Gardening diversity is essential for balance and harmony, as is diversity in our lives.
“Diversity pulls forth a natural sense of wonder and appreciation for life.” — Jen Mendez
One permaculture principle is to “Use and Value Diversity.” In this article I hope to explore diversity:
- In our gardens
- In our lives
- In our communities
Diversity in Our Gardens
Why is it essential to make our gardens diverse?
- Diversity introduces balance and harmony. The effect of having “too much of one thing” or “putting all our eggs in one basket” leads to regret.
Perhaps you had a bumper crop of tomatoes last year, and you predict that if you converted all your available garden space into growing tomatoes, you could potentially get hundreds of pounds of tomatoes.
I hope in the next paragraphs to gently remind all of us, myself included, that Mother Nature tends towards balance.When we get stubborn and stop listening to nature, we tend to suffer.
Mimicking nature’s preference for diversity will not only promote the overall health of our gardens but will generally produce more robust and abundant crops as well.
The first reason for promoting diversity in your garden has to do with resilience. Every crop has a pest that has evolved to thrive off eating that plant. If all you grow is one single plant variety, the likelihood that you invite a population of those pests to feast off your hard work is higher.
Also, because the pest knows that it has plenty of food, it will tend to reproduce at a higher rate. The risk of having a pest problem where there wasn’t one, to begin with, should deter you from planting a monoculture crop in your backyard.
2. Diversity supports existence. Diversity supports life.
If we look at the insect or animal populations that support our gardens, we immediately think of pollinators that do the heavy-lifting of ensuring that we get ripe fruit.
From diversity emerges highly-specialized animals that create relationships with a specific type of plant.
For instance, there are zebra swallowtail butterflies whose caterpillars feed only on pawpaw leaves, or the monarch butterflies that lay their eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves.
From the Indiana Department of Natural resources:
“The female monarch butterfly will lay her eggs on the underside of the milkweed leaves, which provide protection for the developing larvae. The large leaves act like umbrellas, shading the eggs from too much summer sun and sheltering them during strong rainstorms. The leaves also offer an excellent hiding spot from predators that may want to eat the eggs before the larva emerges.
When the larvae hatch, they will begin to munch on the leaves of the milkweed plants, eating day and night for the first few days of life. On the first day, the larva may eat as much as its own weight in food!”
The caterpillar will continue to feed on the milkweed for about two weeks. By the time it is done growing, the caterpillar will weigh about 2,700 times more than when it hatched.
If we lose one type of life (pests included), consequences follow. Because these relationships have been established over many years, losing even just one species can immediately disrupt the food web.
“You don’t have a mosquito problem, you have a lack of dragonfly problem.” — Geoff Lawton
Every creature serves an essential purpose.
3. Diversity inspires awe & wonder at the variety of expressions there are in nature
“94% of our seed diversity has disappeared.” — SEED: The Untold Story
Take, for instance, an apple.
There are around 7,500 varieties of apple around the world, 2, 500 of which are grown in the United States.
You can find only 100 of these apples in commercial markets today. And I bet if you walked into your typical grocery store, you would find perhaps a handful of these varieties: Fuji, Red Delicious, Green Delicious, MacIntosh.
How many different apple varieties can you name?
The example of the infographic above shows us that where we originally had 497 varieties of lettuce 80 years ago, we now have 36.
It reveals that 544 cabbages are now down to 28.
These are startling numbers with repercussions on the food system that we are experiencing today.
Heirloom varieties (those with a history of having been handed down from generation to generation) are:
- Quickly disappearing and together with them are the stories behind the people who have stewarded them over several generations. They are often poignant tales of travel and hope stored in seeds.
- Plants from which you can harvest seeds and plant again, unlike commercial hybrid varieties.
- Rich in flavor and features
- Sometimes are even more disease and pest-resistant than hybrids.
And all of this comes from looking merely at the diversity of seeds.
4. What You Can Do?
- FILL IN THE GAPS
Commercial farm operations might benefit from having nice straight rows with plenty of space in between (for driving harvesters and mechanized equipment), but our square foot gardens don’t have similar requirements. Choose from the list below of easy-to-grow pollinators, dynamic accumulators, and medicinal/culinary herbs and plant them anywhere where you see gaps or holes in your garden beds.
These plants have useful support functions but will also increase the diversity of your garden automatically. Note: This is no means an exhaustive list, please feel free to add more “gap fillers” in the comments below.
- WATCH THE WEEDS
Observing what kinds of weeds grow in your garden beds can give you some important tips about the type of soil you have and what kind of minerals are in the soil. some weeds are extremely efficient at dredging up these nutrients. The table below will help to guide which “companion” plants might grow extremely well next to them. Remember, if managed properly, most weeds can provide us with free mulch, fertilizer, and soil aeration.
- BALANCE YOUR HARVEST
This is a trick I’ve started using to simplify viewing my 7-layer food forest planning to include three different layers; fruiting crops, ground-cover/leafy greens, and root crops.
Try to balance out the number of plants you grow in each category. It’s a simple way to take advantage of the different levels at which crops grow and increase the diversity of your crops at the same time.
Diversity in Our Lives
Just as in our gardens diversity brings balance, varying our activities also brings balance to our lives.
- Screens vs. Greens
As we slowly come out of the coronavirus quarantine, we may carry with us a heavier reliance on screens. In our household, our kids are on computers a lot more than ever before. We try to battle this by encouraging them to do their schoolwork outdoors and using pen and paper, notebooks, and analog ways of keeping busy.
We try to keep this balance ourselves by turning off devices at set times. We did not evolve to be always on screens. One of the consequences of being constantly on screens is the rise in cases of “dry eye symptom,” a condition that once only affected post-menopausal women. In recent years, doctors are seeing “dry eye” in kids as young as five years old.
On the other hand, people are now encouraged to “forest bathe” for health reasons. This term would not have come into existence unless we were exploring our natural environments as often as we look at screens.
It’s important to ask ourselves, “How does seeing only one kind of reality makes us live richer lives?”
We are made for the infinite to live in us.
We are naturally creative and diverse in our art forms. How can any creator or artist be limited to drawing the same painting every day?
Wouldn’t this be antithetical and soul-sucking?
2. The Work-Life Balance
Recently, I made an audit of all the things I do as a mom and all the things I do for my business. And I found that I had to be diverse and balanced. I had to get sleep and hours of cooking and eating and teaching the kids and not just working. Even though initially I wanted 40 hours of work, when I tallied all my hours up, I could only justifiably give 20 hours of work time, and the rest was to my family and my own self-care.
3. Diverse Yields in Small Spaces
Another thing that distinguishes permaculture design is holistically looking at property.
Permaculture is not merely looking at your garden, but looking at your home, your family, your pets, your community. It has a lot to do with observing their interactions between the different elements of your life.
We can perhaps say that we live in a 3-dimensional world. But maybe there are more than just 3-dimensions.
Perhaps there are ten.
Permaculture designers often begin with the notion of the “Seven Layers of a Food Forest.” Observing these layers is an excellent introduction to design as most gardeners will not think of their gardens in terms of layers at all. But are there only seven layers in a food forest? Could there not be more?
There are so many ways of looking at one thing. Our postage stamp garden is considered small by most standards. And our townhome fits eight of us in the family. One can look at this home and garden and think, “this is small,” at first glance.
But when you consider that our garden gives us food and medicine, fresh air, and a cool microclimate during the summer, you might start to think that having a small space isn’t the real issue.
The real issue is knowing how to maximize what we have been given.
If you consider that our children are homeschooled in the backyard, learning first-hand about science and ecology, you might say we have a different kind of yield in our small space.
If you think about how you can dry our clothes on the clothesline and save on electricity or that you can collect rainwater instead of entirely relying on the grid, you can hopefully see that garden yields come in many different forms.
When you consider how you can give your neighbors joy in an exchange of fruits and veggies, then we realize that one small garden can transform our family life and our community.
Diversity in Communities
Just as the zebra swallowtail is dependent on the pawpaw tree for its survival, so am I dependent on my neighbors, relatives, and friends for my own.
- A Diverse Community leads to Interdependence & Stability.
Elisha, an African-American single mom who is kind enough to take my children to school when I am running late on schedule, is also grateful to me when I can take her girls to school when our roles are reversed. She offers me toilet paper during the quarantine. I offer her veggies from our garden.
Russian-born, Tatiana, and her Jamaican husband, Godfrey, generously barter their bakery’s croissants for our lettuce in the spring. We are only too happy as Godfrey is a highly skilled up and coming local baker!
Aklima, a Bangladeshi grandmother who doesn’t speak English, speaks to me in the language of plants and seeds that we trade across our garden fence.
(Her squashes never get attacked by the squash borers, by the way.)
Our choice to live in a diverse neighborhood is deliberate. We are each of us different. Some of us have just arrived from foreign countries and settled in the US. Some of us do not speak English. Some have lived in the area for several years.
Friends and relatives have often remarked that we must move out of our tiny townhome. But all we really wish for is a bigger garden, the same diversity and no Homeowner’s Association (HOA).
2. Homeowner’s Associations and Community
The HOA is, unfortunately, the entity that seems to want to make each, unique home in our village, the exact, same home. They would like to see the same water-hogging lawn in front of the house and allow doors painted only specific colors.
Our HOA sends us a warning letter every year telling us to move our front garden or risk a fine. As a result, we feel constrained to act, to grow, and to live.
I believe Homeowner’s Associations have the power to be such incredible forces of good. I have heard of HOAs that promote compost collection and community gardens. But the laws that restrict front yard gardens to maintain a uniform look on all properties do not promote diversity at all. They perpetuate the thinking that being the same is good. And being different is bad.
A few years ago, I explained this to them in a letter, asking them to allow us to continue growing food in our front yard as it helped the entire community. But it seemed as if it was not as important as the letter of the law in their eyes.
I depend on my neighbors for fruit that I cannot raise on my own. I rely on them for dates, for seeds, for a truck when I need to haul big cattle fences to shape into trellises. And they, in turn, depend on me.
3. Social Permaculture and Diversity in the Human Response
Permaculture has three ethics:
- Earth Care
- People Care
- Fair Share
Matt Powers, of thepermaculturestudent.com, recently sent out a video on how to live out these permaculture ethics in society. He proposed doing so with a set of standards for living. Some of the criteria he used which I found helpful are listed below:
- Set clear boundaries
- Magnify the solutions, not problems
- Meet people where they are
- Put family first because they are the foundations of society
- Work first on what matters now
- Always innovate and adapt
- Don’t take offense. Be better
- Involve and inspire young people
- Listen and learn from elders
He also reminded us that the third ethic, Fair Share (to redistribute surplus so that everyone has their fair share), is a product of the first two ethics, Earth Care and People Care.
In my neighborhood, I could choose to ignore my neighbors and live on my own terms, but that would not be very ethical. In fact, it would not be a very human thing to do.
The genuine human response is connection.
We can choose to ignore the acts of violence that are happening in our societies. But that is not a human response.
The human response should be a personal examination of conscience and the follow-through to act with love.
Let us welcome diversity even in expressing this love.
Writing about diversity in this article is one way I have responded to the unjust, inhumane treatment of a human person, by another human person, each of them made in the image and likeness of God.
Perhaps you have a different way of showing love during a time of crisis.
How can you use and value diversity in your garden and your life? How can you personally act to positively and constructively buildup your community?
If you would like to learn more diversity and permaculture, particularly in small spaces, sign-up for my FREE “Growing Food in Small Spaces” webinar!