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Soil erosion is one of the major problems facing the planet today. Modern agriculture, with its large-scale reliance on tilling and weed prevention, has made valuable topsoil vulnerable to wind and water erosion. Unfortunately, stripping the land of vegetation, as is usually the case, means that no new topsoil is being created.

On a lesser scale, we get similar problems in our suburban neighborhoods and developed spaces. Roadways and driveways create intense hard surface runoff, and deforestation leaves the soil vulnerable to being washed away. While erosion in this way is usually approached as a cosmetic issue, the consequences may have wider implications.

What we can all do is be aware of spaces that may be susceptible to erosion. To prevent it, we can put in plants that are good at keeping to soil in place. And, while we are at it, why not choose plants that keep the soil in place and provide us with something to eat?

Low Groundcovers

Miner's Lettuce

Source: Fritz Liess/Flickr

  • Sweet violets (Viola odorata), despite putting out pretty flowers in early spring and having attractive foliage after that, are often viewed as weeds. Pish posh! Not only is the plant attractive, but those flowers and those leaves are edible and great in salads.
  • Claytonia (Claytonia perfoliata), also known as miner’s lettuce, has been eaten in place of lettuce for decades now. It’s an aggressive, self-seeding plant that establishes itself quickly. Claytonia virginica, known as “spring beauty”, is from the same genus and will work also.
  • Wild ginger (Asuram canadense) is not related to ginger as we find it in stores. However, it grows in temperate climates, smells much like store-bought ginger, and has a peppery flavor. While studies have questioned its edibility, the plant has been consumed for centuries by Native Americans and colonists alike. It likes wet soil and shade.

For Shady Spots


Source: ideonexus/Ryan Somma/Flickr

  • Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) is a beautiful fern that can stand up to six feet tall and rampantly spread offspring over a space. In the spring, the little sprouts—fiddleheads—from these ferns are edible and considered prime eating.
  • Ramps (Allium tricoccum) are sometimes called “wild leeks” and are part of the onion-garlic genus of plants, with a similar flavor. However, they are primarily a foraged food because they like to grow in the shade of woodland areas, not all that conducive to mass agriculture. When present, they can multiply and cover the forest floor.

Taller Herbs

Yellow Nutsedge

Source: NY State IPM Program at Cornell University/Flickr

  • Nutsedge (Cyperus esculentus) grows and spreads persistently so is sometimes a bane to gardeners, which is a real shame because it has delicious tubers that taste like almonds with the texture of chestnuts. They are edible raw or cooked and can be great in deserts.
  • Daylilies (Hemerocallis fulva) are naturalized here in the US and are sometimes considered a weed. They were planted along roadsides to prevent erosion. The whole thing is edible, with the flower bulbs and the roots being the prized parts of the plant.
  • Sea oats (Uniola paniculata) grow wild near the seashore, and they are instrumental in stabilizing sand dunes. They will also grow in a sunny backyard. While not oats, they can be used similarly. Inland sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), also called wood oats, are non-coastal plant that works similarly.


A Blizzard of Yellow Blossoms.

Source: InAweofGod’sCreation/Flickr

  • Weeping forsythia (Forsythia suspensa) is a woody shrub that can grow fairly large (six feet or more) and spreads outwards by rooting branches that lean to the ground. In flowers early in the spring, and the flowers are edible and many parts of the plant are medicinal.
  • New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus) is not a tea plant, but it was used as a substitute by colonists in the US. It’s a deciduous shrub that tolerates poor soil conditions, thriving on rocky slopes or banks. The leaves can be used to make caffeine-free tea.
  • Willows (Salix spp) are fantastic for erosion control because they have matting root systems that capture soil very well. Plus, they love wet places, like stream banks or pond shores. While not edible, they are very useful. willow branches are great for crafts like basket weaving, the bark is medicinal (the inspiration for Aspirin) and they can be used to make “willow water” for a natural rooting hormone.

There are, of course, dozens more that work well here. Serviceberries and elderberries are great choices to look into. Strawberries could work as a spreading groundcover. The trick to take away here is to think beyond the suitable choices and imagine a world where the plants we grow—even for erosion control—are the food we eat. When we dream like that, the world begins to open up, and dinner can become an adventure.

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