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Designing an Ecosystem

About the cover



Designing an Ecosystem

How a garden or a yard can be a nurturing space.

by Jean Eisenhower



Wonderful to be out in the garden again! Sitting.

Yes, sitting. I haven't felt like working much yet this year. Maybe I'm recovering from doing so very much last summer.

I often ask myself why this space nurtures me so well. It's not just one or a couple of things. We're connected to a vast Universe, all of it impacting us in different ways, as we impact our yards and gardens in different ways, all of it requiring consideration.

A narrow garden bed was expanded outward with a “keyhole” notch for access to the widest area. All the garden beds were widened last summer, leaving just enough space in the yard for wide walkways and (to the left outside the frame) seating for morning meditation.

My neighbors have seen my yard slowly transform over the past eight years, from the solid granite hill cut with elm trees and four other major living plants, to an elm-cleared weedy lot with barren structures of fence posts, swales and materials piles, to a cedar-fenced enclosure with a half-dozen young trees peeking above (and lots more unseen inside) with experimental plantings on the outside. It's been a slow go.

It's a complex process to create something not just aesthetic, but ecologically responsible, functional, productive, socially nurturing, self-nurturing, ergonomic and economic. It's not something to knock out on paper in an afternoon and then hire the workers to complete next week.

Our yards are ecosystems we're creating of uncountable living beings, all interacting. The design task challenges our creativity and our consciousness. The result is a harmonious gathering of living beings to share our space on quiet mornings, nurturing, inspiring, and healing.

If I could wish anything for everyone on this planet, it would be a garden that nurtures them — body, mind and soul.

Since we each have different needs, abilities and constraints, each of us needs a unique design. Here are some basic considerations:


Privacy and Quiet

Modern life subjects us to a lot of stimuli and has taken most of us away from the natural, living world to some degree, so it's important for us to create at least a small natural space where we can be free of overstimulation, including social stimuli. Fences or hedges seem essential to most people who want to spend time outdoors.



The most beautiful items, I assert, are found in nature: stones, trees, flowers and all plants. A yard needs nothing more to create beauty.

If we need to introduce manufactured items — for instance, to build a fence — the more natural, the better.

Garden hoses, plastic tubs and trashcans can all be stored in a single location, maybe shielded, leaving all the rest of yard for feasting the eyes on natural colors, lines, textures and shapes. When we must have a manufactured item in those areas — for instance, chairs — the colors and textures should be harmonious.

Lines in the yard needn't be rectilinear. Paths and fences can meander, and patios should be shaped organically to suit their function. Rectangles have their place in modern efficiency, but we're not packing patios into the back yard! Often, we just have one, and it should be shaped to support the life on it and surrounding it. What will be on and around it? Hold that thought.

Color! Who doesn't thrill at the first spring flowers? Flowers bring us such wonderful lessons in harmony and aesthetics in every iris, columbine, rose, garden sage spike, evening primrose, twining morning glory, and even my beloved, modest globe mallow (she's a healer, you know). And prickly poppies, thistles (please don't mow them down, City!), elderberry, desert willow, fairy duster and all the others unnamed. And these are just the flowers that grow with almost no effort!

Please don't be too practical (like I used to be) and think that all the soil needs to be in vegetable production. Allow the flowers, and then learn what they're good for. Dandelion, for instance, is excellent medicine. Flowers, if we understand them and use their medicine appropriately, might even save us thousands of dollars in health care.

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