Succession, Human and Wild

Sharon November 12th, 2009

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.  Much, then, of what we do involves planning for succession – both in the plants we plant, but also in the lives we live.

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 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 medicinal 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.


5 Responses to “Succession, Human and Wild”

  1. PeakEngineer says:

    We need to change our thinking patterns from always only considering the here and now to approaching every problem with a lifecycle analysis like you described. In our society, long term planning is pretty much limited to money (and even there, still very limited thought…) rather than physical systems.

    You’re dead on about the approaches for folks in different life phases — we did exactly as you described for the young transient folks when we moved here a couple years ago: building networks, developing some skills, dropping roots for a new community family. And now we have the luxury of taking the long view at our long-term (final!) residence planting slow-growing trees, carefully and deliberately architecting the environment for a maximum of long term flexibility, and all the while still enjoying the fruits of what we have here and now.

  2. Don says:

    Sharon, it’s fascinating that you discuss succession here. I am almost finished reading David Holmgren’s Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. In his discussion of the twelfth and final permaculture principle, “creatively use and respond to change,” Holmgren spends a lot of time talking about succession, both ecological and human.

    Since Holmgren’s book is primarily theoretical, I enjoyed reading your discussion of the practical ways you make succession work for you.


  3. MEA says:

    This remined me of how not so long ago, one basically was alway thinking a year a head — I’ll need a new dress in a year — that’s what I’m shearing sheep for now. I’ll need a new long bow — that’s what that yew is aging for.

  4. Greenpa says:

    One thing the Chinese chestnut nurseries won’t tell you is that they are highly susceptible to the American chestnut weevils (2 species).

    The probable reason is the burr spine density- Chinese chestnuts tend to have sparse spines, and American chestnuts have dense spines.

    Hybrid chestnuts, available here and there, tend to be medium to dense.

    Dense spined chestnuts will still get some weevils; but not nearly as many.

    Poultry under the trees can help a lot- they’ll eat every weevil they can.

  5. It’s amazing how your thinking changes when you find land you’re willing to be bonded to, a place to actually put down roots.

    I’m so glad we finally found a place we’re willing to invest in, not just “well, we will probably stay in this house for oh, another five years, then we’ll move across town” or whatever.

    I hope that someday, my children will live here and make use of the infrastructure and soil and pasture we are building, but if not my children, well, someone’s children will live here and it is good to make this chunk of earth into something productive, something that’ll make someone’s life a bit easier in a lower energy future because we started on the transition ahead of the curve.

    This post is really encouraging me – keep doing what I’m doing and not give up. :) Thanks.

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