Story and Photo by CHRISTIE GREEN
Fences. Walls. Borders. Zones. Designated areas. We are comfortable with a clear definition of what does and does not belong. Somehow, a tree perfectly encircled by stones at its base, provides a sense of ease, of understanding, of order, or aesthetic pleasure; the tree has thusly been recognized and validated by a human. Garden beds with clear boundaries, formed by steel edging, where the intended growing begins and unintentional vagrant vegetation ends, provide a sense of security. Humans fashion edges and boundaries out of everything imaginable: wood, stone, asphalt, brick, painted lines, metal – and even beliefs.
But where does the inside stop and the outside begin? What is chosen to be kept and cultivated, or rejected and omitted? Growth, fertility, possibility and imagination, thrive in gardens of mixed uses and overlapping edges. An ecotone, or edge zone (in ecology parlance) is a place where divergent ecological systems meet and interact, where increased species types and biodiversity converge and mingle. Ecotones are some of the most vibrant, vital places in nature: woodland meets grassland; mixed conifer forest meets alpine meadow; prairie meets wetland; ocean meets shore. Our gardens may, too, be places of increased biodiversity, resilience and dimension, if encouraged to expand beyond defined, well kept, orderly physical – and mental – borders. Can the stone pathway become more than a walking route? Could the vegetable garden’s critter-deterrent fence evolve beyond a formidable fortress? Might the plants themselves be considered for more than their foliar figure?
Every object or living being has an edge; a place where it ends and something else begins. Consider the perennial plant, whose roots supposedly begin deep in the soil and end at the plant’s crown, where its stem begins, then its leaves, flower, fruit and so on. But is this so? Is there a place where the plant actually, definitely ends? Plant roots, along with mycorrhizal fungi, chemical compounds in the soil, micro and macro organisms, minerals and nutrients, interact continuously and mysteriously throughout the life – and death – cycle of the plant. The effects of plant roots extend beyond measure, as does the effects of its flower, fruit and seed. Did the plant stay where it was planted? Did it perform according to plan, displaying its chosen hue through the prime growing season, as if on remote control command? Did the flower attract just the right amount of the right kinds of beneficial insects and pollinators, or did its nectar become a sticky nuisance, attracting ants and buzzing, biting bees? What is the flower’s acceptable edge? Its acceptable bloom? Scent? Behavior?
Would it be possible to invite a plant into the garden, place it according to where we understand it most likely to thrive and then observe, learn and embrace – indeed celebrate – its tendency to rebel against our sharpened shears and sturdy trellises? Would it be possible to grin giddily at the unexpected surprise of its seedlings, borne by air, bird plop or shoe tread in the most unlikely, undesignated places? Is it conceivable to delight in that which we do not control, that which evokes wonder?
Perhaps it’s more plausible to grasp the idea of expansive, fuzzy, indefinable edges, when considering a living being such as a plant. But what of supposedly inanimate objects, such as stone, brick or metal? What place have they in the growing garden or in our minds, geared as they are towards the manipulation of and construction with these elements? Edge zones also occur on a micro level, where boulder bottoms meet soil, flagstone pavers meet grassy groundcover, brick portal lip meets roof drip line and vertical coyote fence encounters vining tendrils.
As you may witness during the rainy season, weeds and vegetation of all sorts thrive in gravelly, rocky areas. Why? These are hotter locations of more highly compacted soil, yes, but they are also moisture reserves, where residual precipitation is not exposed to sun and air, offering a hydrating reservoir for thirsty plants. Along stacked stone walls, meandering flagstone walkways and in succulent rock gardens, reside prime planting opportunities. The stones also provide wonderful warm microclimates, where spring’s brave, blooming bulbs peek out eagerly before snows melt and where tomatoes and sun-loving crops thrive more surely through our cool nights. The stones’ edges, though oft times angular, hard and rigid, perform multiple functions beyond a one-dimensional surface. Texture, color and the stability of stone, coalesce into an essential garden element, whose possibilities defy hammer and chisel.
Vertical support structures, while necessary for twining vines and dangling blossoms, also offer opportunities for seeing our surroundings differently. Rather than merely supporting upward growth or fencing out intruders, they encourage a view of the world outside, above or beyond, in a refreshing way, as artful frames introducing or accentuating an edge. An open milled lumber pergola frames the expansive sky above, in solid, wooden contrast to bold blue – a living “ceiling” above the outdoor living space. Or character fences of unusual shape or woven material, whose artistic function trumps border patrol: the other side, as seen through spherical windows or the tease of the garden’s allure, beckons to passers-by through slight slits in courtyard gates. The edges between built space and imagination, glimpses into places beyond our property lines and premeditated function, foster heightened diversity of thinking and being. Indeed, this suggestion of a hybridized, “edge” version of landscape, imbues richness, depth and flexible room for healthy growth.
Rather than a singular definition or boundary, it is in the soft and hardscapes of our garden ecotones that each species and object shapes the other, where we have the opportunity to craft and celebrate our definition and experience of land and life. The contemplation and practice of gardening, landscaping and living as nature’s beings, may be jostled out of the comfortable confines of customary beliefs and garden element function. Our self-imposed edges may evolve into areas of increased possibility – in the garden, in the mind. Go on, peek under that stone!
Christie Green is the proprietress of Down to Earth, LLC. Visit her website at www.getdowntoearthlandscapes.com, or call 505-983-5743