How to think like a plant to be a successful cultivator

Following a landslide, wildfire, land clearing or any other form of land disturbance, the succession of plants that colonize the fresh clearing is rather predictable.

First flowering annuals will take root sporadically, eg: mustards. Populations of these annuals will increase exponentially with each generation that reaches flower and seed. Annuals have a singular focus to put all of their energy into producing seeds causing every individual to die once it has seeded. As a result, the decaying of dead plant matter alters the carbon to nitrogen (C:N) ratio. Over multiple generations, this altered C:N ration and accruing organic matter allows perennials to move in.

Dandelions are an example of the pioneering perennials. Eventually, woodier plants like turf begin colonizing the clearing. Tap rooted flowers will move in with the grasses pulling nutrients from deep underground while aerating the topsoil as they decay.

Next, woody-stemmed brambles like raspberries, blackberries and my beloved Ribes begin colonizing eventually shading out the perennials. With a lifespan around 2 years, the canes die to be immediately replaced accumulating even more carbon into the soil.

Finally tree seedlings arrive mixed among the brambles. Tree-succession is a whole field of its own but the damaged, sick or short-lived tree species fall to add lignin to the soils paving the way for longer-lived trees.

On the outskirts of the last stage of succession where light reaches the lignin-rich soil is where most fruit trees flourish.

All of the information in this post thus far is from the book I introduced here. The rest of this post is expanding and extrapolating on the information presented by Mr. Michael Philips in the linked book.

Very few cultivated crops even remotely resemble their wild ancestors. With a biological mindset it is not too hard to figure out where in the plant succession any given food crop would be a part of. In fact, in most of North America’s temperate zones, it is pretty safe to assume that any annual vegetable or fruit would be among the first pioneers. Most bi-annuals like strawberries would follow the annuals and perennial berries and vegetables would follow those.


The preceding paragraph contains examples of guesses that would let one think like a plant. Depending on which succession group an individual plant falls, the human cultivator of the plant can plan the soils to maximize nutrition for that plant as well as minimize threats from pests and the accompanying required action. In future posts, I will expand on how to apply this successional knowledge to your cultivation practices.


3 thoughts on “How to think like a plant to be a successful cultivator

  1. Pingback: Compost Matters: Garden Compost vs. Orchard compost | thegreenergrassfarm

  2. Pingback: The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the next best time in 1 year from now | thegreenergrassfarm

  3. Pingback: Getting tree planting sites ready for next spring | thegreenergrassfarm

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