Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Living on the Edge

Have you ever noticed how weeds grow so well (and quickly) at the edges of driveways, garden beds,  fences, retaining walls and other structures?  In permaculture we call this the "Edge Effect".  Edges (also known as Ecotones) are the blended result of two or more ecosystems meeting (which results in highly fertile, ultra diverse places).  Edges are also "nutrient collectors" because they tend to "catch" debris and runoff (which further boosts fertility in these already diverse places).

Each "area" in a landscape is it's own ecosystem (as well as forming part of a larger ecosystem).  Looking at the picture below you can see the grass in the distance (which is it's own ecosystem), then in the mid-ground, you can see our (immature) food forest with a wood chip pathway.   Notice how in the lower right corner, the creeping weeds have rapidly taken over since recent rainfalls.  This area (lower right corner) is highly fertile because it's the edge between the gravel driveway and the wood chip pathway.  It ALWAYS gets weedy faster and is the perfect example of an Ecotone.   Instead of fighting the weeds here, I could plant creeping thyme or another creeping plant that would thrive in this setting and choke out the invasive weeds. 

Below is the front of the food forest (bordering on the front grassy area).   Notice how the dandelions and other weeds have been hard at work establishing in the grass along this ecotone.  I should have taken the picture BEFORE I weeded, because there were PLENTY of weeds in the wood chip mulch along this fertile edge.  Normally, this area would be planted out to take advantage of the edge's fertility, but as we are moving, all further development of the food forest has halted.  Last year, this area was planted to potatoes to help break up the soil in preparation for planting this year.  Berry bushes and edible perennials would thrive in this location.

In other areas of the garden we have raspberries planted all along the edge between the driveway and the orchard.  Clearly, these berries are happy as the canes are just loaded with berries which will hopefully be ripe enough for us to enjoy before we head to the coast.

Lastly, for beauty, fragrance and bee food, these climbing roses are making full use of the fertility along the garden fence (another Ecotone).  It may be hard to see, but nearly every flower has a bee hard at work inside!

 Ecotones can also be good places to plant somewhat invasive plants IF CAREFUL ATTENTION IS PAID to setting limits to spreading.  As an example, I have mint growing where it is surrounded on 4 sides (2 concrete walkways, a metal window well and a frequently used stone pathway).   The mint grows well in this ecotone thanks to all those edges and it repels mice from tunnelling under the concrete stairs (the primary reason for choosing to plant it in this area).   As I have planted it in this highly limiting/constricting space, it can be controlled with ease (and has been for several years).   

A common Ecotone in urban settings is along a driveway edge.  Planting a berry hedge in an area such as this can solve the "weed" problem AND net a tasty yield with very little work.  Instead of looking at weedy edges on your property as a problem, look at them with a new view and appreciate them as a fertile asset.  Determine what you could plant to net a yield which would take advantage of the Ecotones on your property.  I'd love to hear about your plans :)


  1. The edges on my veg garden are always a nightmare for weeds. Ive been looking at experimenting with straw bale planting as a way to control the edges a bit better and to produce some good compost. I think I have too many edges to control that's the problem!

    1. You can never have too many edges! LOL Edges can be maximized to boost production so try not to look at the edges as a weedy liability - look to them as a fertile asset :) It's all in how you look at them.

      The soil at the edges need something to grow or the weeds will quickly fill in the space. Your edges could be planted to beets, carrots, lettuce, greens, etc... Even a cover crop/green manure crop will control what grows there (and suppress weeds) plus create more fertility and soil conditioning.