Gardening in Harmony with Nature, Part 1

  • My home ground
  • Clearwing moth
  • Snowberry

The Natural World has been my touchstone; a certain intimacy with the land and other creatures that always rings honest and true. When I think about why I like to garden it always comes back to my desire to be a participant with nature. I came to California as a child from the other side of the world, but now I have become ‘native’ to this place, and it suits me to get to really know this hillside that is now my home ground, rather than seek many others to climb.

I am a student of nature since early childhood, but I have never wanted to be just an observer. I want to be participating in the joy, excitement, and mystery of nature. I want to be fully engaged in this great adventure of being alive, and to experience the kinship of all the ‘others’ with whom I share this beautiful place.

When I’m in my garden, whether I’m strolling along the pathways, inspecting a particular plant, or weeding, I’m also tuned into the sounds and the shadows; feeling the light mists in the early mornings, the soothing warmth of the sunshine, and the challenging winds of the afternoons. I notice the fragrances that pervade the air and that change from one season to the next, as well as from early morning to nightfall. First thing in the morning I can smell the scent of the deer that came for water in the night. In March and April, native Salvias fill the air with the perfume of countless flowers, in May the Showy Milkweeds release an aroma that entices all sorts of creatures to partake of their nectar, and by August the scent of Tarweeds in full bloom turn the warm summer air into honey.

Respecting the Natural Integrity of the Land

Underlying all is a respect for the natural integrity of my oak woodland hillside, my home ground; but I also want to bring nature closer to home in order to integrate it into my everyday life and consciousness. My garden is my Personal Eco-sphere; I nurture it, and it sustains me. It makes my heart sing to partake in the beauty that reveals itself, both artistically and scientifically, in different forms. The bounty of my gardens invites countless wild visitors and sustains me, forming a deep connection with this land which provides me and my family with fruits, vegetables, herbs, and medicinals that help keep body, mind, and spirit in vibrant good health.

I strive to be respectful of all the ‘Others’ that also live here, and be a most benevolent steward of my land. In my Habitat Garden I work to increase the biodiversity, and by doing so can provide enhanced resources for all sorts of creatures to partake of.

I am entranced by the wild ones, and almost every day offers me something new to write about in my journal:

  • Today I saw a gray squirrel with a mouthful of straw heading up an oak to build another nest. 
  • Today I saw the Painted Lady caterpillar that has been building hide-outs in the leaves of the Cobweb Thistles.  
  • Today, April 21st - I heard the call of an Ash-throated Flycatcher in the woods. It arrived early this year from the over-wintering grounds in Baja California, usually the first one arrives at the beginning of May.   
  • Today, May 19th - I saw the first set of twin fawns!
  • Today I saw three larvae on the Pipevine, even though it’s growing close to the ground. The female Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly usually only lays her eggs on the growing tips that are high off the ground.

Each new sighting, each new observation or encounter, or even recognizing something familiar in a new stage or from a different perspective is worth noting, and keeps me in sync with the rhythms and cycles of nature. These cycles help instruct me on the specifics of my land, the native flora and fauna that we share the land with, and also help inform me on how to garden harmoniously with Nature. 

Ecological Principles

A basic principle of the natural world is that “Life itself creates conditions conducive to Life”. The creatures that live here with us have their own ideas about my landscaping and help to create an ‘amiable disorder’ within my garden. As a habitat gardener I really like that, and as much as possible, I  become just an ‘editor’ allowing many volunteer seedlings to grow where they choose.

Another basic principle of Ecology is that “Natural disasters of a medium intensity promote biological diversity.” In my approach to gardening I think of myself as that ‘disaster of medium intensity’; and can play that role in a number of ways. I am a fire when I cut all the chaparral shrubs down to the ground in late summer. I am that tree that fell, smothering all else with its canopy when I sheet-mulch an area. When I turn the compost pile I present a small disaster to all the decomposers, but also an opportunity to reestablish themselves in a different order.

Gardening like this is more than just using a sustainable, organic approach to all the tasks that come with maintaining a garden; it is stewardship of the land, and husbandry of all the natural resources. It is staying tuned into - and respecting - the natural cycles and rhythms of nature.

As a somewhat compulsive plant propagator, I’m quite observant of the phenology of many plants; it’s easy and important to me. Thinking always of potential ‘Mother Plants’; I notice when the first buds break, when the flowers are pollinated and by whom, and when the seeds are maturing. I make it my business to know where the plants are directing their energy when I contemplate creating clones of a particularly beautiful specimen.

Husbanding the Natural Resources

I garden with a ‘light touch’ preserving and enhancing one of the most important natural resources of any piece of land; the soil and it’s accompanying web of life. Very little organic matter ever leaves our property; much of it is composted, and I wouldn’t dream of putting our food scraps in the green can. These valuable bits and pieces feed my red wigglers, or provide the ‘greens’ (nitrogen) to complement the ‘browns’ (carbon) in the bio-stack or compost tumbler.

Downed trees become elaborately built brush piles to provide refuge for a host of creatures; sections of branches line pathways and help sculpt the land on contours. Rotted wood and old, dead twiggy growth gathered from the woodland understory fills the swales, acting like a sponge, and hold moisture for months after the last rain. Weeds are pulled before seed is set, and go to various smaller brush piles and also onto the giant Huglekulture pile. Old pithy stems and floral heads with the remaining seeds or chaff are held in a wild bouquet to offer resources for the birds and places for solitary bees to build their larval cells. All the prunings from the perennial borders are put through a chipper to make a mulch I can use as topdressing, or as a good, balanced source of carbon to nitrogen for the compost pile.

And the leavings of cleaned seeds always get tossed where any remaining seed might have a chance to germinate and grow on. In this way, I become part of the blissful disorder that makes the natural world so appealing.