Gardening Ecology: Basic Life Supporting Systems (Part 1)

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Ecological Gardening

This is a guest post by Jonathan White of Food4Wealth

This is Part 1 in a series about the basic ecology of a garden and how it helps to restore our basic life-supporting systems. This includes water, air and soil.

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The breakdown of our food growing systems poses one of the biggest threats to our survival. Our existence depends upon our agricultural systems, but what do our agricultural systems depend on? The answer: water, air and soil. These basic elements support all life-forms and without them, life as we know it cannot be sustained.

In nature, food grows as part of an ecosystem. An ecosystem is an ecological system that is made up of many biological parts, or components, that all interact with one another. These components are mostly made up of organisms such as plants and animals. They feed on each other and depend on each others’ presence to survive.

Just as plant and animal components are dependent on each other, basic life-supporting systems – water, air and soil – are also dependent on each another. For example, the flow of air affects rainfall and rainfall affects the flow of air. In addition, life-supporting systems are dependent on the components and vice versa. For example, soil is created by plants and plants are created by soil. In summary, components are dependent on life-supporting systems and the life-supporting systems are dependent on components. However, it gets even more complicated than that.

Monoculture farmer holding grain in his hands.

Within the basic life-supporting systems – water, air and soil – there are sub-systems. If we take a look at water, it can be broken up into many sub-systems, including: rainfall, surface water, ground water, humidity and transpiration. It is not necessary (or even possible) to understand everything that’s going on within an ecosystem, however it is very important to understand this:

Each and every component, system and sub-system is important in running the overall ecosystem. When you disturb one, the others start to fall apart.  

Humans once lived as part of ecosystems. We were just one of many ecological components within an ecosystem. We were also part of the food chain; sometimes preyed upon, but mostly a predator. When we discovered cultivation we discovered many advantages, such as being able to grow staple crops in relative density. By clearing an area of its natural components we have been able to increase the quantity of a single, useful component such as a commercial crop.

A typical farming operation strives to eliminate as many ecological components as possible so that a predetermined yield of a specific crop can be obtained. For example, a farmer sows 10 acres of wheat and expects to achieve a yield within a certain range. If it’s a good year he will achieve the upper end of the range and if it’s a bad year he will achieve the lower end of the range. This offers him a relatively secure livelihood and he can live his life in accordance to the money he makes from his predetermined yield. It makes perfect sense from an economic point of view.

However, this only works when the basic life-supporting systems are working, hence, adequate water, air and soil. The problem is that these basic systems are part of an ancient ecosystem that is long gone. The soils that we now grow crops in were part of a natural ecosystem and the millions of components that once existed were a critical part of keeping the basic life-supporting systems healthy and functioning.

By stripping the land of natural components we start to see the degradation of the basic life-supporting systems – water, soil and air. When a large number of living components are removed, these natural systems break down because the components and the systems are interrelated. As a diversity of plants and animals are replaced with a single species of crop, we start to see effects on the way the basic water, air and soil systems operate. Water moves faster and is not filtered by a variety of plants. This usually lowers the ground water and leaves the surface hotter and drier. The hotter surface moves the air in different ways causing rain clouds to travel away from the area causing localized drought conditions. Overall fertility is lost from soils as water moves out of the system at a greater rate. The temperatures are hotter in summer and colder in winter as there are fewer plants to thermoregulate the area. Rainfall becomes more unpredictable as the air current is affected by hotter ground temperatures. It eventually gets difficult to grow the commercial crop.

to be continued…

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About Jonathan White

Jonathan White, B.App.Sci. Assoc. Dip.App. Sci. is a self-employed landscape designer, Environmental Scientist, and environmental consultant. He's the founder of the Food4Wealth system, an eBook and video package that teaches you how to set up and maintain an ecological vegetable garden. For more information, please visit Food4Wealth.

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