Succession, Human and Wild

This week's project is getting the material up for my garden plants and herb CSA - I'm hoping to be able to offer a wide variety of plants from annual vegetables (my tomato list alone is insane) to unusual edibles, native plants, flowers and herbs. My garden obsession is making me a little nuts right now, since there are still 3 feet of snow on the ground and its about 12 degrees right now - nuts enough that I came up with this: my secret garden that can be planting in plain sight without anyone...not the neighbors, not the zoning board, knowing that it all (shhhhh!) delicious food plants!

I'm also thinking ahead to the future - to the ways that ecological succession can model human succession, and change the way we plan both our gardens and our lives

One of the concepts of ecological gardening that I find most useful is the idea of planning for succession in the garden. This maximizes the use of space and nutrients, and allows you to get the most out of your space as plants mature. And more than just planning for it, you can hurry it along a bit.

I find this to be a useful concept in gardening - but also in life. Most of us have to some degree prepared for our own succession under the current model - for example, we save for retirement, we put money aside for college, we move to a neighborhood with good schools even though we haven't had the baby yet. In this sense, we are planning for stage of life succession. But these methods of preparing for succession are, in most cases, weak ones - they depend heavily on sustaining large scale systems that really can't be counted on. Planning for the wrong kind of succession gets you nowhere.

Much, then, of what we do involves planning for succession - both in the plants we plant, but also in the lives we live, balancing likely outcomes and futures. In its simplest form, ecological succession involves just thinking a little about how plants grow and change - for example, most conventional garden books will advise you, when planting an orchard or a perennial bed, to just put in the plants and wait for them to grow. But this wastes a lot of time and space if you are talking about woody plants that take years to produce - and in the meantime, you can get more off that land. Two years after its establishment, for example, I can still plant garlic bulbs in between the asparagus roots in my new asparagus bed - eventually the asparagus roots will overflow the space, but that time is not yet here.

A simple example of the use of succession came this year for me when I built a new herb bed. I planted a large number of sun and soil compatible medicinals, but becaue the perennial plants remained small, I also interplanted them with annual vegetables and herbs - mostly basil, hot peppers and eggplant. I didn't harvest quite as much eggplant as I would have in a system where there weren't other plants, but I made good use of the interstitial spaces between plants, while still allowing space for them to grow. I also overplanted some of the perennials, particularly medicinals that get harvested for roots after the first full year of growth - next spring, I will dig the roots and the skullcap and feverfew can expand into the spot held by the elecampane.

There are plenty of more complex successions, obviously - the natural ones being the model that I use. For example, along my creek, what was a mowed grassy area has now, in the 8 years we've been here, converted to a brushy mix, and now to sumac and other fast grown trees. This will be followed by birch, honey locust and willow, and eventually by hardwood trees, in the natural order of things. I'm gently hurrying the process along in my own interests by weeding out around the hickory seedlings that pop up where the nuts fall. I'm also encouraging my goats to weed out the willow a bit, since we've got plenty.

In other spots, I'm making succession happen faster - I'm planting sugar maples, chinese chestnuts and black walnuts for later use. This is both a human and ecological process - my maples and nuts are in an area where soil remediation and smaller, quicker growing species provide me with some return now. But they are also a succession plant in a familial sense - my hope is that climate change will not have advanced so far as to prevent my children from tapping them and profiting from them in 30 years. I'm thinking ahead - I'll still be here in 30 years, of course, I hope, but I'm also trying to make the property as productive as possible for my family in the longer term.

You can use succession to actually prepare a system that doesn't currently support particular plants - remediating soil with plants is one of the obvious ones. Fungi and some plants will take up heavy metals, while other fix nitrogen and bring up trace minerals. For example, I undersow many of my annual vegetables with white clover, which provides a living mulch and a cover crop that really takes off after the annuals are harvested, holding soil, fixing nitrogen and getting ready for the next crop.

But not only is succession a useful concept in making good use of space, but I think it is worth expanding the idea of succession into the larger concept of garden design - just as you think about what happens as your plants grow and age and change and move forward, you can think about yourself in your natural system (your home and land) and how your goals are likely to change over time.

For a couple in their late 50s, for example, garden succession might be a gradual move towards lower maintenence models, and towards more physically accessible gardens - so while now it is perfectly possible for them to hoe a garden set low, they might begin the process of double digging or building up two or three high beds a year, bordered with stone or recycled plastic lumber, to allow them to garden while sitting.

The same couple may anticipate that as events progress, their grown children and grandchildren might return home - and begin looking at their home as a place that could be subdivided to give everyone private space.

Another couple, young and renting, may expect to move one or several more times before settling down, so their eye to succession may not focus so much on their particular garden, but on establishing relationships in the larger community that will benefit them in the longer term - perhaps they will want to work on expanding the local civic engagement with the food system, or building a network of community gardens. Certainly, they may want to pick up skills.

If they are living in a community where they have no close family ties, they might think about how developing "chosen family" in their community may be helpful if they choose to have children, or stay in the long term - perhaps they will want to find opportunities to meet people from other stages of life and connect with them, rather than socializing primarily in their own age group, because they are thinking about how their needs will change as they grow.

A family with young children may want to look at their space and their community with an eye to the day when their children need to make some money or learn a skill set. A single person in their 60s may want to begin looking at combining resources with a young couple or another elder to ensure a measure of security.

In the end, thinking of life, plant and human, as having a set of logical stages of succession is helpful to me because there's so much we can do to pave the way for the next thing, the next step, or to speed things along when we haven't prepared as much as we may want to.


More like this

Although I am much older I still have planted a few things I hope to see develope fruit...but that may a too optomistic thought! I have a's really small but I looked at it today and it survived the winter. I have a Kumquat also which seems to be leafing out but it is really small as is the fig and I may not ever see fruit on these. I am not sure how long it will take to get to fruiting...but since I am over 80, it will have to be fairly soon! I wonder if 10 years would do it?

Joan, take heart - my figs started bearing in their third year! And remember Thomas Jefferson who went home from the presidency in his late 60s, and wanted to work on breeding fruit trees, his first garden love. He feared, however, that he was too old - he was already quite elderly by the standards of his day, so he focused on flowers and vegetables instead. He lived, however, another 17 years - it would have been time enough to see the trees mature and fruit after all!

I suspect you still have fruiting years - and good for you for planting for the long term! Think how much Jefferson missed!


Thank you for another excellent post Sharon.

You have concentrated my mind on thinking about doing much more inter-cropping in the garden this year. Also, absolutely right about the long term stuff. I already have a small plantation of chestnut trees that I hope in a few years will be good for either garden posts (or firewood!). I hope when finances allow to buy a half hectare or so of land and just put it down to managed mixed woodland.

I was having a conversation with the locals a while ago and it was simply beyond their comprehension that anybody could contemplate growing stuff that will come to maturity in a couple of hundred years or so!

By Steve in Hungary (not verified) on 03 Mar 2011 #permalink

Unfortunately people are too mobile for this to work in most circumstances. People eventually move and the new owners tear up whatever was there and start with bare soil. You have to have a strong dedication to keep a property in the family for generations which is hard to maintain as property values fluctuate.

"thinking of life, plant and human, as having a set of logical stages of succession is helpful to me because there's so much we can do to pave the way for the next thing, the next step, or to speed things along when we haven't prepared as much as we may want to."

It is 'The Theory of Anyway'... again. Acting and living from an ethical base focuses all effort and offers a beautiful field of grace for our human fraility

Good post

This overview of succession (thinking about what to plant in gardens, putting down roots in communities moved to) has me wondering about why we practice succession in the first place. Of course, it's as simple as thinking that we want to plan for a specific or best-case-scenario future. I'm now curious as to how animals use succession. Is succession purely from an evolutionary origin, or is it ingrained in us by means of outside influence (school etc.)?

Relating back to gardens, I used to help my mom plant spring flowers. I got my own little mini-garden to plant what I wanted to. I love pansies, so I planted as many as possible very close together. As you can imagine, that did not turn out very well after a few weeks... I guess I didn't have any concept of succession in that the roots would grow out.