I am an ecological designer. My design domains are educational and food systems. As a ecological designer, I focus on designing systems that feature relationships that benefit all of the participants (i.e., mutualistic relationships). When I’m designing garden spaces, that means I focus on the relationships between the specific plants in my gardens, the soil they are growing in, the organisms living in the soil and the sun, water and air required by those plants and other organisms. The best way to come to understand how to use mutualistic relationships as a resource in a designed environment, is to observe how those relationships work in unplanned physical groupings of organisms.

A high desert guild

Today’s activity is for your family to work together to find a group of three or more organisms living together and to experience, describe, represent and explain something about the relationships between those organisms. Start by going for a walk looking for three or more plants growing together. In low rainfall areas, like where I live or in the high desert where I took the above photo, this is especially easy because plants tend to clump together with relatively lifeless patches in between them. Ask your child to look carefully at the group you find. We permaculture people call these kinds of groups, guilds. Then, ask your child to describe the physical relationships between the plants (and any animals you might see) in the group. Is the grass under or over the spiky plant? What’s next to the grass? If your child can handle a crayon, ask them to draw what they see.

Now that they’ve experienced the grouping of organisms and described and represented it, ask them to explain why the organisms might have the physical relationships to each other that they have: Why might grass be growing under the other plants? Why might the plants be clumped together? Is there more organic matter on the soil beneath the guild than around it? If so, why? Which plants are getting direct sunlight and which are in the shade? Is the soil moister beneath the guild you’ve identified? If so, why? How might the grass benefit the shrub? How might the shrub benefit the grass?

I fully believe that ecological design is humanities future. If we keep treating ourselves, each other and the rest of life on Earth, as independent beings all in competition with each other, our remaining time on Earth will be very limited. I hope this exercise helps you and your family see and appreciate even more of the interdependence that surrounds us!

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