Principle 11: Use Edges and Value the Marginal

Image of 2 pieces of torn tan and block paper

Living on the edge

In a society, the edge is where free thinkers go to live – innovative ideas thrive there.  In nature, it's also a wonderful place to reside. This permaculture principle takes us there.

You're so Edgy

An edge is where two systems butt up against each other – water meets land and an estuary is born, two companies merge their similar experimental cutting-edge technologies to develop a new better product or a Ska band moves in next door to an investment banker and new friendships are made at their shared fence - Introducing new plants and animal species, inspiring technological breakthroughs and sparking new conversations that may not have ever have happened otherwise.

Image of a person and a boat on snowy icy estuary

Edges are easier to see in nature than in other more abstract forms such as friendships and technology.  I love to wander the edges of nature, the places where the land meets the sea in the form of mangroves, where coral meets ocean to form coral reefs, the banks of where rivers and streams meet, a timberline on a mountain or where an evergreen forest meets a dark deep shady cove: these are all very biodiverse environments that can captivate my attention four hours.

Image of mangroves in water at sunset

Invisible and Abstract

I also like to think about and experience the invisible or abstract edges that exist in things like relationships. An intimate relationship creates a new reality for its participants that previously did not exist.  Knowing this going in each person can intentionally choose how to contribute to this new reality creating the highest quality interaction possible for both entities. 

It’s a little bit of an adjustment in thinking to view relationships as a weaving of the edges of your reality with the edges of another person’s.  However, this third or blended reality means that you can consciously choose how much and which part of your reality to share allowing you to create new, exciting authentic moments. 

Image of cat and dog on a couch together

The result of two or more ideas being formed to purposely find a synergy that produces a new understanding of an idea or topic is what designers do. It helps them better understand a market or how to turn an idea on its head. 

A couple of great tools that exemplify this and that I have personally used are the Creative Whack Pack card set by Roger Von Oech which inspires strategy development and problem-solving. The other is the book Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative-Thinking Techniques by Michael Michalko.  Both are great for helping you see what happens when two worlds collide.


Image of Creative Whack Pack card set
Image of the book thinker toys

Permies Love a Good Edge

A Permaculture system should be designed to include as much edge as possible by imitating the patterns found in nature.  Spiral, circular, crenelated, wavy, zigzagged – there are no straight lines in nature, and for good reason.  A straight line may be the shortest distance between two points, but it doesn't create the most edge. Therefore they exist so infrequently in the natural world.

Image of Antelope canyon

Value the Marginal

As well, this principle calls us to find and seek value where we think it is least likely to exist. To value the marginal no resources should be wasted – a weed can feed a compost pile; an entry-level employee may have valuable ideas that lead to improved productivity or a start-up business on the fringe of an industry creating a revolutionary product.

Edges in the Garden

Edges are so abundant in the natural world that they are everywhere.  Get down on your hands and knees, crawl outside and examine closely the edge where the sidewalk meets the yard or what other thousands of edges you see while down there.  Ok get up you are attracting attention.  Seriously, there are other worlds there, the detail, the patterns, and the diversity all blended together.  It’s just another way nature likes to blow our minds, thanks nature, you are rocks!

Drawn image of people on their hands and knees

 A curving well beaten garden path creates more edge for plants but also allows for greater accessibility to the garden and looks better than a boring straight path.  Think back to Principle 7:  Design from Patterns to Details and the garden example I gave of plants in a key-hole pattern. 

The edge of a well-beaten path or a fence line can create valuable and productive places where life happens. Where edges meet plants can volunteer and create natural garden beds, or they might become a napping spot for a lazy cat. 

Image of tropic garden with a curvy path

Edges in Organizations

In society at large, where do you see edges when communities or organizations meet?  Activists, marketers, and individuals tasked with growing the presence of an organization push the edge of their organizations into that of other organizations.


When two organizations connect, they begin to develop a new mutually beneficial edge formed by the linking. Working together guided by the new vision individuals and organizations can be creative in new innovative and productive ways.

Image of business partners sitting at a table

When two organizations have partnered, not merged but partnered, it means they took an agreed-upon set of procedures/policies designed to create an agreed-upon outcome.  They then set those initiatives as outward-facing and as guiding principles for that specific outcome.  This allows the two organizations to effectively share the responsibilities of producing a new or stronger service/product, political view, religious belief, or a united message. 

Choose the Marginal Carefully

Bringing this all back to edges and valuing the margin.  Simply put it's common sense that we carefully choose our connections and how deeply we allow that connection to penetrate our façade and how deeply we penetrate entities bigger than we are. 

More Edge Please

Instead of ignoring the marginal look to discover the value hidden in it.  You might discover those deeper connections with what seems to be something marginal can result in unexpected and treasured results.

Edges in Money

Green From the Sun

I can remember when people used to say there is no money in solar.  However, in 2006 Peter and Lyndon Rive started SolarCity and by 2009 the company had installed solar panels generating more than 440 megawatts of power and was growing rapidly.  By 2013 they became the number-one installer of solar panels in the U.S.

Image of a photovoltaic solar system

 In 016 SpaceX purchased the company for $2.6 billion and they now offer a turnkey residential lease package that integrates with Tesla's Powerwall.

 The moral of this story is that there wasn’t any money in solar until someone figured out how to package and deliver it to the masses in an affordable way. 

Ask a Different Question

Instead, an idea was executed, and it was tweaked as it developed, someone experimented with the marginal.  Instead of saying no one can afford or wants solar or that the ROI is too long, they asked what other way they can take it to the market.  It seems obvious now, but it first took someone looking at how to use edges and value the marginal.

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