Growing a deep nature garden is not about planting a whole lot of different plants. It’s more about creating a blank slate (or, if you are lucky, a healthy starting ecosystem!) and then allowing the garden to “grow in” from there.
Most patches of ground already contain seeds of hundreds of kinds of plants, including rare natives. One of the basic principles is to start with what you have — within reason, of course. It might be necessary to perform massive triage at first, in which most or all of the plants are physically removed, and some landscaping is often a good idea. Seeds can be added if there’s not much in the ground to begin with.
A deep nature garden does not happen overnight, or even over several months. It’s a serious, long-term relationship between the garden and the gardener. The gardener’s goal is to remove what diminishes beauty, diversity, and productivity while occasionally adding new diversity in various ways.
Over the course of many months, it evolves.
There may be an early surge of vigorous fast growing plants. These are not “weeds” — we don’t recognize that word. These early pioneers are valuable contributors, quickly building up a new, rich, diverse soil ecosystem. In this group (in the SF Bay Area) are prickly lettuce, sow thistle, petty spurge, grasses, California poppies, lamb’s quarter, purslane, and many more.
As each of these pioneers matures it is pulled out or clipped neatly at the base. Many are strictly deadheaded as their blooms fade. Most pioneers are not allowed to go to seed. Although some of these vigorous early residents are wonderful edibles (purslane, lamb’s quarter, etc), they are best grown for food in containers or farming areas. In the deep nature garden their presence is almost always temporary because they are gradually replaced by slower-growing perennials.
Among all of these early sprouters are hundreds of other seeds and seedlings, of many different species. As the pioneers come out, these other plants begin to grow. Some are well adapted to their microclimate, and out-compete others. Those might end up dominating, but no species will be allowed to take over.
For a passionate deep nature gardener, a large part of the joy of deep nature gardening is the excitement of waiting to see what new kinds of plants will sprout up.
At any point we can guide the ecosystem’s development in several ways.
- We can increase diversity in the form of new plants. These can be store-bought or they can be our special eco-packs.
- We can increase diversity by scattering seed mixes.
- We can prune plants as they grow, for best artistic, naturalistic appearance.
- We can actively thin out plants that are limiting the beauty, diversity, or productivity of the garden.
- We can handle overgrown areas though various forms of local triage.
- We can scatter soil amendments to improve fertility or nutrient balance.
Gradually, the garden shifts. The big, fast, showy annuals are replaced by slower but more diverse long-lived plants that are more precisely adapted to the particular part of the garden where they grow. Shade plants will grow in the shade, and the dry summer sun lovers will eventually take over in the dry, summer sunny places.
All along the way we gently guide the ecosystem, aiming for that special aesthetic “ah!” moment, over and over again.