The Benefits of Stewardship (Part 2)
This article is part of a series of articles that we have written on stewardship. In Part 2 of this series, we expand on the ideas introduced in Part 1 by introducing the concept of ecological succession, and providing thoughts and strategies for stewardship actions.
Stewardship and Ecological Succession
In Part 1, we defined stewardship as “the interactive process of guiding an ecological landscape to optimal health through understanding, and working with the processes of nature. It’s related to landscape maintenance, but in a way that minimizes unnecessary work. Stewardship involves relatively small but regular interaction with an ecological landscape, in a way that mitigates the chances of lengthy and costly maintenance being required.”
In order to put all of this into perspective, we need to talk about what some of these ‘processes of nature’ are. One of the most important ecosystem processes to consider here, is the process of ecological succession, which is the process of how ecosystems evolve through time. The word success at its root means ‘outcome’. Success can be seen as the phenomenon of one thing leading to the next, which is why the word has come to be linked to the idea of advancement, such as in a career.
Ecological succession, therefore, is the change of vegetation, soil, and ecosystem functions that occur in an ecosystem as it ages. For example, if you clear out a patch of forest and put a parking lot in its place but stop maintaining it, in relatively short order you will see the pavement crack up and grow a bunch of weeds, and then it may turn into a meadow. Then, some pioneering bushes and trees will start to grow through the meadow, like blackberries and birches. Eventually in their shade beneath the pioneering plants, some long term tree species will appear, eventually shading the pioneers out, yet creating new homes for shade-adapted understory species. Then, one day, a fire burns through, and the cycle begins again. This is the general pattern that you’ll see of any natural ecosystem regardless of where you live or what biome you’re located in. But every locale has its characteristic species that show up along different points of succession.
Understanding succession and how an ecosystem evolves through succession is important for us in stewarding an ecological landscape because it will help us interpret why we are seeing things happen as they do, giving us knowledge and ideas about the forces behind what we see, and therefore how to intervene when we maintain our garden. For example, if your garden is being invaded by quackgrass (Elymus repens), that likely means your garden is in the meadow/grassland phase, signaling the opportunity to grow other competitive meadow species, and establishing productive pioneer shrubs that will eventually shade out and suppress the quackgrass.
It’s a mistake to regard a new ecological landscape as requiring no maintenance. While the degree of maintenance effort needed is quite low as compared to conventional landscapes, and especially that of annual gardens, ecological landscapes do require some maintenance, with most of it being when they are young and establishing. As the project goes through succession, the type of management changes.
The analogy we feel is accurate is that in the first 2 to 3 years after installation (longer if you’re working with a degraded site), an ecological landscape is like an infant, it depends on you to grow as planned. This is known as the early succession phase. After that period, the landscape becomes more like a teenager, gaining some independence and evolving it’s own personality, making its own decisions, but still requiring your supportive hand at key moments. This is known as the mid-succession phase. This period extends all the way to 10 years or so or beyond. reaches a kind of adulthood, where it starts to behave as a whole, and the work you put in is more to do with observing, directing succession, and harvesting. Finally, after many tens of years, the landscape organizes itself into more of a mature forest. Productivity actually goes down, but niches for very unique species become available. You could probably guess, this is known as the late succession phase.
As our landscape moves into the later stages of succession, we may choose to intentionally reset the cycle of succession in our landscape, or parts of it, which is known as a disturbance. Cherry bushes, for instance, thrive at mid-succession, but not as much at the early or late stage. So if you want to maximize cherry production, you will need to make the decision to eventually set the adult stage back to the teenage stage by using methods such as pruning and coppicing of other vegetation. This lets sunlight in and changes the nutrient and water economy in the soil such that the ecosystem is conducive to cherry bushes.
Examples and Applications of Stewardship
Here we will introduce to you some of the key issues we’ve noticed over the years that affect the success of an ecological landscape project, and their potential stewardship responses.
Example 1 – Weed Establishment Not Being Addressed Early On
Weeds getting established before the designed plant community can shade them out is the most common problem we’ve seen facing garden stewards. Unfortunately, once this problem progresses and gets out of hand, it becomes extremely difficult to rectify. We have designed and installed ecological landscapes to replace former permaculture gardens because aggressive competitive weeds have taken over and required an “ecological reset”, going right back to the infant stage, where we had to deeply remove whole parts of the landscape and start anew in order to achieve that clients’ goals. This is obviously time consuming and costly, but luckily it can be avoided with quality stewardship at an early stage.
Some Root Causes
A) Not being able to comfortably identify problematic plants when they are entering the landscape.Becoming a steward of an ecological landscape is going to demand knowing how to recognize the most problematic plants apart from the intentionally planted species, and how often to check for them. The problematic plants present are going to vary from site to site, and from biome to biome. But problematic plants are usually quite known! A good first step will be to acquaint yourself with the key plants in your area through local gardening and permaculture groups.
B) Not using the appropriate method or tactic for dealing with the problematic plant, so that it proliferates even though it’s presence has been recognized. The fundamental solution to this cause is to gather key information about the plant. As mentioned above, gardeners in your area who also deal with the same plants will most likely be able to help you understand this key information, including:
- What is it’s root pattern? This is useful information for knowing how to properly remove the plant. For example, if you choose to remove quackgrass, you actually need to dig out its underground rhizomes; it won’t get you anywhere to just pull it out by the stem. Knowing the root pattern will help you consider other plants with similar root patterns that can be added to compete against the problematic plant, by competing for the same resources in the soil. Alternatively, this knowledge can help you decide on desired plants that have a different root pattern than the problematic plant, actually making it possible to grow certain desired plants right through the problematic plants without much issue.
- What is it’s above-ground form? Much like the point above, this information will either give you insights on other plants you can use to outcompete the problematic plant, or how to choose desired plants that aren’t negatively affected by the structure of the problematic plant.
- How does it spread? Having this information will help you decide on strategies to mitigate the problematic plant from propagating itself readily. For example, quackgrass spreads by explorative underground rhizomes about 6 inches below the surface in most conditions. This is why most landscape edging (which is around 4 inches deep) will not actually work to block this plant from entering a site. Some plants can be used as “barrier plants” in conjunction with landscape edging because they have extremely dense root systems which can act as barriers to slow down spread when they are planted thick enough, such as common daylily (Hemerocallis fulva).
Weed Management Strategies
Given the points discussed above, here are some examples of practical stewardship strategies for addressing the challenge of managing problematic plants:
- The first path is to remove the vegetation when it is young before it begins to spread, and ensure the ecological niche in which it thrives is occupied by a desirable plant. For example, as quackgrass is removed, it should be replaced with plants that have more numerous benefits. For example, Goldenrod (Solidago sp.) is great because it offers some of the best habitat sites for beneficial insects, and are edible and medicinal (young leaves, flowers for tea). Goldenrod has a similar ecological niche to quackgrass, and thus it will help mitigate the recurrence of quackgrass. And we can already hear some of you asking: “now, won’t Goldenrod become the new problem?” The quick answer is: only if you regard Goldenrod as a problem. A gooseberry bush or a rhubarb plant, for example, will have no problem growing over it, thus shading out and checking the growth and spread of Goldenrod.
- The other path is to actually work with rather than against many of the most pernicious weeds. As an example, Creeping Bellflower mentioned above is a loathed “zombie weed” in Alberta, but it can actually co-exist and complement certain plant communities in the food forest and it has an edible root. For example, if Creeping Bellflower is taking over a patch in the landscape, we regard that as an opportunity to create a dig and replant plant community containing other perennial root crop plants such as Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus), as both species thrive in a similar water and nutrient ecosite. The root pattern of these plants is such that the Jerusalem Artichoke won’t be negatively affected, what’s more, the Jerusalem Artichoke may eventually outcompete the Creeping Bellflower, and the digging during harvest time will act to keep the remaining Creeping Bellflower population in check. This is an experimental approach, and while there’s differing opinions around which solutions work best, especially with this plant, using this approach you should end up with less Creeping Bellflower.his approach embraces working with the problematic plant, rather than trying to remove it, by partnering other desirable plants with it that aren’t endangered by its presence.
Example 2 – Herbivory causing damage to young plants
Many of the plants we intend to grow to achieve our landscaping goals also aptly fulfill the goals of herbivores (like rabbits, deer, and voles) as well! While it’s easy to regard herbivory as a problem, it is in fact an important constituent of the glue that binds ecosystems together that we all depend upon. This conversation is about how to manage herbivory in a way that it also works for your landscaping goals.
In urbans environments, we have seen a lot of young fruit bushes get wiped out by herbivores such as jackrabbits after being planted. When we are stewarding a new landscape, we frequently need to protect the young plants by using a temporary wildlife fencing to act as a physical barrier, such as metal fencing or wire mesh, to block the herbivores. We recommend that you use a heavier gauge material such as stucco wire or hardware cloth, as we’ve seen the amazing power of jackrabbits to chew through heavy plastic fencing and even chicken wire! In addition, we also typically use a wire mesh around the trunks of new trees that is only removed once the bark on the trunk gets thick enough to resist damage from rabbits and voles.
Once the vulnerable plants reach a certain height where they can withstand herbivory, the temporary wildlife fence gets removed. We’ve noticed that when the temporary wildlife fencing is removed and the herbivores return and clip off the lower branches, they create space for other crops to grow beneath, and the herbivores leave their nutrient-rich droppings at the same time! Win-win for everyone. This strategy can be applied across several scales. In cities, rabbits browse shrubs, in the countryside, deer browse trees. In both cases, vulnerable plants need to be protected long enough for them to achieve heights where they won’t be decimated; at the same time the problem can turn around and become a solution. The job of the steward is to observe if damage from herbivores is happening or could happen, determine when protective measures are needed, and when they can be removed.
Example 3 – Problems with Desired Plant Establishment
Plant establishment failure can be a very real problem after an ecological landscape has been installed. We typically see a plant success rate of 80-90% in our residential food forest installations as an example. But we’ve also noticed another key pattern; plant establishment in landscapes that have an active steward who takes over the care of the landscape in its young stages is substantially better than ones that don’t have a steward. We have come to the realization that ensuring a knowledgeable steward is reliably present, or a budget is made to hire a steward, can significantly protect the investment made in the landscape installation.
Factors that affect plant establishment that we’ve noticed:
A) Lack of adequate water applied. Once properly chosen plants for an ecological landscape have been established, they should rarely ever need to be watered by a human again; they only need to be watered from the sky. Newly installed plants will have just come from pots or plugs, so they don’t have any substantial root mass to acquire water other than what is immediately next to them. The amount of water needed to help the plants establish is influenced by where the planting site is located (wind, sun, soil type, etc.). But as a general rule, the planting site should be kept evenly moist within 2 inches of the surface all the time, which is easily checked by inserting your finger into the soil. This will require the necessary frequency of site visits to ensure enough monitoring and watering such that the soil doesn’t ever dry out beyond this benchmark.
B) Lack of mulch material to prevent wind and direct sunlight from striking the soil. For many plant communities, we’ve been using short-growing annual plants such as Crimson Clover as a living mulch that grows between newly planted perennials to protect them from wind and direct sun (note, if seeded too thickly, it can start to compete with the designed plants). We have found that it is very important that the steward regularly monitors the newly planted space to ensure that the mulch layer is present, and where it’s not, being sure to place mulch or plant cover crops. When this approach is followed, we have noticed that as soon as the following season, the designed perennial plants in the project begin to explode with growth, effectively replacing the function that mulch and cover crops play, covering the soil themselves in the process. This is always a great and fun sign to see.
The role of stewardship in any ecological design is very important. In fact, we have seen first hand the impacts that reliable and quality stewardship has on the success of ecological landscape projects. Good design goes a long way, however without good stewardship, particularly for the period immediately after project installation, the landscape can be compromised, in some cases quite severely. We see stewardship as an opportunity for people to engage with their landscapes in a way that connects people intimately to the ecosystem. The table below illustrates how stewardship practices can be used at different stages in the succession of an ecological landscape, and gives examples of how the steward can actively guide or influence succession to meet certain goals.
|Approx. Timeframe (years)
|Maintenance & Management Tasks
|Very early (upon project completion) – Landscape contains newly installed herbaceous plants that are tiny and do not have developed roots. Ground between the new plants is cover cropped, mulched, or bare.
|Early – Landscape is beginning to develop. The installed herbaceous plants are now growing in size, and have begun propagating themselves, starting to cover the ground between their original planting sites. Shrubs are putting on new growth, however larger planted trees are still growing slowly as they develop their roots.
|Mid – The landscape explodes with new growth, and starts to look quite different from when it was installed. Herbaceous perennial plants are in full stature, and many have propagated themselves throughout the landscape. Trees and shrubs have all established and have begun to grow vigorously, quickly becoming many times their original size. Most of the life of an ecological landscape that we experience in a lifetime will be in mid succession. Food forests are especially at their most productive at this stage.
|3 – 10 and beyond (depending on biome)
|Late – The explosive growth of plants in the landscape gives way to mature forest, which supports certain species that thrive in the forest conditions. This is a state the seventh generation will enjoy, this stage typically won’t happen in the steward’s lifetime, unless an ecological landscape is implemented within an existing tree canopy.
|50 & beyond
Stewardship is about understanding and intervening, in a way that flows along with the successional processes of nature, to guide the evolution of the landscape such that it can become a resilient system that creates opportunities for life, and provide you and the world with valuable ecological services. Stewardship is actually really fun and fulfilling, where the steward sees phenomena in the landscape not as problems, but as evidence of the beautiful story of life unfolding in its myriad ways, where our interventions are in harmony and congruence with that story.
Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us if you would like to learn more about stewardship. As mentioned in Part 1 of the series, we are offering stewardship services through the Ecological Landscape Stewardship Program, read more about it here!
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