Build a Backyard Edible Ecosystem

Use compost, yard waste, and recycled paper to construct a small permaculture ecosystem that supports your food garden.

| June/July 2018

Fruits, vegetables, and flowers can transform neighborhoods into abundant, beautiful, healthy environments. If we plant fruit trees, berry bushes, and herbs, we can begin to form new food landscapes throughout our communities. The best way to start this process is by building a small edible ecosystem in your backyard that includes a simple compost system that will become the bed for your perennial food plants.

What’s an Edible Ecosystem?

An edible ecosystem is a planned garden that features diverse food plants that complement each other’s forms and functions, imitating the structure of a natural ecosystem. I create ecosystems that include a mix of three or more varieties of herbs, berries, and fruit trees, along with beneficial fungi, which all work together to produce an abundance of food. These miniature permaculture gardens also provide space to trial potential food plant guilds and propagate new plants to share with your community.

By starting small and trialing different combinations of perennial food species, you can learn what works well and then share that successful design with your neighbors. For instance, if a certain berry cultivar is delicious and works well with a ground cover of thyme, you can suggest that design to others in your area. You’ll also be able to turn your garden into a nursery source for propagating other sites in your yard and community.

Permaculture Gardens Mimic Nature

A well-designed edible ecosystem will offer improved yields and require less maintenance than a traditional food garden by mimicking the form and function of natural ecosystems. Form refers to the different canopy and root shapes and the plant sizes used — fruit trees, berry bushes, and ground covers have notably different forms. You can maximize water, nutrient, and sunlight use within your garden plot by layering diverse leaf and root profiles.

Function refers to plants with different — and complementary — life cycles. This is the premise behind companion planting in any environment. For instance, a larger fruit tree can shelter smaller plants from wind and heat; ground covers, such as thyme, can keep out weeds; herbs can confuse pests; and grapes can use another plant’s stems for a trellis. Some plants have coevolved to form symbiotic relationships, and some plants simply work well together in a planned ecosystem.

Compost Spot to Garden Plot

Pay attention to the useful waste materials available in your community, from home food compost and paper recycling to yard waste, bagged leaves, and downed twigs and branches. In combination with backyard soil, small straw bales, and bagged potting mix or compost, you can easily create an edible ecosystem in any 8-by-8-foot space. Use small square hay bales to form the borders of the garden, and fill the central space with layers of debris, compost, and topsoil. Woody debris will keep the composting layer aerobic by creating air space, while compost will provide nutrients for microorganisms. Recycled paper and dry yard waste will serve as mulch to prevent weeds from growing and to retain moisture for your edible perennials.

7/6/2018 1:37:30 PM

Do Pine needles make good compost? I have so many laying in my field next to the house...for years!!!

6/12/2018 1:48:44 PM

There is no easy way to get rid of Bermuda, but I quit watering for several months and the grass is definitely weakened. I tried cardboard, landscape cloth and several inches of soil, and then solarization. Big waste of time. Bermuda loves lasagna gardening, so you're right, you have to get rid of it first. I had a guy with a bulldozer scrape down about 3 inches, and leave it in piles off to the side. Sod remover would work as well to get the majority. Test and see how far down your rhizomes go and set the remover accordingly. The patches that are left are manageable. We have heavy clay so you can't just pull it out. I get the area I'm working in moist the day before so I can work the next day with a spading fork and dig it up. Eventually I plan to sift through the dirt piles and distribute it back, but it looks like by now most of those rhizomes are pretty dried up. Rhizomes are what you want to get out, every viable piece. Roots don't matter. There will be pieces I'll miss so I'll have to be extra vigilant at first but will probably have to keep an eye out for the rest of my days. Hope this helps.

6/9/2018 9:45:19 PM

Big problem for many people in our area is that the Bermuda grass in their yards is not easily killed with the cardboard cover. It really needs to be dug up. Lots of work unless one rents a sod remover. If anyone knows better ways to kill this stuff, please share!

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