Succession of Plant Communities

Pictures of the soil on top of rock in Finland.


Late successional plants do well with fungi paper. Succession talk.

Agriculture, as you might know, involves living organisms, so the same goals and strategies out in the wild also exist in the pasture, field or garden.

This is us. We go from dense mantle to less dense rock to less dense soil to less dense life. We go from barren to early colonizers to perennials. We increase species richness and diversity along the way.


“Instead of getting it’s nutrients from the soil, the lichen extracts nutrients out of rain droplets running off the land, and out of the rock on which it sits. In this process the lichen will start to break down the rock, and some parts of the lichen may die and start to decompose. Slowly, very slowly, this process of pioneer species growing, spreading and dying will occur, often over the space of hundreds of years. Throughout this the bare rock is reduced to many smaller rocks with very old decomposed plant litter scattered about, i.e. a very basic soil.” “If nature is constantly going along this process from bare rock to mature forests, why isn’t the whole planet covered in these forests? That’s because the natural world is not stable. Whilst over time plant communities dutifully march along the process of succession, every now and then they get knocked back.”

Diversity of genes builds resilience. Think about pure-blood dog breeds and humans that mate with relatives.

Farming is all about trade-offs after all!


Agriculture is all about trade-offs. Tillage and other disturbances offer benefits today, while harming tomorrow. Farmers and ranchers that are willing to sacrifice today (yield, weed presssure, social negatives, etc.) for tomorrow are taking advantage of succession and the services that a healthy ecosystem can offer that only get stronger as time goes on. More and more pesticides and fertilizers are needed as time goes on. If they were so effective, why do we need more?

Conventional agricultural practices are highly disruptive to the natural ecosystem, so it’s unsurprising that many fields and pastures around the world resemble conditions in the early stages of succession. Remember, this is the stage that provides a competitive advantage to many weeds, pests and pathogens.

I’d like to reiterate my stance from previous articles that waging wars against nouns is never a winning proposition, so I’m of the opinion that viewing the situation as a war is doomed to fail from the start. We need to work with nature. Go with the flow of river rather than spending so much energy paddling against it.


Left to its own devices, nature creates diversity and color. We tend to create monocultures and monochromatic creatures (urban pigeons, rats, grey 1800’s butterfly example) We need to think about what it means to be healthy. In general, succession promotes an increase in diversity and richness of species, particularly in the transition from pioneer landscape to perennial species. The more modes of action, the more resilient. If only we had a product with hundreds of modes of action able to change with the changing nature of microbes, insects and weeds. We do! It’s called a rich, diverse biological community and it’s the most cost-effective product that a farm or ranch could ever invest in. Given the appropriate amount of energy and nutrients, it’s self-sustaining, self-regulating and self-healing. The reality is that we live on a planet where everything is constantly in motion and ever-changing. Organisms big and small have their different strategy of staying alive and reproducing by utilizing various available resources. Strategies differ, but the goal is the same.  Think about invasive species like kudzu that are introduced into a new environment without a natural predator. In those special cases, ecological systems may need our intervention while the system readjusts to find a place for the invasive in its dynamic equilibrium. But that’s the thing, biology drives the system and a system with more diversity and abundance of life has a much higher chance of finding a healthy and balanced dynamic equilibrium. What happens if our antimicrobial drugs and pesticides lose their efficacy? We’re in for a world of hurt if we don’t change our management style to account for the resilience and speed of biology. Another way to think about it is that every farmer or rancher on the planet makes their living on a thin layer of icing on a thick, rocky cake. The only difference is the depth of soil to the parent material, generally speaking. Think about what lies beneath your feet, how your local soil formed, how it is sustained and how it can be improved with your management. Species affect conditions and conditions affect conditions. Go out in nature and think about how those grasslands or forests aren’t overrun by disease or pests. If you live in an area with an invasive insect or plant, I feel for you.





Farms and ranches that decide to work with nature in this endeavor are achieving  energy, water and nutrient cycling.


In other words, succession only moves forward with the implementation of practices that promote soil health and support healthy populations of all microbes, plants and animals.


As if there weren’t enough reasons to increase diversity on our operations, changing environmental conditions affect plant root structures different, with …. Forb-only grassland was found to have the least amount of below-ground biomass, forb/grass even split had more and grass-only grassland had the most below-ground biomass. ( This is important to remember as you may often hear regenerative educators say things like “Don’t sweat the weeds.” What we mean is that the term “weed” is subjective. Corn in a corn field is a cash crop, but corn in a soybean field is a weed. The only crime it committed was not being desirable, so it just depends on the context. We can learn from these forbs because the conditions are right for them to prosper.

Now, it’s important to know that  forbs become a smaller and smaller proportion of plant population as landscapes progress along the succession pathway.


If you’re trying to exhaust your soil of weed seeds, good luck. Think back to Surtsey Island. Seeds were carried by wave currents, air currents and migrating animals. If this happens on a literal island in the middle of the water, how much more does this happen in an agricultural field by wildlife and forest, prairie, field edges and neighboring fields. (

Thinking back to the beginning with Surtsey Island and the thin layer of soil on top of rock and plants growing seemingly out of rock. This is the way things have to be or else soil and plants and microbes and diversity and rainforests and savannas wouldn’t exist. They’d be too susceptible to domination somewhere along the process and not make it. But we see natural ecosystems move toward abundance and diversity when left to their own devices. Health is the default setting. Apparently so is diversity and richness that move succession along.

Conditions in nature that pioneer species thrive in are bare rock and recently disturbed systems, by fire, tornado or other natural events. Agricultural disturbances like tillage and pesticide applications create conditions like bare rock and disturbed environments.

Nature is self-organizing, self-healing and self-regulating, which means that its natural tendency is to move toward complexity, resourcefulness and resiliency. Pairing this with pragmatism is the best way forward. It’s very challenging for a crop farmer to work within this framework but examples abound. Pasture management is easier in some respects but still provides great challenges.

Unfortunately, our human tendency to create arbitrary boundaries clouds our ability to see the similarities between biological systems. This tendency limits our ability to learn lessons from other industries, which is unfortunate because. Below are four of the most important of these principles.


  1.  The vast majority of organisms are beneficial and prevent opportunists from dominating. As the Cleveland Clinic writes, “Every person’s gut is home to trillions of microorganisms, most of which are beneficial. These helpful microbes perform many important services in your body, including preventing unhelpful germs from taking over.” ( Another service they provide is the excretion of health-promoting compounds after consuming undigested food in our intestines.  One such byproduct is butyrate, a short-chain fatty acid which “forms the key energy source for human colonocytes (colon cells) and also has potential anti-cancer activity via the ability to induce apoptosis (programmed cell death) of colon cancer cells.” ( Vitamin K2 , known to help the body clot blood, build strong bones and prevent calcium deposits in your arteries (, is another byproduct of microbial metabolism. (
  2.  Diversity and balance increase the number of services offered. “The more variety of these healthy microorganisms you have, the more they can do for you.” ( “For the microbiome to flourish, the right balance must exist, with the healthy species dominating the less healthy.” (
  3. Available food sources largely determine the composition of active species. (AKA feed them and they will come) “The health of the microbiome is influenced by diet, and that the composition of the microbiome influences the risk of health outcomes.” ( “We show that consumption of particular types of food produces predictable shifts in existing host bacterial genera. Furthermore, the identity of these bacteria affects host immune and metabolic parameters, with broad implications for human health.” ( Fermented foods improve diversity ( Fiber comes in many types, feeding diverse species. (
  4. Disrupting the diversity and balance increases the risk of disease or predation. “Unsurprisingly, therefore, perturbation to the composition and function of the gut microbiota has been associated with chronic diseases ranging from gastrointestinal inflammatory and metabolic conditions to neurological, cardiovascular, and respiratory illnesses.” (