What is an ecological garden?

An ecological garden is a landscape that mimics natural ecosystems with increased abundance, beauty, and diversity. The ecological garden is built on a foundation of native plant communities but also includes plants that meet human needs. It provides habitat for birds, beneficial insects, wildlife, food, flowers, medicines and herbs for humans. An ecological garden is based on a set of design principles that include gardening with nature, gardening for biological diversity, and grouping plants into self-sustaining communities or guilds. (adapted from Hemenway, Toby. Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-scale Permaculture. Chelsea Green, 2001.).

Native plants provide the backbone of the ecological garden. Plants are selected and grouped into plant communities based on their ecological functions and human uses. As a result the gardener or farmer spends less time managing weeds and pests and more time managing the diversity, variety and harvests from the garden. Ecological landscapes are about cultivating relationships not just plants – relationships between birds and berry bushes, between bees and insectory plants, and between humans and plant foods and medicines.

What does and ecological garden look like?

The ecological garden is a complex landscape where plants are grouped together into plant guilds. A red oak plant guild may include berry bushes, vines, perennials, vegetables, and herbal groundcovers. The ecological garden represents a new landscape aesthetic that:

  • Reflects the "special identity" of a site and works with the rhythm of the seasons, changing over time
  • Brings nature back into the space - the natural space becomes a place of use and movement
  • Is enhanced by the human cultures living in an area
  • Reflects the natural cycles of the seasons - birth, growth, and decay become part of the natural landscape
  • Touches all the senses - bringing a variety of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures to the site
  • Supports an abundance of life with its many layers and niches

An ecological landscape is designed for both the vertical and horizontal topographies of a site. In a complex forest garden the vertical topography may include up to seven layers – canopy, subcanopy, shrub, perennial, groundcover, vine and root. The horizontal topography takes into account different microclimates – elevated areas that may be drier, depressed areas that may be wetter, and northern exposures that may be subject to colder temperatures.

Why is Minnesota a good place for ecological gardens?

Minnesota is home to an unusually rich and diverse environment. Three of North America's ecological regions converge in Minnesota: coniferous forest, deciduous woods, and tallgrass prairie. Water in its many forms is a prominent feature of Minnesota's landscape. Lakes and ponds number over fifteen thousand and three of North America's major drainage systems begin in the state.

The Twin Cities metropolitan area is located in the deciduous woods, a species-rich extension of the eastern deciduous woods with numerous plant species occurring on the very western edge of their range. It is also located in the transitional zone between the tallgrass prairie and the coniferous forest. This patchwork mosaic we call home provides a wealth of biological diversity and an abundant palette of plants to choose from.

The health and stability of the place we call home is being threatened by global climate change. This makes it even more important to build resiliency and diversity into the landscape. We have designed a variety of "carbon capture" gardens to take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in plants and soil. Growing some of your own food is another way to reduce your carbon footprint. We have designed some "edible gardens" to help you do just that.

What is natural capital?

Building Natural Capital on Your Land
An Investment that Pays and Re-pays for Years to Come

Would you like to:

  • Maintain beautiful self-sustaining gardens organically?
  • Pick fresh, nutrient-dense foods from your own landscape?
  • Plant perennial foods that last for decades without tilling?
  • Create habitat for the nature you love?
  • Build resiliency into your landscape to help fight climate change?

These are all products of natural capital. Our first priority at Ecological Gardens is to help you increase the natural capital of your land. This means assessing the unique combination of resources – sunlight, wind, water, and microclimates – and turning them into productive investments that will yield benefits today and for many years to come.

Soil is the foundation for natural capital in our northern temperate climate. Healthy soil creates a condition for healthy plants, produces nutrient-dense foods for humans and wildlife, reduces water use, and minimizes leaching and runoff. Building healthy soil usually requires an investment since most soils are compacted and chemically treated.

Plants are the primary producers of value on the land. They take up sunlight, water, and nutrients turning them into nutritious foods, medicines, fibers, fuels, oils, and wood. Increasing productivity on your land requires an initial investment since plants of low productivity tend to dominate the landscape.

Your return on investment will vary depending on the size of your land and the configuration of resources but will increase exponentially as plant diversity and abundance grows.

Short-term returns (1-5 years)

  • Lower outdoor use water bills (up to 30%)
  • Lower maintenance costs for fertilizers and lawn care products
  • Lower food bills as you begin to harvest food, flowers and medicines
  • Greater wildlife value (bees, birds, and beneficial insects)
  • Greater beauty
  • Intermediate returns (5-15 years)
  • Lower energy costs for air conditioning and heating by strategically locating trees and vines
  • Lower labor requirements as natural processes begin to work for you
  • Increased property values due to abundance and beauty
  • Increased food security as you provide more of your own food

Long-term returns (15 + years)

  • Lower fuel costs as you begin to harvest your own wood [for larger properties]
  • Increased productivity as your land matures

What is permaculture?

Permaculture (Permanent Culture) is an ethical design system that seeks to create human landscapes that have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other needs in a sustainable way. Ecological Gardens applies permaculture design principles to all our landscapes.

Do I have enough room for an ecological garden?

An ecological garden can fit into a very small area or a broad acre landscape. The size is not what's important. What is important is the selection of plants to perform the necessary ecological roles. For example, if you plant an apple tree you need to include plants that fix nitrogen, plants that provide food for pollinators, and plants that create a barrier for grass.

Do I need to know a lot about plants to create and maintain an ecological garden?

No, you do not need to be an ecologist to create and maintain an ecological garden. You do, however, need to understand some basics about maintaining healthy plants and soils. Ecological Gardens can help you develop that knowledge.

Does an ecological garden require a lot of time and money?

Initially all landscaping requires some time and money. The payback of an ecological landscape is that this decreases over time. Less labor is required because the plant community is designed to minimize weeds, pests, and water. Less money is required because the plants that are selected are suited to your site. The purchase of fertilizers and other inputs will decrease over time as the plant community develops.