The term “Ecological” has become a generalised term encompassing a wide range of supposedly sustainable actions mostly used in marketing campaigns to attract investors or clients. The birth of the term “Eco-estates” is probably the biggest culprit. What does the term ecological even mean?
Ecology includes the study of interactions organisms have with each other, other organisms, and with abiotic components of their environment.
This would mean that before you could actually stamp the Eco-prefix onto your product, you would have to study these relationships and have a concrete plan of how they will be maintained or enhanced.
What is the main goal of your ecological garden/landscape?
Will it be to increase or maintain a viable population of a specific species in the area – be it fauna or flora?
Will it serve a network or corridor purpose by connecting nearby critical population islands?
Will it merely be preserved as an aesthetic function of the landscape?
Does the ecological integrity serve an important function like mitigating the effects of flooding or other natural disasters?
How can I actually make a difference?
In both large developments as well as smaller residential scale projects it is important to ensure that you have a good understanding of the existing ecological state of the surrounding environment. It might be a perfectly functioning ecosystem within a pristine environment – in this case the main goal would be to mitigate the effects the development would have on this ecosystem. If, however the site is already in a degraded state, the goal would be to increase the functioning of the ecosystem or introduce measures to create a sustainable ecosystem. It might not always be possible to rehabilitate the original ecosystem, instead, a newly evolved ecosystem may take form. When ecosystems are altered, the outcome may not always be favourable even if the ecosystem seems to be functioning well. It might facilitate the arrival of new species exotic to the original ecosystem. These new species can cause the localised extinction of competition vulnerable species within the original ecosystem.
It is important to know what the purpose of the ecosystem will be. The simplest form of creating a workable and sustainable ecosystem is to pull in components from surrounding functioning systems. This can be done by setting up a plant list of the prevailing flora which in turn will bring with them the desired fauna to create a functioning system. Constant monitoring of the system is necessary if a specific ecological function is to be maintained.
Indigenous, endemic or exotic?
Many estate and council by-laws are flawed in this manner as they encourage the use of indigenous plant material in general. If any ecological improvements are desired, it would surely need to be endemic and not merely indigenous? What use would a flowering plant endemic to a small portion of the Cape Peninsula have in a Highveld ecosystem a 1000km away?
In South Africa the term Indigenous includes all fauna and flora species within our national borders. Endemic is more loosely defined as it is a species being unique to a defined geographic location which can be anything from a small mountain outcrop to the entire African continent. It is thus important to include perimeters to the definition Endemic. One can link Endemism to a specific veld type, geographical area, political area or even a fixed measured area.
The term Exotic is mostly used for fauna and flora that are only naturally occurring outside the borders of South Africa. Exotics are not to be frowned upon completely as there are many much needed ecological attributes that will only be found in some exotic species. The use of exotics need to be carefully studied before implementation.
It is always ecologically beneficial to use endemic flora – focus on flora that is endemic and unique to your area. In this way you help in sustaining that unique environment. This in turn creates the environment needed to sustain endemic fauna populations and ultimately a healthy ecosystem.
About the Author: Stephan Barnard is currently a Partner at Seas of Green Global and is responsible for managing their international client base, focusing on the USA. He studied Landscape Architecture and Botany and has worked on a large variety of projects in South Africa and globally. He has done everything from large scale planning (Soccer World Cup 2010), Urban Zoning studies (City of Tshwane), hands on planting design and landscaping, and intensive garden design in South Africa, USA and globally.