Thursday, August 11, 2016


My current garden
In business, the key to success is understanding your business. And I don’t mean that we know exactly where we file our TPS reports. I mean understand the core of the business. In one philosophy, this is achieved by asking five very simple questions: 1) Why do we exist? 2) How do we behave? 3) What do we do? 4) How will we succeed? 5) What is most important right now?

While these questions seem very elementary, answering them can be anything but. To correctly answer these questions requires a level of introspection that many people are uncomfortable with. It requires the leaders of the business to boil down the business, its core purpose, and its core values to a simple sentence, one that rings absolutely true and one that the members of the organization can identify with.

I have been thinking recently about applying these questions to the management of ecosystems. As I have mentioned before, I am constantly experimenting to construct ever more complex ecosystems. But the more I travel down the path, the more I am finding myself asking those same questions businesses are encouraged to ask themselves. Why does an ecosystem exist? How does it behave? What does it do? How does it succeed? What is most important in an ecosystem, and what is most important right now in this ecosystem I am trying to build? But first I need to catch you, my reader up a bit. Let’s start by asking the question, what is an ecosystem?

In nature, an ecosystem is a series of living organisms that live together, forming a series of relationships. In a healthy ecosystem, the relationships are predominantly mutually beneficial. Sure, it might not seem that the coyote is providing a mutually beneficial relationship with the rabbit, but a broader look shows this to be true. The ecosystem seeks balance. The rabbit evolved as a prey species and has a reproductive rate that reflects this. In absence of predators, the rabbits overpopulate and starve when they run out of food. The predator-prey relationship is mutually beneficial to the species as a whole, if not that individual who got converted into coyote poo.

So these organisms create mutually beneficial relationships. How? What about them is mutually beneficial? The more I ask myself this, the more it comes down to nutrients. An ecosystem functions though a healthy exchange of nutrients. How do those nutrients cycle through an ecosystem?

The mycorrhizal fungus pulls the raw materials from the ground, sometimes going so far as to mine them from the bedrock below, and feeds them to the plants. The plants incorporate them into their bodies as they grow. Herbivores consume the plants and incorporate them into their own bodies. Carnivores consume the herbivores and receive the nutrients in turn. All through this process the various animals produce large quantities of feces. That feces contains not only the nutrients that passed through the animal, but also the ones that the animal “used up” and needs to dispose as waste product. The scavengers and decomposers move in and take those same nutrients and cycle them into their own bodies. The fungus grows mushrooms, the insects grow and reproduce, the bacteria multiply. These are in turn consumed by other decomposing organisms, such as earthworms. Some of the nutrients head back into the birds from here, while others continue to be broken down further into their component parts. Eventually, they get gathered back up by the mycorrhizal fungus and fed back to the plants, completing the cycle. The better this cycle functions, and the more nutrients it has to cycle through the ecosystem, the healthier the whole ecosystem is.

There is an important distinction I want to point out here. When considering the food options for an organism we are conditioned to look at caloric inputs. Where does the organism get the energy it needs to continue its own biological processes? But this is really only half of the equation. Food serves two purposes. Well, actually it serves a lot more purposes, but we are going to just focus on the big two. When an organism ingests food, it breaks it down as far as it can to get both the energy for sustaining life and the raw materials it needs to build, rebuild, and repair its own body. The foods that supply the energy are the calorie dense foods while the foods that supply the latter are the nutrient dense foods.

The nutrient dense foods are arguably more important in the long run. Sure, you need energy to live, but it is the nutrients that give health and vitality. It is the nutrients that prolong life. Nutrients are much more than making sure you are getting enough potassium and calcium in your diet, though. The form they come in also matters. There are a number of phytochemicals that have wildly diverse impacts on the body. Some stimulate the immune system. Some are medicinal. Some help organs function better. I think I can safely say that the list of phytochemicals and their impact on the human body is far from fully understood. Their impact on the rest of the ecosystem is even more poorly understood. Let me offer an easy example. Catnip has a mild, minty flavor. The phytochemical that produces that flavor is a powerful insect repellant, particularly effective on cockroaches. To cats, it has a narcotic effect. In humans, it tastes kind of nice, nothing more.

Let’s jump to the fourth question above, “How will we succeed?” To restate what we have learned: 1) The purpose of an ecosystem is to cycle nutrients, 2) The health of the individual as well as the health of the ecosystem are determined by the sheer volume of nutrients available for cycling, and 3) The diversity of form for those nutrients matters. The first thing is that the nutrients need to be present in the soil. In the long term, this is a little less important. In most soils, the necessary raw materials can be mined from the soil particles by the mycorrhizal fungus or from the air by the plants. Compost helps a lot. The addition of organic matter helps a lot. What is probably most important, though, is to not remove anything from the ecosystem that you don’t have to. You ate that cucumber and your waste is going down the toilet? I’d say that is a regrettable but acceptable loss. But those peels need to go back into the soil. That plant, when it dies, needs to go back to the soil. That’s how you retain nutrients.

How do you achieve a diversity of nutrient forms? You do that with a diversity of organisms. Different plants uptake different nutrients from the soil. They then form them into different phytochemicals. Those different plants attract different insects. Those different insects form a complex web of predator and prey. The insects in turn feed the birds. The connections go on. But the diversity of life encourages and invigorates life.

Let’s now jump to the last question above: “What is most important right now?” Given the information here, I think the most important thing right now is to increase diversity. Take another look at my garden in the picture above. Those felt bags cover about a square foot each. Given the principles of traditional gardening, each of those bags should hold about one plant: one tomato, one chard, one pepper, one bean. But they are planted much more densely than that. And they are thriving. If I have a square inch of soil, I find something to put there. It takes a little careful planning on the companions, but it can be done.

The other thing to do is to stop spraying. Yes, those aphids are killing your spinach. Give them a quick spray with the hose. If you have healthy, diverse soil, your plant will make it through. But wait, just wait. Those aphids are prey species and they are ringing the dinner bell loud and clear to baby praying mantis, ladybugs, lacewings, and a huge number of other beneficial insects. Those insects bring more insects. A healthy population of insects brings toads, birds, and lizards. Together they start to form an ecosystem. It may take a few years, but that ecosystem will balance and get down to what it does best: cycling ever increasing quantities of nutrients. And that’s the best you can possibly hope for.

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