The Multidimensional Garden


Cajun Prairie Gardens: The blooming of Asclepias tuberosa (Cajun Prairie Butterflyweed)–a native to this prairie–there are 3 plants in this 6 foot wide clump of orange–these were planted from root cuttings in 1996 and are now 20 years old.


In my 2010 book, The Cajun Prairie: A Natural History, I presented a conceptual garden that I called the multidimensional garden, aka the Einstein-Newton Garden, in an effort to begin re-examining the natural garden as a man-made construct that has definable dimensions, which would enhance the use of the garden in the classroom.

Here is the excerpt from the book:

“The paradigm of restoring prairie habitat was developed by Aldo Leopold
(Leopold 1949 and 1999), and we continued his paradigm. It should be expanded
to gardens of all types from suburban lawns to farms to landscapes (Jackson 1999,
Vidrine and Borsari 1998, 1999, Semar and Vidrine 2000 and Vidrine et al. 2001a).
The Cajun Prairie Restoration Project has served for the last decade as a model
for at least 10 prairie restoration projects. The projects have ranged from small
postage stamp prairie gardens to a hundred hectares. However, there is a great
need for more and larger projects. The Cajun Prairie is not only one of the rarest
communities on Earth, but it is one that is scantily known. If there ever existed a
habitat that might be labeled with a superlative in respect to being threatened and
endangered from extinction, the Cajun Prairie would be a prime example.

Habitat restoration, like building a garden, is a multidimensional construct.
As in 2 dimensions, one initially constructs a puzzle-like layout of plants to be
planted. A random distribution of seed over a diverse piece of property will most
likely result in the wasting of a tremendous amount of very valuable and scarce
seed. The third dimension is height—seed selection is important as plants vary
greatly in height. The fourth dimension is time—plants mature in varying amounts
of time, they bloom at different times, and they respond to different kinds of stress
at different times in different ways. The first four dimensions are the ‘space-time
fabric’ of the restoration. The fifth dimension is interaction—plants interact with
other plants, fungi, bacteria, protists, and animals (this reminds me of the impact
of gravity on the ‘space-time fabric’). The collection of interactions is extremely
important. A simple example would be a butterfly garden—butterflies will be few
unless host plants for caterpillars are planted in abundance. Planting just nectar
plants yields a garden with many possible visitors but few residents (Vidrine and
Hazelton-Robichaux 2003). The sixth dimension is sustainability. Whereas the
garden is generally not considered sustainable and as such is replanted nearly every
year, restoration takes on this 6th dimension. The 7th dimension is succession. As
quickly as a sustainable system is created, it begins a process called succession.
The selection of climax sere plants is essential in order to impact a succession
toward a particular habitat type. When old fields in southern Louisiana enter
succession, the result is usually unlike any nearby natural habitat—the common
result is a hodge-podge of rugged natives and even more rugged exotics that
collectively provide little habitat for associates like animals, etc.

Understanding the seven dimensions of habitat restoration is a key to success
(I often present this to students as the General Relativity theory of gardening
where the ‘space-time fabric’ is affected by the gravity of interacting species—an
Einstein/Newton garden). Each habitat is different. Prairies on different soils or at different latitudes are different. A restoration model for a place is just that—a model for a place that deals with the 7 dimensions in that space and time. The model for a particular place is simply an outline for any other place, and each model must be built upon its own regards. Like multidimensional chess, the game of restoration requires that the restoration ecologist play with several steps aheadin mind—otherwise, it is checkmate before the 5th dimension is in play.”

In summary:
1-3 = length, width, height = the traditional definition of space, including topography of the landscape, where dry and wet areas are noted, as well as grassland vs forest. This aspect is the obvious in landscaping planning.
4 = time = the everchanging floralscape is obvious to all, and in fact, these changes can be readily monitored and used to describe the habitat—it is also relatively easy to measure (the phenology of flowing plants, flight seasons of insects, birds, etc.).
5 = interaction of organisms = these are key elements and number in the millions, if not billions, even in a microprairie, and include intraspecific and interspecific interactions occurring in the atmosphere, rhizosphere and hydrosphere, e. g., pollination, symbiosis, predation, mimicry, etc.
6 = sustainablility—an aspect of non-traditional gardens—the development of permanence as in restoration projects including reforestation projects.
7 = ecological succession—an enhancement of dimension 4 (time) in that this process has a ‘mind’ of its own and proceeds toward a goal—the climax community—and as such is actually measurable.

Within this model, we can incorporate biogeochemical cycles, e. g., water, nitrogen and carbon. We can also take an ecological approach and define the ecological niches of the members of the community in the garden.

Why undergo this program of reducing the garden to a series of definable processes? In presenting the garden as a viable and sustainable system, a didactic method (using a scientific approach to teaching and learning) in which we dissect the garden and put it back together will allow the viewing of the essential elements required to construct such a garden. The devil is in the details is a good way to think about this. Small changes in the garden make for dramatic and growing changes in the garden over time. A simple extension of the garden to nature itself is the ultimate goal—not only can we restore nature one garden at a time but also we can use the garden to explain how nature works and further we can begin to see what the minimum actions on our part may be in order to develop a sustainable planet.

The Cajun Prairie Gardens and the Cajun Prairie Restoration Project in Eunice are such gardens. It is my intention to present these gardens in this light so as to assist you in understanding what I see in these gardens.

Doug Tallamy’s (2015) presentation greatly improves on the 2011 presentation that I attached to the last essay; it is in my opinion the best natural landscaping presentation of the year thus far. Although his focus is upon eastern woodland habitats and not prairies, the basic concepts are the same. Most residential areas in the prairie look just like those in the eastern forest—a lawn with a few exotic trees and shrubs—whereas they could be diverse grasslands either in miniature or on a grand scheme: His talk on biodiversity is excellent:

Posted by M. F. Vidrine


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