Imagine a garden in which all the plants co-operate with and support each other, living harmoniously throughout the seasons of the year, with no need for artificial pest or weed control. This garden would produce abundant food, flowers and foliage while requiring minimal maintenance. It sounds fanciful, yet this is what occurs in nature.
Of course, natural ecosystems evolve over thousands of years, with a diverse array of plants and animals responding to the challenges placed on them. We hardly have the time to let a garden evolve in the same way. So how can we construct a garden that allows us the time to enjoy this natural abundance?
Understanding the wants and needs of our plants is part of the solution. Just as important is the consideration given to the threats that challenge or the advantages that benefit our plants.
Multiculture, not monoculture
Modern agriculture has developed monocultures whereby one plant species is cultivated to the exclusion of others. It has served us well in the short term, but over hundreds of years productivity is lost and in many instances has resulted in degradation of the soils that support it. We rely on machinery to till the soil and apply fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides. If a disease, pest or even natural event occurs, it threatens all the plants equally. Our home gardens tend to reflect this form of agriculture. We have become accustomed to the aesthetics of multiple plantings and in doing so have become reliant on the same herbicides, pesticides and cultivation techniques that our farmers use.
If you wish to reduce your use of chemicals in the garden, the initial step is to decrease your use of multiple plantings (of the same plants). In some instances, this will not be desirable. You may still want to have a lawn of one species or a uniform hedge. But if you integrate these features into a well-planned, diverse garden, you can reduce or even eliminate your chemical use. You are thus reducing your costs and the cost to the planet in terms of oil. Another benefit, though not always the case, should be a reduction in the labour required to maintain the garden.
Follow the sun
How do we assess the threats or advantages? Start by orientating yourself with the north. It’s important to understand the cycle of the sun. In the southern hemisphere it will be overhead in summer but will angle in from the north in winter. The further south you are, the greater the northern angle. So the northern side of a plant will receive more direct sunlight in winter, as will the soil. This may be desirable for a plant that needs warmth in winter, but not so for a plant that wants a cool or shady aspect. If you face north, the east is to the left and the west to the right. As nights are generally cooler than days, the morning sun from the east is warming up the garden, while the afternoon sun may be cooking it, particularly in summer.
Observe also the reflective surfaces affecting your garden. Metal fences, light-coloured walls, white shadecloth and water reflect light and heat. You may wish to block this light or utilise it in lower light conditions.
Darker features will absorb light and heat. If these are of a solid nature, they will also store heat and may radiate this heat at night. Try to use these features to your benefit with cold-sensitive plants nearer to them.
Next, look at any slopes or raised features in the garden. Air behaves as a fluid “like water”. Being denser, cool air drops and will flow down to the lowest point. If it becomes trapped, you may have a frost hollow. Raised garden beds will remain warmer in cold conditions. This becomes more important the further south you are.