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Most Important Things

Friday, January 28, 2022

In my 18 years of designing gardens and landscapes, these are some of the most important things that I have learned:

  • Make as few changes and long-term plant choices as possible before spending at least a year getting to know the existing space and plant community.  So many possibilities are lost because we hurry to do the work that feels urgent to us on our personal timelines.
  • If you are transitioning from an existing perennial ecosystem to a different perennial ecosystem, plant annuals in the space for one or two years as a transitional buffer so the established species don’t resurge and overwhelm the new ones. This approach minimizes the need for heavy labour or fossil fuel powered disruption and for extraction or transportation of soils and other materials.
  • If you are transitioning from bare soil or a low diversity system (turf, monoculture etc.) to a complex, perennial system, plant a mix of annual species for at least a year to help revive the soil biology before planting the perennials.
  • For both of the previous points, arborist wood chips, or some other form of organic matter that is usually considered waste, is your friend. A nice thick layer of coarse, carbon rich material will kick start the fungi growth that builds soil carbon and improves both water-holding capacity and drainage. Lay it down in the fall, if possible, and plant the annuals right through it next spring.
  • Start with native species. There are so many more than you might expect based on what you are likely to encounter in a stroll through a garden center or a perusal of seed catalogues. There is a very high likelihood that there is a native species that will suit the space you are working with, meeting both your needs and the needs of other species that also have a right to thrive in that space. A lot of defaulting to European and Asian species is nothing more than cultural momentum.
  • Include species that feed humans. We need to eat. We can either have that need met by a complex system that we can help to tend, cycle organic matter back to and respond to by adjusting our seasonal consumption, or we can have that need met through a food system that has become distressingly fragile and exploitative of humans, animals, ecosystems and soils. -This is where non-native species often have the best reasons for being incorporated into your local ecosystem.
  • Accept that some plans won’t have expected outcomes. Some species that seem like appropriate choices at first will end up not thriving in some settings without a level of intervention that is harmful to the ecosystem. If something simply isn’t suited to the space, look for alternative ways to get your underlying need met.
  • Be flexible but plan for the long term. Check climate forecasts for your area and consider the lifespan of the species you are planting and their capacity to survive, or thrive, in the high and low temperature ranges, or changing rain patterns, that are expected in the coming years and decades. There is lots we don’t know about future growing conditions, but we can include the bits that we do know in our decision making.