The Benefits of Stewardship (Part 1)
This article is part of a series of articles that we will be writing on stewardship. In Part 1 of this series, we will highlight the importance of stewardship, illuminate some key aspects of quality stewardship that we have found to be critical for the success of ecological landscape projects after installation, and outline a four-stage Stewardship Cycle that you can enact in your maintenance practices.
Over the past 10 years, we have gained a lot of experience designing and installing ecological landscapes, which has led us to the knowledge that ecological landscapes demand different strategies and techniques in their installation and maintenance than conventional landscapes. Throughout this experience we’ve noticed that the success of a newly installed ecological landscape project is directly linked to the quality of stewardship it receives. The amount of time spent on stewardship (especially when a landscape is young) will directly reduce the amount of time that will need to be spent on long-term maintenance. And the converse is also true; if time is not spent on stewardship when the landscape is young, then there will be an increase in long-term maintenance. This being said, the benefit of an ecological landscape over a conventional landscape is that when stewardship is undertaken from the beginning, then maintenance will decrease over time.
Stewardship is the process of interacting with an ecological landscape by making decisions to guide its growth over time (called ecological succession, which we will explore more in Part 2 of this series) and its productivity, while upholding the goals and intended function of the landscape project. In our experience, stewardship differs from landscape maintenance in that it embraces change and adaptability, whereas landscape maintenance typically involves a regimented protocol for holding a landscape in a predetermined state that is defined by the caretaker of the project. In this view, stewardship is dynamic, where the steward facilitates the landscape to evolve in response to challenges and opportunities, and even changing goals. Maintenance, in contrast, is just that – a maintenance of status quo. It is the very definition of working against nature, where challenges and opportunities are rarely met with adaptations; instead they are met with greater force and energy to hold things as they are.
Stewardship has the beautiful and harmonious aspect of working with the processes of nature. The use of pesticides, herbicides, and other forms of intervention that create a reliance on the use of these measures is discouraged. Instead, ecological stewardship is about understanding, and then working with the processes of nature to arrive at effective and resilient management solutions.
Ecological landscape design applications such as food forestry, are allowed, and arguably must, go through ecological succession and therefore change over time to be healthy. As noted above, conventional landscapes and their design are static, where they are maintained to be similar in composition to their initial design over time. These landscapes can require a lot of maintenance to work against the forces of nature because anything in nature is hardwired to go through succession and therefore change.
Ecological landscapes use this propensity to undergo change to their advantage. For example, plant community composition can change in such a way that weeds get competed out. Unexpected problematic phenomena, such as pest attacks, can be alleviated by fast tracking soil health and incorporating aromatic plants into the community, among others. The key agent for recognizing and harmonizing with nature, and directing appropriate changes and their inherent advantages, is the steward.
We can see that stewardship is 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.
The Stewardship Cycle
Observation – The first responsibility of the steward is to observe. Anything could happen in an ecosystem. Unexpected vegetation could appear, certain plants could get decimated by pests, water could not be harvested into the landscape as intended, etc. For example, we worked on a food forest that we observed to be overrun with gophers, disturbing the root systems of newly planted fruit trees.
Interpretation – The second stage is to interpret. When different things are observed, this responsibility translates into determining the root causes of the phenomenon being observed. In the example of the gophers in the food forest, one of the theories we learned, after some time spent on interpreting the ecology and behaviour of gophers, was that they prefer landscapes with sparse vegetation cover over the soil. This is because it’s much easier for gophers to spot predators in open environments; but in thick vegetation, they are much easier ambushed by snakes and other predators. The thinking involved in this step will help frame if an intervention is necessary.
Intervention – The third objective is to intervene. This is the stage where some sort of action is taken, based on the interpretation of the phenomenon, to yield an intended result. Following with the example above, the decided intervention was to add a layer of wood mulch to the soil surface, followed by planting thick and tall herbaceous supporting vegetation to make for an unattractive environment for the gophers.
Monitoring – The fourth step is to monitor. It is likely that the intervention is based on a theory, not a fact, and therefore it’s very possible that there will be a layer of experimentation to the intervention. This is why it’s crucial to monitor. In this case, all data is good data. If the intervention works, that’s great! If it doesn’t, that’s good too, because the steward will gain deeper knowledge of the landscape in pursuit of interventions that do work. We’re happy to say that during the monitoring phase of the food forest example above, the intervention worked!
Repeat – The final step is to repeat! As you practice stewardship, this cycle will become more of a habit, and it can also be enjoyable to observe and record the changes that you are witnessing and affecting in your ecological landscape.
The stewardship of an ecological landscape is a proactive approach to its maintenance, and is a process that changes, adapts, and works with nature. As such, the steward is an active player in the process and makes decisions on how to guide the growth and evolution of the landscape in such a way that maximizes its health and expresses the goals behind the landscape; be it a reliable source of food, ecological restoration, or some other goal. The best time to start practicing stewardship is with a newly installed landscape, but it’s also not too late if you’ve had one installed for several years. Good stewardship will actually amount to quite a lot less work required than what would be expected with conventional landscape maintenance, especially as the landscape ages, where its designed ecosystem services will come to aid in its health.
Given the importance of stewardship, we have recognized the need to launch an Ecological Landscape Stewardship Program as part of our service offerings. We will work directly with you to steward your ecological landscape to ensure its success, and build your capacity and confidence to become its long term steward. Read about the stewardship program here!
In Part 2 of this series of articles of stewardship, we explain the concept of ecological succession, and give you some insights on real world applications of stewardship practices.
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