PRESTO! Just Add These Things to Your Garden

Improving the ecological health of your garden and yard is strongly related to the encouragement of the variety of species that live there.  This can include plants, fungi, animals of all sizes, insects, and much more. But so often in our curation of plants, we try to enact a scene that is sterile and clean.  The picture of beauty in our minds corresponds to this. It’s important for us to remember that in the clean-looking natural environment that we base this picture of beauty on, there is a LOT going on!  


We may think of the old-growth forest as a few trees which seem fairly organized.  Beneath them, there are ferns and a few understory shrubs and groundcover. Extremely popular is the “savannah,” which has been adapted to be a sole tree in the middle of a green lawn.  These healthy systems that maintain themselves without a great deal of human interaction DO rely on a complex web of organisms that span the taxonomic kingdoms. It really takes all of these organisms to create an environment within which these beautiful vistas thrive.

When we apply these “styles” to our own (microscopic in comparison) yards, however, we tend to leave out that interconnecting web, and instead focus on the outermost layer.  This is largely why we struggle with the outcomes: dead and weak plants, having to re-landscape every few years (or sometimes every year!), and often we are unimpressed with the look and durability of these landscapes we attempt to create.


The next step we take is that we then look to all of the wonderful products that industry has made for us to supplement what nature does for free.  Weed killers, chemical fertilizers, watering systems, weed mats, and other such products treat the symptoms, but not the causes of our landscapes. Once we start using these products, we become dependent on them like so many other offerings of the modern world.  Our gardens and environments actually become weaker and more brittle through our extended use. In a recent interview, David Holmgren who helped develop and establish permaculture said “Our obsession with making things more efficient… inevitably makes them less resilient.” The permaculture philosophy suggests that the gardener works with nature rather than against it.  It also means we can use nature’s tools instead of expensive and destructive fabrications.

When a biodynamic lens is applied, we try to attain a farm (or yard, or garden) organism in which everything is produced for the farm by the farm.  The closer you can get to that the better. Here, we are going to go a little outside of the farm but fall short of importing things from the hardware store or from a far off nation, where things are made cheaply and quickly with lots of prices to pay along the way.

The Result

Let’s begin with the end in mind. If you add these things to your garden–even just a few of them– you will start to see improvements in the first year, and it will improve exponentially every year after that! By improvement, we mean a more resilient system, healthier plants, higher overall yield.  You ready? How do we achieve this perpetual regeneration?

Just Add: Animals

I just finished reading Holistic Management by Alan Savory.  (YOU CAN GET IT FREE HERE!) This is an in-depth look at the effects of herd animals on the health of soil and lands.  It sort of flips the script on the idea of overgrazing or eliminating animals from our systems.  Prior to reading this book, I had many conversations with friends who work with livestock and also Wilson Alvarez, who is a biomimetic restorer at the Horn Farm Center [links].  Those conversations instilled in me a deep consideration for the place of animals in ecosystems. I am not suggesting you bring a herd of sheep into your small backyard, but think about what a few chickens might do. That’s where I started, and I can comment anecdotally on many benefits the birds have had on the land.


You might consider inviting deer onto your land from the surrounding area.  Of course, there are many ways to invite birds, squirrels, and other animals onto your land also.  Many who read this will think about these animals as pests, but bear with me and try to to consider what your definition of a pest is.  What if you were to design a system with these animals in mind? What function did they play in the ecosystem before we were here? Animals will eat pests and reduce harmful diseases in most plant communities.  It is part of a balance.

Just Add: Wood


Several years ago, a loud sound awoke my family in the middle of the night.  A 50+ foot white pine tree had fallen in our backyard. We ended up cutting that tree into pieces and stacking firewood.  As we developed our yard and garden, I used the wood to create hugelkultur (no-dig raised bed) gardens and also to border a sandpit. I’ve used these partially decomposed logs to retain water in and around trees we’ve planted (catches downhill water and sinks it into the ground).  With these and some other hardwood fire logs we’ve accumulated, I also just drop them into areas that seem to need groundcover, form separation, or add a little biodiversity.


Split logs and wood pieces or chips as ground cover are great ways to keep moisture in the soil. If positioned on-contour in a sloping gradation, they can also force water into the ground.  This is somewhat related to keyline water management in which you can strategically cut or place check dams to sink water and enliven the soil. This can be done on a large scale or even a garden scale.

Hugelkultur is the idea of burying branches, sticks and/or woody debris underground and forming a mound over it inviting a host of mutually beneficial fungi and microorganisms and enhancing a plant community’s resilience tenfold.

Hardwood chips in my garden beds fuel an ongoing patch of red wine cap mushrooms that I inoculated a couple of years ago.  This is an amazing and delicious addition to the garden’s yields!

Just Add: Water

This seems silly, right? Water is in every garden. I’m talking about water that is held in a place.  A pond is a wonderful way to add a vast array of biodiversity to your property that will benefit the area around it in an enormous plume of influence.  But if you don’t have room for a pond, simply adding some water here or there can make a big difference. I have a few stainless steel bowls that I partially bury in ground cover and place in various areas of the garden.  Birds and pollinators love these. I also suspect that it creates a bit of humidity in certain areas of my garden which plants tend to love.

Consider how you are watering. Does it mimic natural systems? I tend not to actually flood my gardens with water with any sort of regularity.  I find them more productive as polycultures when they are allowed to grow their roots deeper to search for moisture. As I mentioned, the buried wood and debris holds the moisture from infrequent heavy rains.  The roots can access this water for a long time.

Just Add: Rock


A rock is a movable weed suppressant.  Rocks (particularly those of significant size) provide a halo of protection for soil life in a column beneath the rock.  I tend to move rocks around to support plants, keep moisture in the ground or suppress weeds. After a rock has been in one place for a while, I can easily move it to smother another weed.


Depending on what the rock is made of, it may have minerals that can find their way into the soil. People like putting decorative rocks like quartzite in their gardens and while you might need to seek the science behind the plant being able to access the silica, I think there is something to presenting the mineral component on a surface level. I think it really completes the picture. And if you think about it, so does it complete the picture for those doing Japanese gardens or Bonsai.  What is it about adding the rock?

Just Add: Weeds

Once I realized that weeds fill important ecosystem niches, I decided to change my relationship with weeds.  In a forest gardening intensive with Dave Jacke, Dave said “Why do we spend so much time trying to grow things that want to die and kill things that want to live?”  There was a pause as we soaked that in. I looked at the weeds that were trying to live in my backyard and thought about how harmful they actually were. What opportunity did they grow in and what niche did they fill?  In short, weeds are pioneer plants that prepare the ground for succession into a forest. So they like disturbed ground. That’s our gardens. Disturbed ground. They open up the soil and cover it to protect it from erosion. The weeds I was dealing with weren’t doing that much harm.  Some people are dealing with much worse and no doubt, for safety and productivity there are things that need to be aggressively managed like Poison Ivy or Tearthumb I picked three weeds, readily found in my garden that I decided to use for garden groundcover. Wood Sorrel, Ground Ivy (Speedwell), and Purslane now guard and protect my soil and each is edible and another yield from my garden! I’ve changed their name from weeds to helpers and it’s changed the relationship that I have with these plants! 

Just Add: Disturbances


There is something to be said for an environmental disturbance. It’s chaos and we can define chaos as an unlimited opportunity.  Now that being said don’t go out and disturb things without understanding what disturbances will be helpful or harmful. That is definitely step one.  Think about how something as simple as cutting back a particular plant in a community may change everything around it. When we think of the biomimicry approach, we are replacing disturbances that were expected in an ecosystem.  These are disturbances that plant communities evolved alongside. We displaced the animals by setting up our neighborhoods in what used to be forest, deserts, or plains. So let’s take up our responsibility to become the animals that we’ve displaced.  Common disturbances might be: the aforementioned animals trampling around and puncturing the ground, water that might have washed out areas before we added complex grading or drainage systems.  It could be something as specific as a mastodon tusk turning up the soil or knocking down a tree on- contour, creating a terrace. There is really something beautiful that comes from a disturbance.  What disturbances can you add to your garden in just the right place at just the right time?

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