Following the yearlong investigation into permaculture as a teaching method, one interesting aspect of this design method is tapping into a complex communication network among plant and animal communities that supports more harmonious agriculture systems, which are more cooperative than competitive. While species of aggressive invasive species can dominate and hurt native plant and animal systems, the relationships between long-standing ecosystem partners is more often supportive and interdependent in nature.
New studies have allowed us to begin to understand the interrelationships among plants and the microorganisms. We now know that there is communication among these organisms that allows for sharing of resources. For instance, one scientific study showed that mature trees nurse their offspring by sharing water and nutrients through the vast network of the fungal mycelia.
Another example of communication across complex ecosystems is the edge effect, or “ecotone” design principle in permaculture. These highly diverse and productive zones can be found in nature along the perimeter of bodies of water, along riparian areas, along outcrops of exposed rocks and cliffs, or where forested areas border prairies. The benefits of these areas include microclimates that support unique species, captured materials, nutrients and energy across the boundary, influencing productivity of adjacent ecosystems, and increasing bird and predator use of the zone. These productive areas could be imitated in a school garden space by incorporating the right fruit trees and berry bushes, followed by smaller crops with greater sunshine needs, to create the same effect.
There are many ways to educate about ecosystem communication in your own work with students. Whether you are interested in agriculture or ecosystem health, understanding how soil food web, plant food web, and animal food webs interact and communicate with each other is the first step in understanding the role humans play in supporting these systems sustainably.