The most productive land is always found where two habitats meet. This is called the edge effect.
The three basic habitats are field, forest, and water. The border where the field and forest intersect is the most bio-diverse and active part of the whole forest, or the whole field. The intersection where a lake meets the land is the most active and species-rich area of both habitats.
Light penetrates the edge of a forest and stimulates growth of an increasing variety of plants, which leads to greater insect concentration and diversity, which increases bird activity. Many forms of insect and animal life travel back and forth across the edge for food and shelter; some species live only at the edge. In a lake, the vast majority of the fish live close to the shore. The land touching the water is equally dense with diverse life. This friction along the edge continually stimulates greater bio-diversity and soil health.
Understanding edge effects is critical to sustainable farming. Our farm is located in a harsh and barren land; poor soil, brutal climate, salty groundwater, highly destructive pests, and permanent drought conditions. I had to select our garden space very carefully to give the farm the best chance to survive. Clear-cutting with a dozer and chemically treating the land was simply not going to work, financially or ecologically.
Our gardens are tucked into the habitat edges of our property. Our farm is not a grid of rectangular plots planted in segregated monocultures. Our gardens flow with the natural contours of the land where they benefit from, and contribute to, the richest soil and greatest bio-diversity. The greater the diversity of a garden, or farm, the stronger and more productive it becomes.
Native American Indians planted gardens this way. They did not have the industrial equipment to clear-cut forests, or the chemicals to treat the inevitable problems of clear-cutting. (When they needed to remove trees, Indians used a method called girdling, which I will tell more about later.) Indians focused their labor and resources on the highly productive edges, where their gardens received the greatest returns. Instead of constantly fighting nature, they harnessed the raw power of nature and channeled it into the garden.
Our gardens do not hurt the natural environment of our farm; they help it immensely. Our plantings and rotational grazing closely mimic the natural cycle that occurs at the edges, with slightly modified flora and fauna. The space around our gardens has exploded with life since I first began to develop them, despite the severe drought of the last five years. All parties have benefitted from our partnership.
Someday, when we stop farming this land, our gardens will continue to flourish with wildlife as they revert to the true natural condition. Our farming will have actually improved the environment. In the meantime, our methods make us more financially successful as farmers, as opposed to using the conventional chemical methods, which, I am convinced, would have caused our fast failure. Leaving the land better than we found it is an emotional dividend that I can’t quantify.