Flash in the Pan 

The toy ecosystem

I used to garden as if I had something to prove, as if my garden was a measure of my worth. I had clear production goals and took it as my duty to put food not only on the table, but in the freezer for a winter. Those days are over. Now my garden is like a cross between a yard ornament and the lab of a mad scientist, as much a half-baked expression of my artistic vision as a reflection of the gardener, the way pets come to resemble their owners. But I'm at peace with my hobby garden.

I still want to harvest the maximum amount of produce, but just as much, I want to enjoy the garden. It has a lot to offer beyond pounds of food, perhaps none greater than the satisfaction of using the garden as a tool to interact with the forces of nature. It's like the connection an angler feels with a fish on the line. But gardening adds the element of creation.

The gardens I've been creating in recent years are dense and diverse, like edible toy ecosystems. The practice of growing lots of plants in the same spot, often called polyculture, has yielded a different-looking garden each summer. But they've all been interesting, fun and productive. Here are the general laws for the creation of my edible ecosystems.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ARI LEVAUX
  • photo by Ari LeVaux

Law No. 1: Bare dirt is the enemy

A photon that hits the ground is a wasted photon. What's more, it's a wasted photon hitting wasted ground, where something could be growing. In spring and early summer, bare dirt is inevitable as the garden fills in. But in a mature garden, every photon that falls within your garden should hit something green, not brown. Covering the bare soil prevents it from drying out and blowing away, while allowing it to hold onto its valuable moisture.

I plant primarily by seed, aiming for a ground-covering blanket. I fill bald spots with starts from the farmers market.

Law No. 2: Minimize labor

If you follow the first law, much of the garden work will take care of itself. By filling every inch of garden space, especially on the soil surface, you aren't leaving any room for potential weeds to grow. This leaves more time for sipping iced tea.

Another labor saving technique I call "throwing seeds at garden" (pronounced with a cadence normally reserved for tai chi moves). Simply mix together the seeds for what you want to grow, and toss handfuls at your prepared dirt. This technique has helped me find, among many other discoveries, the place in my garden where parsley grows best.

When mixing and matching plants in your garden, it helps to know how the various players might get along. Members of the cabbage family, for example, such as broccoli and kale, do poorly when crowded with a bunch of other random plants. Onions and garlic are notoriously bad companions to beans, and don't do well in partial shade.

After throwing your seeds, rake them in and sprinkle shovelfuls of compost over them. In order to keep your garden a garden, and not a bird feeder, cover the bed with shade cloth or floating row cover, available at most gardening stores, until the seeds sprout. Keep the bed well watered.

This isn't the most efficient way of sowing one's seeds. Some will grow too close together and get shaded out. If you're going to toss seeds at your garden you have to be comfortable yanking redundant or poorly placed seedlings. That's how you make room for the tomato and pepper starts.

Remember, this haphazard planting style should only be tried in smaller plots. Harvesting from a large garden that was planted by throwing would be a nightmare. But in a small-scale garden on which realistic expectations are placed, tossing some seeds is a fun way to get the action started.

Law No. 3: Garden in three dimensions

A garden doesn't just exist on the surface of the earth. It also operates above and below ground. Gardening in 3D ensures that the ground will be covered, and will enhance your harvest of other intangibles by making your garden more diverse, colorful, interesting and fun.

Corn is particularly well-suited for taking advantage of airspace. Planting peas, or some other climbing plant, at the base of the corn plants allows them to crawl up the stalks. You won't have to set up a trellis, much less find a spot in the garden for a dedicated pea patch, because the corn stalks are essentially free real estate. Peas, being legumes, have roots that convert nitrogen from the atmosphere into a form useable by plants, which helps the entire garden.

With corn and peas towering above the garden floor, there are still ground-level and below-ground spaces to fill. A mix of spinach and carrots would do the trick. Both are shade tolerant, ground-covering plants.

Altogether, the plants share not just space, but interlocking ecological niches as well. The individual players are interchangeable, as long as specific needs of the game are filled. Spinach could be replaced by squash, melons, lettuce or endive. Beets or radishes could substitute for carrots; sunflowers for corn stalks. Or you could do like me and grow corn, sunflowers, beans, peas, spinach, lettuce, squash, melons and cucumbers, all in the same spot.

Then, brew some iced tea, and enjoy the drama of your toy ecosystem as it unfolds.

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