The Systems Approach to Organic Gardening

Understanding the garden as a whole is the guiding principle in organic gardening. The garden is part of the greater ecological fabric around it. Developing this understanding and its components is more than can be conveyed in any course, but is acquired over years of gardening and attention to detail. We are all students!

In this course, we hope to give you a roadmap of the garden system. With a sense of what to look out for, and good sources of further information, you will hopefully be able to begin your own garden discovery and understanding.

So what exactly do we mean by systems thinking? What is the garden system? Well, that's a big question, but in short, everything that makes up the garden, including the plants we are focusing on, as well as:

    • biological forces: soil, other plants, weeds, insects, diseases, wildlife, etc.
    • ambient forces: weather, climate, sunlight or shadiness, hardiness zones, air circulation, air contamination, etc.
    • surrounding ecology: presence or absence of other gardens, parks, woods, or pastures nearby.
    • cultural practices: all the things the gardener does, or doesn't do, in the garden, such as soil preparation, pruning, watering techniques, pest management techniques (or lack thereof), rotation, sanitation practices, tolerating a certain amount of plant damage, etc

All these components interact in complex ways. Whether you grow vegetables, fruits, flowers, shrubs, trees, lawns or houseplants, the plants you grow are part of a system. What affects one part of the system affects other parts of the system as well. Sometimes correcting one problem in a system triggers new and different problems in other parts of the system. The more we are aware of the interactions and interdependence of the system components, the better advantage we can take of them.

Thinking about all the aspects of your garden, and how any action affects it, is part of systems thinking. For example, organic mulches can suppress weeds and diseases, conserve soil moisture, and improve soil structure by adding organic matter and encouraging earthworms. But they also cool the soil, harbor slugs and may develop mold colonies. Depending on your climate and what you're growing, those drawbacks could override the benefits. How would organic mulches affect your soil management goals, pest problems, and favorite plants to grow? If you usually dispose of leaves in the fall, would you be better off using them directly as mulch on your garden instead, or would it be better to compost the leaves and use the compost instead?

As you will soon discover, there are many other examples of systems thinking in organic gardening. It is not enough to ask: How do I deal with a problem the organic way? You start to understand the garden system when you ask: What effect will one practice have on another part of the garden system?

As we progress through the material of this course, we will often refer back to this idea of thinking about the garden as a system, and see how it relates as we explore new topics. Additionally, you will find that the answer to questions like those above will not always be the same; both from season to season and as your goals as a gardener develop and change overtime.  The only thing that is constant is change. To be effective organic gardeners is first, to realize this fact. Second, we must become astute observers of this change. And third, to remain curious and ask questions.

Last modified: Monday, October 6, 2014, 1:48 PM