Nature is an excellent gardener. Take a walk through any pristine boonies and you’ll be amazed at the beauty of what grows untended. I’d never consider combining flowers in shades of fuchsia, orange, yellow, and blue, but when nature does it, we stand in awe. Ferns tucked alongside waterfalls, acres of wildflowers, pink Oxalis carpeting the ground under towering redwoods—it’s all stunning.
As gardeners, we’re learned that imitating nature often reaps rewards—healthier plants grown with fewer resources, and a landscape that just feels right.
For example, have you ever noticed that bare ground is rare in nature? Forest floors are buried in fallen leaves or pine needles. The prairies were once covered with grasses, before we plowed them up. Even the desert has a gravel mulch. When you remove those covers, you run into problems. Stripping the grasses off the prairies led to the Dust Bowl. Running motorcycles and ATVs across the desert leaves eroding tracks that will still be there a hundred years from now.
When we mulch or plant ground covers, we’re following a pattern that has been successful for millions of years. We can analyze it all, and conclude that mulches insulate roots, keeping them frozen in cold winters and not too hot in summer. Mulches mitigate fluctuations in soil moisture levels, make earthworms and other soil denizens happy, and prevent the germination of weeds that would compete with more desirable plants. But the point is that nature mulches, and we should pay attention.
And what about those weed seeds? They lie dormant in the soil for years, biding their time. But when the cover is stripped away, they’re first to sprout. Weeds play an important role in preventing water runoff and soil erosion, until more permanent plants can get established. That explains why we battle against weeds in our gardens—they’re just trying to do their job. If we don’t want weeds, we shouldn’t give them such an opportunity.
Aspens play a similar role in the forest. They don’t do well when shaded out by mature conifers. But should a rock slide or avalanche create a break in the forest canopy, aspens quickly move in. Their connected root systems stabilize the forest, and their dappled shade provides a sheltered spot for seedling pines and firs. Aspen eventually succumb to the many insects and diseases they’re subject to, and the evergreens once again reign supreme.
Remember this when debating whether or not to include aspens in your garden. Yes, they’re gorgeous. But their purpose in nature is to send out dozens of runners that quickly grow into more trees. And, especially at our relatively lower elevations, they don’t live long. They don’t make good landscape plants.
We imitate nature in ways we don’t even realize. In the wild, herds of bison, antelope, and other herbivores graze the grassy plains. Grasses have adapted to being munched—and tend to be healthier if browsed. Of course, most of us don’t have large herbivores in our yards (although I do have herds of grass-munching rabbits), but we simulate that grazing when we mow our lawns.
Studies have shown that when it comes to nature, we humans tend to prefer areas of mixed fields and forests. And if you venture into that forest, you’ll find tall trees that form the canopy, large and medium sized shrubs that make up the understory, and small plants called forbs*—ferns, wildflowers, etc.—close to the ground. Unsurprisingly, as I walk around the neighborhood we live in, I see yards with trees, shrubs, flowers, and groundcovers, often lawns. Leave out any component, as some neighbors have done, and there’s a sense that something is missing, that the yard is incomplete.
Gardening books and websites abound; they’re fun to read, and I do. But we have the best garden advice available for free. Take a nature hike, and see how the expert does it.
* “Forbs” is the botanical term for small, flowering plants that don’t have woody stems. Examples include perennial and annual flowers, ferns, and herbs. Compare forbs to shrubs, which have twigs and hard stems, and grasses, which are their own thing.