Creating sustainable plant communities

Wouldn't it be great if planting a garden meant that it will be there forever? When we plant a tree in our home, for the most part we think that (unless something unexpected happens) the tree will be there for future generations to enjoy.

Sustainability implies something is self-sustaining, ideally requiring no inputs to continue to exist indefinitely. Do you know of any gardens that fit this description? Gardens are not sustainable; they require many inputs to maintain a desired appearance. Without our helping hand, most gardens fade away quickly--either drowned in weeds, dehydrated, starved, overtaken by pests, or simply having the very landscape plants overtake one another--with the designer's original vision lost in time.

Whether we realize it or not, the moment we build a garden or landscape a property we are creating a plant community. Together, this group of plants is trying to survive within the setting you have provided. So how can we go about creating sustainable plant communities? Which plant communities we know are sustainable? Our endemic ecosystems--Oak and Douglas-fir woodlands, shrub-steppe, bunchgrass prairies, and riperian woodlands--are all native ecosystems that can persist over time.

Ecological succession diagram. (Courtesy: Google image search).

Ecological succession diagram. (Courtesy: Google image search).

In the field of restoration ecololgy, these can be described as stable climax plant communities. The concept of succession explains how plant communities evolve first by colonizing bare rock with mosses and lychens. As they decay, these mosses create a proto-soil which in turn enables herbaceous communities to develop, all the way up to a stable climax forests communities. Recent theories of dynamic equilibrium more accurately describe this ecological stage--where stability is the exception and fluctuations in the makeup of a community provide resiliency against catastrophic events.

This semester I'm starting work on my PhD project. I will be investigating how to create sustainable plant communities. What mechanisms can we glean from natural systems in order to create gardens with dynamic equilibrium? Can we make our gardens last forever? With the help of Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott, I'll be conducting tests to study the colonization and maturation dynamics of key designed plant communities. We will be looking at the intersections between survival strategies, species diversity, and aesthetic considerations.

Follow this blog to see what we find ;)