For people, edges can feel hard like scary places. For plants and animals, edges can be diverse places where both challenges and opportunities abound. Using edges and valuing what lives in the margins is one of the core principles of permaculture.
What is Permaculture?
Permaculture is a system of ecological design. It is a collection of ecological principles that can help guide your decisions as you create a garden, a home, and a life that works well with the rest of nature. In our permaculture series, we’re introducing different permaculture principles such as creating mutually beneficial systems called guilds and seeing problems as a solution.
How Do Animals and Plants Use Edges?
In nature, animals and plants often thrive on edges. These edges also serve as a place where materials and nutrients flow across ecosystems, and they are a hub for biodiversity. Imagine the edge of a forest. Inside the forest, it may be dark, and there are many trees. Animals and plants that like the interior forest live there. Outside the forest, there could be a field or other space. In that field, animals that like open space live. Snakes might like in the tall grass, and deer browse.
What happens at the edge between these two environments? It’s the place where the deer come to enjoy the grass and can still duck into the forest and get away from predators. It’s the place where hawks sit and watch over the grass from the vantage point of a tall tree. The edge provides opportunities that aren’t found in either environment.
At the edge of a stream, lake, or ocean, the same thing occurs. In the Pacific Northwest, bears that live in the forest go to the rivers to feed, dragging salmon carcasses back into the forest, where they rot and add nutrients to the forest.
Learn more with this book: The 12 Principles of Permaculture: How to Put to Work Permaculture Principles in Your Life Now
Creating and Using Edge Environments
If you are applying permaculture to a garden design, you want to maximize edge. There are many ways to get more edge.
- If you’re making a garden bed, make it wave in and out to get a lot of diverse environments where different plants can grow.
- When you install a pond, make crenelated edges to double the side of the pond edge without making the pond any wider.
- Design a herb spiral instead of a flat herb garden, and you’ll create many edges, from a dark and damp area at the bottom to a warm dry area at the top.
- Stagger plantings in a vegetable garden instead of making perfect rows, and you’ll be able to add more plants.
- Create pits and swales in your garden to collect organic matter and water in your garden and create new edges where plants can grow.
Use permaculture to make your small space garden even better!
Living on the Edge
If you’d like to go on a more philosophical journey, you can also explore how this permaculture concept applies to your own life. Where are your edges and how could they be rich and diverse?
You might live in a community with very different cultures or beliefs. Are there places where these meet, where you could collaborate with others who are very different from you to create something that would benefit both groups?
An edge can be where two systems meet. For example, I currently work on the edge of the education system, working with a local school district to create a part time nature school for children. This is a very different kind of education and it has many challenges. However, it also has rich opportunities to create something that is new and different and draws from the best of both the accessibility of the public education system and the nonprofit world of outdoor education.
How have you used edges in your life, on your homestead, and in your garden?
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