Ecosystems are composed of more than just plants. Animals, fungi, bacteria and other microscopic creatures are equally important participants, and all require year-round food and shelter.

Pollinating insects, for instance, need nectar - flowering plants - from spring to fall. But that is not enough - insects are very complex creatures and go through many changes during their short life.

Caterpillars - butterfly larvae - look nothing like the adults, and require totally different food. We don’t like it when they eat the leaves of our plants, but Nature operates on a very large scale and we need to look beyond our own comfort zone.

Many of the garden’s inhabitants over-winter in the litter layer, freshly provided by the plant community as it sheds its leaves for the winter. When we clean up our garden in the fall we do untold damage to thousands of animal populations including our native predaceous insects.

butterfly-life-cycleIn the spring we complain about aphids on our plants, yet in the fall we’ve killed their natural predators by raking up the leaves and depriving them of safe winter habitat.

Winter is a difficult time for many of our garden’s animals that require food or an undisturbed place to hibernate.

Gardens that provide a diversity of nuts, berries and seeds become havens for birds that in turn will reduce insect populations in the summer.

When we take time to observe we can see that everything is connected. Plants cannot exist on their own, but require the support of microbes, animals and even other plants in their environment.

The greater the diversity above ground, the greater the health and biodiversity in the soil. And of course the healthier the soil, the healthier the plants: biodiversity and health go hand-in-hand.

Our role is to provide plants with their natural companions, above ground and also in the soil.

We need to learn to create ecosystems rather than plant collections. And we need to allow our plants the opportunity to form the relationships that sustain them.

We go much deeper into this topic in our online course, which you can discover here:

Organic Master Gardener Online