guide
  5. Helen Tuton, Sept 13, 2013, Companion Planting.
  6. Wiki – a comprehensive list of companion plants, but check the information sources provided

If you have found other resources –  post a comment below, and let us know how you go…