by Matt Gravel of Plant Buoy

Planning an ecologically functional garden is simple: mimic nature’s patterns to meet the needs of humans and wildlife. Wait, maybe that isn’t so simple. Nature is incredibly complex and operates in ways we as humans often struggle to consider. So where do we start if we want create this ecological oasis? With a very thorough and thoughtful site analysis.

Abiotic Factors

Understanding where you are in the world and the abiotic, or physical, factors that drive the surrounding ecology is vital to design. These factors are hard or impossible to change and include annual rainfall, temperature range, elevation, wind exposure, geology and landform, sunlight, soil type, and microclimates. They provide limitations and opportunities. Microclimates like a south-facing wall or rock absorb heat and provide ambient shelter from seasonal lows, allowing us to grow exotic species and push growing zone boundaries.

Diversity & Plant Symbiosis

Build resiliency and redundancy into your design by increasing diversity and encouraging different species to fill the garden’s many ecological roles. Assessing the plants currently growing in your landscape gives you insight into its needs and how it functions. Is your landscape an ecologically dead lawn with “weeds”? A weed like the much-maligned dandelion, with its large taproot, often grows in calcium-deficient compacted soils, has nutritional and medicinal value, and also happens to be an incredible early pollen source for bees. These pioneer species try to improve site conditions to push the ecology of your landscape forward.

Nitrogen-fixing species like clover and lupine improve soil fertility throughout their lifecycle. Deep-rooted plants mine nutrients and deposit them on the soil surface in form of their leaves. Fragrant herbs confuse and deter pests while acting as groundcover that doesn’t compete for nutrients. Learning to “read the weeds” and inventory other species in your landscape will help guide your design.

Illustration: Kalina Hunter


Water, especially clean water, is often taken for granted where we live. With increasing summer drought and climate uncertainty, we need to take better care. Analyzing how and when water naturally moves and sits in your landscape allows you to plant more wisely. Lower spots on your landscape may collect water during the winter, when we see the majority of our rains. This pooling can cause rot and disease in certain species, but others will not be bothered. Increase the efficiency of water use on your property through grey water systems, rainwater catchment, rain gardens, swales, ponds, deep mulching, and drip irrigation to help you get the most out of available water and ensure the landscape’s health and vitality.

In Victoria’s temperate Mediterranean climate, harvesting rainwater in 50-gallon barrels might not be the most appropriate for irrigation during a summer drought. Try drip irrigation and deep mulching, which keeps the moisture in the soil where it is best stored.


Observing wildlife and how they visit a landscape is important for the well-being of any ecological garden. An easy way to lower pest pressure is to let wildlife do it for you. By deterring unwanted animals like deer and fulfilling the needs of wildlife around us, we directly benefit from their ecological services. Birds, bees, butterflies, parasitic wasps, beetles, and more all benefit from the plants, borders, rocks, stick piles, buildings, large tree canopies and other features. In return, their presence increases fertility and controls pests.

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