Natural ecosystems have evolved to have thousands of different species in complex, dynamic balance. As humans take over natural ecosystems with agriculture and development, the richness, balance, and health of these ecosystems is being lost.
Let’s take a look at two ways we can restore the balance of the ecosystem on the land we steward.
- Have a diversity of plants in our yards, preferably plants native to our area.
- Restore the health and balance of the soil.
In North American yards we have very little diversity of species. For example, Kentucky Bluegrass has become dominant. It is a grass species that requires a lot of water and feeding of nutrients to look green and thrive. This has been an environmental disaster unwittingly perpetuated by most homeowners. Kentucky Bluegrass has become the standard for lawns since landscape designers started promoting it at the beginning of the century.
With a moncrop like a Kentucky Bluegrass lawn, many beneficial insects and birds, which keep other pests under control, stay away. People then use chemicals to kill undesirable weeds and insects. This then depletes the life and nutritive value of the soil and thus additional fertilizer is needed. When chemical fertilizers are used, they kill more of the micro-organisms in the soil, so more fertilizer is needed. Many agriculturalists are now saying that this way is not sustainable now or in the long term. Furthermore, 50-75% of chemicals used on a yard end up in our water systems where they wreak havoc on water eco-systems.
To restore bio-diversity in your yard means planting a variety of grasses, trees, shrubs, and perennial flowers. It means having lawn only where you really use it.
If you’re going to have lawn, use grasses that are easy on you and the environment. Sheep’s Fescue, a personal favourite, is a native prairie grass. It stays green without watering, grows slowly, and only grows 6-8 inches high. It lays down in a beautiful swirling pattern so you don’t even need to mow it. You can gradually change your current lawn to Sheep’s Fescue by over-seeding yearly for a few years.
Shrubs, Trees, Perennials
A natural eco-system generally has levels – trees, shrubs and flowers. This strategy provides shelter, building materials, and food (fruits and nuts) for animals, birds and insects (butterflies). It is key is to build from the soil up. Start with compost rich soil before you plant. Next, lay rubber soaker hoses down and cover the soil area with wood mulch. Then you will have a planted area that is easy to water, has few weeds, and will attract butterflies, birds, animals, and people!
Restoring the Soil
Half the organic matter and life in soils world-wide has been lost in the last few hundred years due to chemical use and frequent tilling of soils. All above ground life on the planet depends on 6 inches of topsoil. It’s time we start taking better care of this top soil.
Soil itself contains a rich living eco-system of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and insects such as earthworms. These soil micro-organisms work with plants at their roots to convert the nutrients they need into usable form. In turn, the plants provide nutrients to the organisms. Decaying organic matter (plant material, animal manure) are the main foods for soil organisms and plants.
Compost and Actively Aerated Compost Tea
The best way to restore soil health is to spread compost over it. Compost is decomposed organic matter that is decomposed enough to smell like rich earth and still teeming with all the micro-organisms that created decomposition. Compost created by red wiggler worms is among the best. It’s also easy to have your own worm composting system and use the compost for your houseplants as well as your yard.
One of the most exciting developments over the last decade is the use of actively aerated compost tea to restore soil health. By putting small amounts of compost in water and bubbling air through it for one or two days, the micro-organisms multiply quickly. Then this tea can then be sprayed on soil, lawns, and the leaves of plants to restore the natural micro-organisms that are the basis of soil and plant health.
Dr. Elaine Ingham has founded an international network of Soil Foodweb Labs. These labs are working with farmers and landscapers to develop the best compost tea recipes using different kinds of compost. There are now two Canadian Soil Foodweb labs: in Vulcan, Alberta and at the Jolly Farmer in New Brunswick. Also, farmers are learning to make their own compost tea to spray on their crops to reduce or eliminate their need for pesticides and fertilizers. Compost tea is an inexpensive and effective way to restore soil health and balance. Compost tea can be brewed on a small scale, too, for use in a single yard.