By Ali Manns
With the days lengthening and warming up, planting season is upon us. And you might be pondering how to arrange all the seedlings you’ve gathered. ‘There is strength in numbers’ goes the familiar saying. But in truth, strength lies in numbers and diversity.
We see it in action all around us. Plants and animals living in dynamic systems of interaction that are complex, evolving – and importantly, resilient. In the wild we never see a single species monopolising an entire landscape, the way you do in a crop field or grass lawn.
In nature, tiers of actors complement, cooperate, and control by occupying niches within the larger system. And when the ecosystem comes under stress from weather, disease or imbalance, it will always return to a healthy state given time.
When you consider that gardens are micro landscapes, the fact we decide which plants to include or not unnaturally rigs the system. We might be selecting for colour or style or low maintenance but are potentially also setting the scene for nutrient, pest or disease problems in the process. And down the track turning to chemical inputs as solutions, only addresses the symptoms and not the root causes.
Building in diversity
When it comes to selecting plant species for a spot in the garden, two’s company, three’s even better company, and variety brings the party. This is polyculture, and it looks like growing varied vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers together, interplanted or close to each other instead of in isolation.
Polyculture is key whether you are growing a food garden or an ornamental one because nature is not minimalist – for good reason. Any species in isolation is vulnerable to specific pests, diseases and depleting key nutrients from the soil.
Companion Planting guides suggest which plants support each other. Friendly plants can replenish soil nutrients, deter pests, attract good bugs and pollinators. Classic combinations are basil and tomatoes; beans, squash and sweetcorn; garlic with roses; carrots with onions; cosmos, zinnias, and lavender everywhere for attracting pollinators; and dill and yarrow to call in the beneficial insects.
The process is a wonder to behold. I had the chance last summer when my apple tree was truly taken over by pesky aphids. The beasties were never a problem in previous years but were, by the time I noticed them, everywhere.
Masses of the tiny green bugs covered the underside of most of the apple tree’s leaves, sucking the sap and drying them out. It was a concern but a solution from a bottle did not interest me. Instead, I offered time and the guild of flowers that grow beneath the tree.
As the numbers increased, I did wince I admit but then … it happened. On top of the leaves appeared their predator – hundreds of ladybird larvae that eat aphids for breakfast (and lunch, and dinner). Within a week balance was restored. The tree recovered, and the neighbourhood had many more adult ladybirds at its service.
It was the web of life in action. And it showed that the more connections we put in place, the greater the resilience of our little ecosystems. We can curate yards filled with thriving plants and all their friends.