Self-sustaining food, fibre and energy producing ecosystems
by Grégoire Lamoureux
Effect in Your Permaculture Garden
Looking at different principles to help us establish our abundant diverse
food system, we notice in Nature the “edge effect.” An edge is defined as an
interface between two mediums, such as the surface between the water and the
air, or the shoreline between land and water, or the space between the forest
and the grassland. Wherever species, climate, soils, slope or any natural
conditions or artificial boundaries meet, we have edges. Other examples would
be: mountain and valley, estuary and ocean, the orchard and the garden, country
and city, edges of buildings, fences, roads, etc.
We usually find species from both environments living in the space created by
those edges, and we often find species particular to that edge itself. The
effect of edges is also to create a microclimate that makes it possible for a
wider variety of plants to flourish.
We can increase diversity by increasing the amount of edges in our
environment. Older settlements, and often today's large cities, are found at the
edge of two ecosystems. Vancouver is at the edge of the ocean and the land, the
edge of the valley and the mountain. It offers the opportunity to use the
abundance of both ecosystems to feed and sustain those communities. Edge species
are often more flexible, resilient pioneer species, and often invasive. In
general, we can say that humans are an edge species.
We can make use of the positive side of the edge effect by creating more
edges in and around the garden, by having curved or wavilinear beds and
pathways. Also by raising beds, and creating mounds or pit gardens, we can
increase the amount of plants that we can “stack” in a small amount of space.
Having ponds or planting at the edge of water (creek, lake, etc.) also creates
the edge effect. You can have many plants requiring a lot of water growing in
So there are two different ways of looking at it: either to set up our
ecosystems in a naturally rich environment with many edges, or to create
different edges around the landscape.
By living near the forest, or by planting many trees and creating a
mini-forest, we will attract many birds that will eat many insects. Birds also
will pass, in their droppings, seeds that will grow into berry-producing shrubs
or trees that will attract more birds, etc. An interesting technique is to plant
a post for the birds to perch on, and at the base their droppings will grow into
shrubs or trees. To establish a hedge of plants, you plant two posts with a wire
or a string in between so that birds can perch all along. Their droppings will
fertilize the ground below and eventually transform it into a hedge.
Using trellises, fences or walls to grow plants creates more vertical edges.
The zig-zag pattern is another way of having more plants within the same area.
Zig-zag fences can handle more wind than a straight fence. A similar phenomenon
can be observed around a clearing in the forest (also in a timber-area clearcut): if the edge is a straight line, it won't be as stable as a wavilinear
edge, and nature will eventually correct the situation through blow-down, and
follow it by promoting shrubs and smaller pioneer trees, to create a more stable
edge. We can use such observations and, by working with nature, create more
stable, diverse and productive cultivated ecosystems. The edge of forest is
where a lot of berries and highly productive plants grow.
Designing a pond with a round shape will offer the least amount of edges for
a given area of water. A square shape has a bit more edges. Using a crenellated
form (large or small lobes) gives far more edges, and a pond designed in a
spiral-shape will have even more edges! Then we are able to put a lot of plants
around the shore, such as blueberry, mint, willows, bamboos, etc. – hence more
yield. The same applies for the depth, if there is only a uniform depth or one
regular slope to the bottom, the amount and diversity of plants you grow will be
different than if you have an irregular bottom with many depths to grow
different plants requiring different conditions, such as reeds, rushes, and
water lilies. You can also have fish living in deeper water.
A very interesting and very productive system called Chinampa is found in
Mexico (a similar system is used in Thailand). It consists almost entirely of
edges. It is a series of channels filled with water that are used to grow fish
and other water-loving plants alternated by mounds of earth where plants are
grown on the banks and top, providing different microclimates for different
requirements. Also, trees and shrubs are planted and trellises are installed.
The amount of water creates a more temperate climate, and reflection creates
more light. Some food from the trees will fall into the water as part of the
food chain that will feed the fish or humans living there. Once in a while, the
muck from the bottom is brought up by farmers to fertilize, keeping the garden
soil very healthy. This is one of the most productive humanly made ecosystems
and require a minimum of maintenance.
Life at the edge is very exciting!
Grégoire Lamoureux is the Director of the Kootenay Permaculture Institute, Box
43, Winlaw BC V0G 2J0.