Creating Organic Landscapes in Harmony with Nature

Organic gardening has become second nature to me over the years, probably as second nature as chemical gardening is to many gardeners today. And in the beginning, even though I had a strong family background in organic farming, the emphasis on using chemicals to routinely solve gardening problems supplanted organic gardening. It was only after failing at chemical gardening did I decide to really study the issue of organic gardening to see if I could be a successful Texas Panhandle gardener.

In the beginning, it was not easy to move away from what I was taught as a Master Gardener, specifically, that plants would not get enough nitrogen from the soil, even well composted soil. I was taught that nitrogen fertilizers needed to be added in addition to any soil amending with organic matter. This teaching, of course, was reinforced by corporate fertilizer advertising and advice offered from local supply outlets.

Our local soils are deficient, by and large of organic matter, and the amounts that needed to be added to the soil seemed enormous. Was it so harmful to add chemical fertilizers in addition to amending the soil with organic matter? Why do organic publications and organic certification discourage and prohibit this practice? This specific question led me to study our soils, how to amend compacted clay soils for particular plants, what plants work better and best under our climate and soil conditions and finally, just what is necessary for low maintenance, low water-use beautifully thriving gardens.

I now believe the answer lies in gardening the organic way, without the use of salt-based chemical fertilizers and without the use of herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, and other “cides”. I believe this not out of blind “faith” of what I've read in organic magazines or books, but out of my actual practice in my garden, and in other gardens I've planted. I believe this because of the experiences of others. I have seen in my own landscape, beneficial micro and macro life return, weed and pest problems diminish within one to three years of practicing organic principles. When organic practices are coupled with the seven basic principles of gardening (xeriscape gardening), gardening does indeed become easy and fun. The gardener also becomes knowledgeable, observant and analytical, studying occurrences in the landscape. The gardener will know when action is called for, and when just waiting for the natural order to keep the balance and harmony with nature is all that's needed.

This organic gardening section, and this website, is not about agriculture practices, or gardening to feed the world, or a debate whether food produced on organic soil is healthier than food produced by chemical fertilizers. It is simply a section of my website on how to garden successfully without the use of synthetic chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, miticides, etc. It's not just about gardening “naturally”, whatever that means. It is all about how to build, how to create, or allow the natural processes to act as they are meant to act, in a more sustainable ecosystem than current traditional practices. This organic section is about how the average home gardener can garden in harmony with nature in the Texas Panhandle, or elsewhere by adjusting for differences in soil and climate.

It is all about creating home gardens that are

  • Beautifully thriving
  • Low water-use
  • Low maintenance and
  • Ecologically friendly.

In Harmony with Nature

There is a balance in nature as sure as the rising and setting of the sun each and every day on our earthly horizon. Each day the sun comes up, and each day it goes down. You can set your clocks by it. If the balance that exists and allows the rising and setting of the sun were altered enough, things would change. Fortunately for us on Planet Earth, this has not happened. Altered enough, our life would cease to exist.

It is the same in nature. If there were no balanced ecosystems, life on earth would have ceased to exist. But from time to time this balance is disturbed enough where some life does cease to exist. Sometimes natural climate factors change enough to disturb an ecosystem's balance. Sometimes it is a man-made change to the environment that affects one form of life or another. Often changes are minor and affect few species, other changes are major and affect the ecosystem enough to where it ceases to function effectively. Where on the one hand, ecosystems do have a delicate balance, on the other hand, ecosystems have a good deal of latitude and resilience.

Just as any one negative, minor factor will not end an ecosystem, any one positive (building) factor will not completely make the system whole. But making any positive changes improves the system. Making many positive changes (and eliminating negative practices) creates dramatic improvement. As a gardener, our role is in fostering the factors that favor the natural system over factors that damage it.

Gardening Principles

Occasionally, one's landscape may already be subject to a weed or pest problem that needs to be dealt with before beginning organic gardening. Although organic gardening does not include the use of chemicals, I also believe that initial, discriminate use of herbicides or pesticides may be called for if the problem is large enough. But once the problem is contained, organic practices, over time, will prevent the problem from re-occurring. Organic gardening does not rely on chemical intervention, as in traditional gardening. Chemicals are not used as a management system and should not be thought of as a fall back remedy.

Even after decades of chemical abuse, converting a home landscape to an ecologically friendly haven is not as difficult as one might think. The ecological systems are in place ready to function normally. Our job as gardeners is to recognize these systems and learn how they work, aid them when necessary, then step out of the way and let them interact without detrimental interference. A major part of the puzzle lies in amending the soil for proper drainage and aeration and increasing organic content. Through the introduction and stimulation of beneficial microbial life and the addition of organic matter, nature begins to immediately heal itself, when damaged.

The term ecologically friendly is interchangeable with organic gardening. The principles I follow are from Malcolm Beck's book, The Garden-ville Method, Lessons in Nature, (AMS Publications, San Antonio, Third Edition, 1998). These six principles are widely used as the standard in understanding and creating organic landscapes, whether in the home or in agriculture.

These six principles are:

  1. Always use the best-adapted varieties for each environment.
  2. Plant in the preferred season.
  3. Balance the mineral content of the soil.
  4. Build and maintain the soil organic content – humus.
  5. Do nothing to harm the beneficial soil life.
  6. Consider troublesome insects and diseases as symptoms of one of the above rules’ having been violated.

These six principles are no harder to understand than the seven basic principles of gardening. In fact, they are entwined and work together.

  1. Plan and design
  2. Analyze and amend the soil
  3. Create practical turf areas
  4. Choose appropriate plants
  5. Efficient irrigation
  6. Use mulch
  7. Practice appropriate maintenance

Together, these two sets of principles are the most powerful tool in the gardener's toolkit. From these principles you'll be able to create beautifully thriving gardens that are low maintenance, low water-use and of course, ecologically friendly.

Ecologically friendly means instituting a system of gardening that promotes a diversified ecology; a garden ecology that works within its own garden community to foster not only survival, but also a beautifully, fully functioning ecosystem. Once you set the system, the soil food web, in place, macro and microorganisms above and below ground work together to help sustain your garden. These macro and microorganisms are the organisms that give life to the soil. They will do a lot of work for you if you give them the chance to live and grow.

Practices in Creating Organic Landscapes

What does it mean to garden in harmony? Gardening in harmony with nature does not mean just using native plants in unamended soil. To me, it means letting the natural helpers do their job and assisting by providing food for soil microbes. Working with nature means using plants that are suited to our climate and conditions, using micro-niches within our landscapes and providing soil amending to enhance growth. Gardening in harmony is cooperative gardening at its best – implementing the practices that compliment the natural growth and health of the plants. Cooperative gardening is keeping the needs of the plant first, rather than rigid maintenance schedules or forcing our image of what the plant should look like or do.

Combining the six principles of organic gardening and the seven principles of xeriscape gardening, sixteen practices aid in creating organic landscapes in harmony with nature. I've organized them into three groups: above and below ground, below ground practices and practices a gardener performs above ground.

Simply, to create an ecologically friendly landscape, follow these steps:

Above and Below Ground Practices

  • Do nothing to harm the beneficial soil life --
    • stop using herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, miticides – chemicals that kill.
    • stop using chemical fertilizers.

Below Ground Practices

  • Analyze your soil.
  • Begin to re-mediate the soil by adding organic and inorganic amendments and stimulating microbial growth.
  • Balance the mineral content of the soil.
  • Revitalize beds and borders.
  • Minimize subsequent soil disturbance.

Above Ground Practices

  • Recognize your micro niches and implement them into your plan, into your design.
  • Create a habitat that attracts, feeds and shelters beneficial insects.
  • Always use the best-adapted species and varieties for each environment.
  • Plant in the preferred season.
  • Re-mediate lawns by dethatching, aeration, topdressing and foliar applications.
  • Use water efficiently in your landscape, not over or under watering.
  • Compost and recycle yard waste
  • Replenish organic matter spring and fall
  • Use mulches.
  • Consider troublesome insects and diseases as symptoms of one of the above rules having been violated -- follow the practices of Integrated Pest Management to prevent, identify, assess, and manage landscape problems.