Transitioning the Edges of your Green Spaces

The edges of your green spaces (i.e. your garden, your habitat) are almost as useful as the entire green space itself! An “edge” is slightly different than what you are possibly thinking, as it’s not exactly the actual sides and/or ends of your garden, but actually when one habitat type meets another. A particularly distinct example is when a woodland borders farmland for crops, the trees are abruptly replaced by these crops with nothing in-between.

As you may have now guessed from the title it’s these abrupt changes in habitat that are the issue. Gradual edges harbour a greater variety of plants, animals and niches from both habitats, unlike those lacking “abrupt edges” that are quite common in gardens. The abrupt changes are more common than you’d expect, think of your raised flower beds, your clean-cut grass borders, rockery islands, display ponds, vegetable patches, potted-plants, patio flooring, fenced surroundings. These are easily the most common abrupt changes in habitat.

So, how do we change an abrupt edge into a gradual edge. We Feather them.

Feathering is the act of creating a gradual transition between the two habitat types. It can be one of numerous approaches, including cutting existing vegetation, planting various shrubs of differing heights, adding additional natural resources (i.e. logs, rocks) or other creative solutions. The practice of Edge Feathering is, at it’s core, a practice of conservation used to make edges re-hospitable for local wildlife, encouraging their travel and temporary habituation, as well as the overall habitat resilience.

Why habitat resilience? Because these edge habitats are not the ideal environments for both plants and animal specie as they present more adverse effects (environmental fluctuations, altered light cycles, increased isolation, noise etc). Therefore they will try to settle in your adjacent habitats, so you will see and increased abundance of wildlife, and a slew of plants vying for life.

Whenever an ecosystem/habitat/community changes abruptly from one to another type, this becomes a zone called an Ecotone. They can be both natural or artificial, but is often an area of interest as they span long stretches along two functioning ecosystems where the unique characteristics of both ecosystems can be seen, therefore technically making it a unique habitat in itself. These transitioning edges are extremely valued from an ecological (and economical) perspective as they are incredibly rich in biodiversity, and it’s this richness and complexity that is vital for it’s neighbouring ecosystems.

So, Ecotones & Edges, they are one and the same and have different results, but typically it’s much more beneficial to have a habitat with ‘soft’ edges rather than abrupt ‘ecotone’ edges.

Creating an edge for your habitats:

There is a little bit of thinking to be done with this, as you will have to identify the two habitats that are touching in your own garden. If I listed every possible variation, i’d never finish this post and would most likely go insane.

Re-Wildling an Edge: one of the most easily achieved approaches for edge feathering is to simply allow the local vegetation to take it’s natural course, and grow without your having to plant anything. If you are happy with a mixture of grasses, wildflowers and/or woody shrubs cropping up around the fringes then this is a good approach for you, as it will develop that natural border between your grass verges and hedgerows. It’s also a good opportunity to experiment with adding some additional structures & features into your garden around the edges without having it stand out, perhaps a hibernaculum for hibernators, an old log-pile for fungi, introduced corridors for movement etc, all of which will be grown over by vegetation naturally, semi-obscuring it from your vision and adding that extra sensation of wilderness to your garden.

However it may be that you don’t appreciate the overall style this approach leaves your garden looking like, or perhaps it wouldn’t make sense for your two habitats to have this happen (i.e. grass patch & raised flower-bed), or perhaps you would prefer to jump straight to having some shrubs & hedgerow species filling the gap between your grassland & tree patch.

Planting and/or Re-Vegetating an Edge: another great approach to edge feathering is directly planting what you prefer to have growing. Plant native plants depending on your goal and surrounding habitats. Fruit bearing shrubs, vine-growing runners, shade tolerant wood species, wildflowers & grasses, rockeries & mosses, log piles & fungi, the options are up to you! The aim is to soften the abrupt changes in habitats, hopefully increase biodiversity to support wildlife in a unused section /of your green space along the way, though through this approach it means you get to steer to that diversity in the direction you want, and therefore get the desired results that will benefit you as well. Don’t forget that nature is just as much for you as it is for wildlife.

Overall, the idea is to create a gradual change between one habitat and the next, so you can interpret that in the context of your own garden as you will. Decide if that means by height, woodiness, ability to flower, shade-cover, bearing fruit, or something a little different.

Maintaining Edges:

Once an edge is established, very little needs to be done to maintain it! In conservation, edge feathering can be completed about once-a-decade, when the edges start becoming more abrupt once again (due to the fact that you’re maintaining your habitats as they are, and habitats are liable to succession). However this can be more regular in your garden if you wish to keep your edges keeping a certain design. But again, this is very low maintenance.

Edge Effects

When edges divide a once naturally connected ecosystem [see ‘Habitat Fragmentation’], the natural ecosystem can be seriously affected through any disturbance that from then on occurs if it is directed to this edge, and this affect can impact the ecosystem for a relatively large distance inwards of the edge. To expand on this, imagine a forest that suddenly has a portion of it converted to agricultural area, creating a very slim Ecotone/Edge that has no gentle gradient. Suddenly, sunlight & wind penetrate to a greater extent into the now exposed woodland, as there is no hedgerow species to cover it’s border. Humid forest air is dried out, air temperature fluctuates wildly, and the soil composure is gradually but surely changed, all variables immediately change with the introduction of an edge.

This is known as the ‘Edge Effect’, and it is a demanding condition for any environment to be in, seeing as habitats have a very powerful compulsion to become a self-sufficient & efficient cycle, recycling many of it’s valuable materials within itself, and yet now has to maintain a leaking fissure alongside that. Happily, there is ways for conservationists to aid with these edge effects, and it’s also the topic we’ve been discussing in this post!

So, why not get stuck to your edges and try feathering it out?

So, how can you benefit directly?

Be it aesthetics, health, fruit-yield, wildlife visitations, or simple satisfaction, there are methods of habitat management that benefit both humans and wildlife alike. Here, I talk about how this approach affects you.

At this point perhaps the least surprising benefit for you is the smoother transitions between your ‘habitats’ means that you will see more wildlife in your garden. Depending on the style & new features of your improved edge, you’ve increased the likelihood of certain creatures capacity to use it’s surroundings to it’s advantage, and with that comes the rest of the food chain that depends on those creatures.

Perhaps in another less surprising benefit is the fact that your work on edges is a way to treat your overall garden space without having to laboriously treat the symptoms. Perhaps you’ve dealt with water runoff into your garden and decided to create an edge of rough, water-demanding plants. Or an overall smooth transition, letting lowers of small flowering plants have their day. You get to decide the type of Edge Habitat that will bring your garden to greater heights to suite your end goal.

Whilst your garden may not be at the scale or complexity of ancient forests, Edges bring certain environmental conditions that enable certain plant & animal species to thrive. Edge plants are typically shade-tolerant as well as drought/dry tolerant, making it perfect for placing around the brim of your garden. Animals that tend to require more than one habitat, such as deer, rabbits, jays or robins, would see these locations as abundant & comforting and be more yearning in visiting them. Though your garden is fenced off and isolated from the world, you can encourage what can visit for now. Who knows what changes the future may bring.

In terms of wildlife for you, animals use edges for travelling due to their complexity and position. Wildlife paths are created, increasing the light levels for lower plants, promoting production of vegetation, thus increasing herbivorous insect, followed by nesting birds and the upcoming trophic levels of wildlife. You can retain a solid edge habitat dedicated to lush biodiversity, numerous wildlife all whilst promoting a healthy resilience for your own garden. Look at water-land edges, where land is extremely fertile due to the exchanges of nutrients and ready water source. Why do you think forests and great civilisations situate themselves alongside bodies of water?

Yet, very rarely in nature is excessive human involvement beneficial for edges & ecotones.

Though that being said, if we can restore and/or conserve ecotones & edges we are more effectively conserving biodiversity as they hold the characteristics of more than one habitat. That’s why so much emphasis is put on wetlands worldwide. That’s why you can benefit so much by adding in edges to your garden, as you’ll see the biggest bang for your buck there when you are attempting to conserve nature in your garden. Why not try starting with a hedgerow, and the species designed to be edges for forests?

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