Growing food eco-logically we reduce the cost of growing food for us and our environment. We harvest healthy food relying on Nature’s free ecological services by repairing the ecosystems in our farms and gardens.
We all have issues with growing food… Crops relentlessly hammered by insects, compacted soil, insufficient organic matter, nutrient deficiencies, rainwater running off rather than infiltrating our soil, and unpollinated flowers. They tell us that our growing conditions aren’t 100%.
Normally, we focus on improving each of these using pest controls, cultivating soil, spreading compost, mulch, minerals, fertilisers, and so on.
Ecosystems are complex, but repairing them is relatively straightforward because three ecological functions drive most of the action.[ii]
By repairing our nutrient cycles, soil organisms recycle the nutrients in plant and animal waste materials, unlock nutrients from the mineral particles in our soil, making the nutrients available for plants to reuse.
Water cycles are enormous, but we can improve them by increasing water infiltration and storage in our soil, reducing water loss through evaporation, and getting excess water draining freely down through our soil to reduce waterlogging.
Why do we only think of fertilisers when we want to grow more food? Plants capture and store solar energy using their photosynthetic panels. By growing more solar panels, we make more energy available for the plants, microbes, invertebrates and other animals operating the ecosystems in our farms and gardens.
Regrettably, we’ve tended to overlook and neglect these ecological functions. That’s why we’ve had to replace their free ecological services with assorted inputs and physical work!
How do we repair our Ecosystems?
Applying these ecological principles, you’ll develop practical solutions suitable for your conditions, whether growing in a backyard in Wales, a community garden in Boston, a smallholding in India, or running cattle in outback Australia…[iii]
1. Mimic Nature
By learning from Nature in designing and managing our farms and gardens, we combine our ingenuity with three billion years of research and development carried out in every climate and soil type on the planet, including our own!
A helpful way to start is by investigating how Nature maintains ecosystems in similar environmental conditions. We do this by looking closely at the remnants of natural vegetation growing in our regions. Try to find areas in reasonably good condition, with similar drainage, exposure to wind and sun, soil, underlying geology, etc. You’ll see how these different climatic and physical conditions influence the ‘architecture’ of the vegetation and plants that grow.
These ecosystems are our best practice models because they have inbuilt resilience, are pest and disease resistant, self-fertilising, and self-maintaining. They don’t need external inputs and us to maintain them! They can cope with unexpected changes and bounce back after difficult times.
We can benefit too from these free ecological services, by finding ways to mimic these natural ecosystems in designing and managing our food production systems.
Gabe Brown, a world-renown regenerative farmer in North Dakota in the United States, designs his crop production and grazing management by mimicking the native Prairie grasslands and behaviour of wild Bison in his region.[iv]
He has improved his water and nutrient cycle and energy flow by:
- Maintaining a continuous cover of living plants
- Using a diversity of crops and cover crops that provide a range of ecological services
- Maximising plant biomass recycling in his soil using mob grazing
On our farm in tropical northern Australia, we’re mimicking the architecture of the forest communities that would naturally grow on our land. We’re doing this by switching from growing bananas and tree crops in a single layer, to developing multi-layered production systems using perennial plants like breadfruit, jackfruit, and cooking bananas to produce carbohydrates and provide ecological services.
2. Grow from your Strengths
Using this eco-logical approach, it makes sense to get to know your growing conditions and rely on the animals and plants that thrive in these conditions.[v] For example, by using suitable tree species with dense foliage to reduce wind, deep-rooted plants to help de-compact the soil, and biomass-producing plants to improve the nutrient cycle.
For more information see Grow Food that looks after Itself!
3. Build Connections
Intentionally recruit plants, livestock, microbes, and other organisms to build beneficial relationships between the living and nonliving parts of your environment. By creating this biodiversity, we improve the functioning of our ecosystems, enhancing their capacity to utilise the energy and resources made available and to withstand and recover from unfavourable conditions.
For example, suppose your goal is to improve your nutrient cycle. In that case, you can use grazing animals to increase the supply of root tissues, root exudates, leaves and other organic waste materials to feed your soil organisms.[vi]
4. Co-Create with Succession
Look again at the native vegetation in your region. How do these ecosystems repair themselves after disturbances? Explore ways to mimic the sequence of changes in the architecture and types of plants as Nature does the repairs. By accentuating the qualities you want, you shift your energy from holding back succession to co-creating ecosystems that can self-organise and self-evolve over time.
Benefits of Growing Food Eco-logically
Growing food eco-logically, you wll seize the opportunity to cultivate healthier relationships with your environment from the ground up! You’ll join the groundswell of farmers and gardeners, getting off the treadmill of substituting for Nature’s free ecological services and creating ecosystems capable of bouncing back from the impacts of extreme weather.
Remember that when starting anything new, it’s generally not a good idea to try and change everything at once. Trial techniques and species, see what works best.
Additional Support from Learning from Nature
Recommended articles –
- What is Regenerative Farming and Gardening
- Principles of Regenerative Agriculture – Eco-logical
- How to choose Regenerative Practices – that Work!
- What is Healthy Soil?
[ii] Eugine P. Odium, 1971, Fundamentals of Ecology. Publ W.B. Saunders Company
[iv] Gabe Brown, 2018, Dirt to Soil: One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture – Gabe Brown, Chelsea Green Publishing