garden design

Harness The Edge Effect for Garden Diversity and Community Resilience

The author’s annual veggie garden, Aug 2022. Notice the edge where the path meets the garden beds. There is potential there.

Use Your Edges

For many years, I was a roller derby official at the biggest Women’s Flat Track Derby league in the world. Two of my kids played derby. We were a big roller skating family for a long time. In derby, we say “use your edges“, which is a reminder not to hang out only in the center of your balance, and only on the center of the wheels. Rock your weight from side to side, feeling the inside edge and outside edge of the wheels, using that shift to increase your agility, speed, and stopping power.

I always thought this skating phrase was humorous, because – as the lone weird permaculture nerd in derby – I knew that permaculture also has the saying, “Use the edges,” and the meanings are not so disparate. In my brain, I’d think, “How funny, edges everywhere…the overlap of skating and ecology is not an edge in which I would have expected to find myself, and yet here I am, flourishing.”

I retired from derby in 2020, but I continue to use my edges in permaculture design. Let’s explore how they help my design, and can help yours, as well.

The author’s rain garden (Baptisia australis in bloom in the foreground). The inside of the rain garden is wet, the outside dry, and the diverse plantings in the middle illustrate the edge effect.

What is the Edge Effect?

Edge effects in ecology are the changes and shifts that occur in the areas where one biome meets another, where one habitat abuts another. The overlap where these two habitats meet shares some characteristics of each, and as a result, we often see an increase in biological diversity in these edge zones. The species from each distinct biome have a chance to interact here on this “border between worlds”.

These productive border zones can be as small as the edge where a stream meets the shore, or as large as entire ecosystems. On a tiny, detailed level, we can find our edges as we transition from our front door out into our garden. We can find edges where the sunlight meets the shade. Edges abound where the flower bed meets the path. Alley cropping, hedgerows, shelterbelts, are all garden/farm-sized examples of edge creation.

In ecology, we call larger transitional habitat ecotones. They are, essentially, dynamic mixing zones, where the boundary may be shifting as one habitat encroaches on another. A prime example of an ecotone in nature is an estuary, where saltwater meets freshwater. Another is a reed bed, where the lake meets the shore. Ecotones are another kind of edge we need to consider, especially honing in on the tension that exists in these spaces, where there is a back-and-forth as two habitats press up against each other (especially since we know that disturbance can increase diversity).

On a larger scale, entire ecosystems can represent edges and transition. For example, velds, where precipitation gradients shift jungle to desert, forming a biodiverse tropical savanna as the transitional veld ecosystem. Another classic embodiment of a transitional ecosystem is the mangrove marsh (in which I have had the pleasure of snorkeling), where subtropical shore meets the ocean, and mangroves bridge the gap, creating habitat for marine life and shore creatures alike.

As we think about the edge effect, it’s important that we remember that ecosystems are not as cut and dry as humans would like to make them. We like neat, tidy, categories, but Mother Nature does not work that way. Edges can happen at any scale, and it is important that we continue to zoom in and zoom out as we observe patterns in nature. The more dynamic our observations, the more we look for the connections across and within an ecosystem, the more edges we will discover that can aid our design.

The edge of the Sandy River (Sandy, Oregon), where woodland meets the water.

Edges and Permaculture Design

In permaculture, we look to patterns in nature, and harness them to increase the diversity and abundance in our own gardens and human systems. So how can we use the ecological phenomenon of the edge effect to our advantage, in a way that benefits us, and the organisms in our systems?

Permaculture Principle #11 says, Use Edges and Value the Marginal. Learning to use our edges is a key component of permaculture design.

This principle guides us to value the edge effect, and increase the edge habitat in our gardens. You may have seen many permaculture garden beds intentionally designed without straight lines. Mandala gardens, keyhole beds, curvy, wavy borders, and unudulating perimeters, all increase the percentage of edges in our design. We know that edges tend to show increased diversity and potential, so increasing our physical edges increases our opportunity for abundance. You can explore this design potential more fully here:

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Permaculture is not strictly about gardening and habitat creation, however. Remember how I spoke earlier about zooming in and zooming out, so we don’t miss the patterns edges make in and between ecosystems? Let’s also zoom out beyond gardening, and find those edges in all of the connections in permaculture design from growing food, to human communities, and our own emotional health. How can we use our ability to hunt for and value edges in other areas of life?

Some questions we can ask ourselves as we train our minds and senses to find the use edges:

How can we value the edges as we transition from one task to another, from afternoon to evening, from one season to the next?

What marginal ideas are we overlooking? What status-quo bucking, counterculture ideas are out there, on the edge, waiting to be harnessed to create a better world?

What people in our communities have been pushed to the outskirts because they don’t fit societal expectations? How can we value and include these people?

Permaculture strives to heal our relationship with the planet and with each other be using intelligent, thoughtful design to repair damage and build future resilience. What are the ways we have overlooked the edges and devalued the marginal, when Nature tells us that in those spaces, in those people, in those opportunities lies the key to a better future? We can retrain our brains to focus in on the edges in our days and the world around us, and craft better designs that help us better care for the Earth and each other

A Meme of My Garden Went Viral. Here Are The Take-aways.

Another creator made this meme of my garden. They had to change the aspect ration of the bottom pic to fit their format, which resulted in dozens of accusation that the bottom image is photoshopped/fake.

Someone Else Meme’d My Garden. It Went Viral.

I did not intend to reboot my blog after a several year absence with a post like this. But life is full of surprises. Some welcome, and some not. It’s how we respond and adapt that makes all the difference.

This week, a documentary film company made a meme of my 14 year-old permaculture garden in Portland, Oregon, USA, using “before” and “after” images, taken more than a decade apart. It immediately went viral and was shared thousands of times across multiple social media sites.

I didn’t make this meme, and had no control of what happened to it when it was set adrift in the swirling garbage patch that is the internet. That being said, watching the descending swarm of commentors attacking a garden I have poured my heart and soul and sweat and energy into for almost a decade and a half felt like watching my baby be thrown to the wolves.

The original comparison I made a few months ago. The top image is the spring we bought our house, the bottom is early summer 2020. The garden has changed and grown even more in the last two years.

Strangers Know Your Garden Best, and They’ll Make Sure You Know It

In a matter of hours, I’d been bombarded by comments sprinkled around social media as this meme gets shared over and over:
-interested folks asking how they can learn about my garden

-other gardeners sharing their gardens which look similar

-total strangers boldly declaring the images were faked or that based on ONE picture, they were sure my garden must be overrun with snakes and mosquitoes and my water bill must be astronomical

– and hundreds of insults and offensive comments. “Looks like a foreclosure.” “I’d move if this was my neighbor.” “What a mess.” “She wouldn’t know a pretty garden if it bit her in the ass.” “Looks like shit.”

As a small-time YouTuber, but dedicated garden educator whose real life is lived in blissful anonymity, I’m not accustomed to being pelted with disgraceful behavior like this from hundreds of total strangers. Performative cruelty lobbed straight at me and my home is not a daily occurence in my life. Needless to say, it’s been a rough couple of days.

The author in her garden, seated underneath a hazelnut tree,
July 2022.

The Problem is the Solution

My heart feels a bit beat up, and my idealistic belief in humanity shaken a bit, but I wouldn’t be a permaculturist if I didn’t choose to see this experience as an option to design for a better world. In permaculture we have a saying, “The problem is the solution.” This simple phrase means that hidden in the problem are the keys to designing solutions that heal. When we break apart and examine the problem, when we reframe the “problem” as an opportunity to observe and learn, we can begin to understand and craft solutions. Pain, hardship, failure all can lead us toward solutions if we let them.

Let’s start with reframing. I don’t have a “slugs are eating my greens” problem. I have an “abundance of duck food” solution. Similarly, I don’t have a “windy spot where every plant gets windburn” problem. I have a “chance to design a windbreak and create shelter” opportunity.

The author’s daughter, Ruth, in the garden with her turkey, Frenchy Fry. July 2022.

So, what is the solution in this situation? As I kept sifting through the comments, two areas for improvement rose to the forefront for me.

The Solution is People Care

1. What can be learned when folks feel entitled to weaponize their loneliness, anger, bitterness and denigrate a stranger and her work in public? What can we do to help improve our People Care when we interact with each other?

As the parent of 4 kids, I see the solution in our youth: in the ways they’re normalizing therapy, working on healthy communication and empathy. They’re learning to set boundaries. They actively work on healing from their trauma. They’re growing into the kinds of adults who can make a better future.

Those of us who have positive relationships with kids can help encourage the permaculture ethic of People Care and promote a culture of nontoxic and empathetic interaction. You don’t have to be a parent to work on your own issues and help instill non-toxic masculinity, strong boundary setting, and compassionate communicate in kids. In fact, doing so helps you heal from the trauma we hope to never strap our kids with in the first place.

We have an opportunity here to be better people, and do better by each other going forward. When we heal the ways we think about and relate to other human beings, we are on the road to creating resilient communities.

Shifting Our Expectations of Front Yard Gardens

2. Why is it that the dominant (particularly American) mindset is that a lawn with a row of boxwoods is “pretty” and “tidy” and “good”, and a vibrant, productive garden that creates habitat for wildlife, and food and resilience for the family who lives there is seen as “ugly” and “messy” and “trashy”? We’ve been so indoctrinated we have lost sight of what truly diverse and thriving gardens look like, and boring, resource-heavy lawns have been normalized. The solution is to retrain our eyes,, our hearts, our cultural norms.

Those of us who already garden this way, should do it proudly and work to shift the culture and our expectations to see permaculture systems for what they are: a way to improve the lives of the folks who live there and increase resilience and biodiversity. We have an opportunity here to educate and a chance to expand our view of beauty so that we can become resilient people in an increasingly unstable world.

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Am I saying I expect everyone to like my way of gardening? No. Am I expecting every unique individual to love my lush, abundant permaculture garden when they’ve been conditioned their whole lives to see flat grass and shapeless blobs of ornamental shrubs as beautiful? Not by any means. In fact, permaculture is site-specific design. Every garden is tailored to the needs of the gardener and her land and climate. So, I don’t expect anyone’s garden to look just like mine.

But I do hope we can learn to do better by each other and by the planet. We are better than the worst of these comments. These folks who took their time and their energy to behave in public with performative cruelty toward a stranger not only show the rest of us how not to be, but they themselves have the opportunity to do better going forward.

The author’s eldest child, Ruth, working in the garden and hanging out with her turkey.

I don’t think I could have made it more than 20 years doing permaculture in late-stage capitalism, a warming climate, and a divisive culture if I wasn’t an idealist. I couldn’t do what I do if I didn’t eternally hope for the best for people and the planet. I’m glad to be back to blogging, and while this isn’t quite the topic I had intended to relaunch my blog, I’ll take it and learn the lessons along the way.

I’ll be posting regularly here while I continue to make YouTube videos and work on writing my book. Lots more to come on permaculture design, practical resilient gardening, and community connection.