Saturday, August 3, 2013

Maximize Free Ecosystem Services in Your Garden

Carpenter bees are one of our local pollinators

By adopting certain practices you can maximize numerous free “services” to create a healthy and thriving garden, courtesy of Mother Nature. All you have to do is to make a safe home for her critters. A healthy garden doesn’t need extensive and expensive inputs such as pesticides, herbicides or even large amounts of fertilizers. In fact, you have to avoid using these toxic products.

I’m referring to ecosystem services, and what I mean is this: 
If your garden is a healthy ecosystem it is easier and less expensive to maintain, and it's healthier for you and the environment.

What are Ecosystem Services?
In a nutshell they are things that nature provides when the right conditions exist. The ecosystem services most important for home gardeners include: pollination, pest control, fertility through decomposition of organic matter, healthy soil leading to healthy plants, ambient climate control, food production, and even remediation (breakdown) of harmful contaminants.

Silver thyme in flower is much loved by bees

Here’s more on these points:

Some edibles depend entirely on pollination to produce any crop at all, while others produce a better crop when pollinated. For example, include flowering plants that attract pollinators when you plant your vegetable garden and they will pollinate your crops for an optimal harvest. This is especially important for squashes and cucumbers which rely on pollination. Many fruit and nut trees require pollination, including certain varieties of apples, most plums, pluots, pears, cherries (except sour cherry) and nuts. To read more about attracting pollinators go to this Xerces Society page.

Pest Control
Birds, wasps, and other predatory insects will keep the “bad” bugs under control. They will also kill a certain amount of ”good bugs”, but a balance will eventually be established.  Efficient predators such as wasps prey on many insects and their larvae that feed on plants. It's critical that you don't use any toxic chemicals if you want to establish beneficial insects in your garden. Birds forage on the ground for insects and they also pick them off of foliage. Set out bird baths with water to attract them, and make sure they have shrubs and trees for their nests. To learn more about biological pest control go to this UC Davis page.

Crimson clover is another bee magnet

Decomposition and Healthy Soil
A healthy garden ecosystem is supported by healthy soil. A key process at work in the soil food web is the decomposition and recycling of organic matter. We typically remove valuable sources of organic matter when we rake up leaves, grass clippings, and other trimmings from our garden. We can return these to the soil in the form of compost, use a chipper to make mulch, or use wood chips as mulch. Mulch added around your plants to cover any bare soil, will be a source of organic material that will breakdown over time while it helps retain moisture. Composting your yard and kitchen waste is one of the most valuable practices you can do at home. There are many methods and you can find one that suits your lifestyle.

Soil is alive and teeming with microorganisms as well as larger creatures such as nematodes and earthworms, and many others. If you take time to build up your soil with good compost and provide proper amounts of moisture, your plants will thrive and be better able to access nutrients, resist diseases and insect damage. Read more about the soil food web.

A lovely flowering dogwood tree

Climate Control
Trees are essential for providing many much needed ecosystem services in suburban and urban areas. Not only do they shade our homes and offices but they also transpire water vapor, which cools the local environment around them. This added moisture creates favorable conditions for both plants and animals. Trees mitigate the "heat island" effect caused by overdeveloped areas that are low on vegetation. In dry climates like California, trees are an essential natural resource. And of course they also provide important habitat and food for birds, insects, and mammals. It’s true that when you cut down a tree you are destroying an entire ecosystem.  

Organically grown home-garden harvest- it's dinner time!

Food Production
Our food producing plants are fascinating - watching luscious tomatoes, strawberries and lettuce grow and transform into delicious food is magical. You can maximize your pleasure and quality of life by growing an endless variety of herbs, fruits, and vegetables to enjoy with your family, neighbors, and friends. Why not use your precious resources of land and water to grow at least some amount of food?
But besides food, edible plants contribute to a healthy garden ecosystem. For example, by letting herbs flower they attract scores of beneficial insects in addition to providing fresh herbs for your meal. Try oregano, thyme, rosemary, mint, basil, and parsley for starters.

Flowering parsley attracts beneficial insects

Bioremediation of Soil Contaminants
Through the process of decomposition some soil contaminants are eventually broken down. This process is a feature that can be leveraged through the use of compost (through the microorganisms). It has been used in clean ups for PCB, diesel fuel, and other petroleum type contaminated soils, to name a few. However, if you suspect that your soil is contaminated, you need to have it tested. I'm not suggesting that you should attempt to clean up serious or dangerous contamination on your own. I mention it here to show the power of natural processes.
To read more go here.

In my next post: Tips and strategies for creating a garden ecosystem.

Photo credits: Patricia Larenas, Urban Artichoke