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Building Diversity in Your Garden

It’s deep into springtime here in North America now and many of you have either started planting in your garden or are actively deciding what to plant in the precious space you have. 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 to remind you in the next few paragraphs that nature tends to balance and when we get stubborn and stop listening to nature we tend to suffer. Mimicking nature’s own preference for diversity will not only promote the overall health of our gardens but will generally produce healthier and more abundant crops as well.

The first reason for diversity is fairly obvious; 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 weigh heavily against the temptation to strike it rich with one crop.

Weather fluctuations are another reason to think about planting crops with different environmental needs. If you plant nothing but plants that need lots of water or plants that suffer if the temperature is too high (or too low), the probability is high that a drought or temperature extreme happens and wipes out your whole crop. It makes sense to compare the profile of your plants’ needs and vary them so they don’t all match (water, temperature, nutrients, etc.).

A final reason for diversity is that plants that have to compete for resources (sun, soil elements, water) will tend to be healthier, hardier plants. They’ll be more resistant to fungal and bacterial diseases and the competition will generally benefit them. Some of the plants might wither away, but they will do it quickly and allow the fittest plants to take their place and thrive.

Once you’ve accepted that diversity is a good thing to have in a garden, it’s important to take action and avoid it using it as a buzzword with little actual consequence. I have a few tips that should help guide you to immediately increasing diversity in your garden this year. You’ll be able to build off these guidelines and add your own insight and observations to manage the diversity in your garden enjoy the fruits of your labors.

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.

Plant Category
Echinacea Insect Attractor/Medicinal herb
Dill Culinary Herb/Pest Confuser
Anise Hyssop Insect Attractor
Yarrow Dynamic Accumulator
Comfrey Insect Attractor/Dynamic Accumulator
Calendula Medicinal Herb
Nasturtium Pest Confuser
Mint family (Bee Balm, Mint, Lemon Balm) Beneficial Insect Attractor
Sage Culinary Herb/Insect Attractor

What is a weed? A weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.Ralph Waldo Emerson

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. Also, 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.

Weed Nutrients
Companion Plants
Chickweed N, P
Cabbage, Tomatoes
Mint K,Mg
Cabbage, Peas
Nettles K, Ca, S, Cu, Fe, Na
Broccoli, Potato, Eggplant
Dandelions Na, Mg, Ca, K, Fe, Cu
Tomatoes, Peppers
Comfrey K, P, Ca, Cu, Fe
Spinach, Chard, Potatoes, Tomatoes
Clover N,P
Squash, Tomato, Corn

Balance your Harvest

This is a trick I’ve started using to simplify my 7-layer food forest planning to include 3 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.

Root Crops Leafy Greens Fruiting Crops
Beets Lettuce Tomatoes
Parsnips Spinach Melons
Carrots Mache Peppers
Potatoes Chard Okra
Sweet Potatoes Brassicas Squash
Alliums Celery Beans

It's a Perennial World After All

The annual vegetables we love to eat are basically “tamed” versions of wild plants that were either perennials or much better at self-seeding than most of our modern crops. It’s important to have a multi-year plan to try to incorporate at least a half-dozen new perennial herbs, berries, or trees into your garden each year so that after 4-5 years you’ll have abundant diversity in your garden.

Not like the Others

An easy way to experiment is with different varieties of the same plant (for example there are over 7500 different kinds of tomatoes). Each variety has different needs so might do better or worse in your garden. Also it gives you a chance to see what variety of that plant you like to eat the best!