Ecoregions: why should we care?

One of the key concepts that an ecologically minded gardener should keep in mind while designing and fostering their landscapes is the concept of ecoregion. Ecoregions are large units of land or water containing relatively unique geographically distinct species, natural communities and environmental conditions (such as geology and climate). The EPA provides 4 different levels of ecoregion demarcation, and it’s easy to get lost in the weeds if you are nerd enough to do it (I dare you!). You can spend a lot of time looking at the different levels of patterns and miss the larger point: how do I use it as a gardening tool (I mean, hortus instrumentum)?

Ecoregion information provides many things to keep in mind to avoid working a lot harder than necessary. Two adages in smart, sustainable gardening are: “right plant, right place” and “don’t fight the site”. It is a lot easier to garden using what the land offers than to try and impose a set of growing conditions upon it.

Ecoregions are largely defined by two of the most difficult things to change in Yoeman’s Scale of Permanence: climate and landform. To alter these two drivers of the garden is like fighting the wind…good luck. Better to work with than against those two factors. I do not know about you, but I like to garden for peace of mind and trying to change what I cannot is counterproductive to that goal!

Wellfield Botanic Gardens sits within the Battle Creek/Elkhart Outwash Plains, which is sometimes defined as Elkhart Til Plains. This region was shaped by glacial action, leaving behind an interesting geomorphology with largely well-drained soils. The area was dominated by various forest matrices of oaks and the shrub and herbaceous layers associated with these different oak communities. Wellfield’s Woodland Conservation Garden is becoming an example of an oak-hickory upland forest. Creating backyard habitats mimicking some of these features (if it is appropriate for your specific site) may reduce the amount of time and effort spent on, and increase the joy received from, the landscape over time. There are some online planting resources that might give you some ideas. As one source linked to this post states, 

“Original vegetation cover in this region was diverse. The most common forest cover was oak-hickory forest and beech forest, and there was also oak savannah, wet and dry tallgrass prairies, and tamarack swamps. Dry tallgrass prairies were found on the driest sites, and oak savannah mostly on gently sloping terrain. Frequent fires were essential in maintaining the prairies and savannahs”.

So, the good news is, this region supports a range of different habitats (largely due to the variation in land form created by the glaciers), so there is a habitat style to fit every site’s constraints. 

Ecoregions can serve as a starting point for a new design, or as a beginning point in troubleshooting a systemic challenge you face in your yard. If nothing else, it will make for some interesting reading at night.

Josh Steffen, Horticulture and Facilities Manager

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