On The Edge

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I’ve gotten a lot of inspiring ideas and great garden techniques from Sydney Eddison over the years. She’s given me all kinds of ways to use color, combine plants  and minimize garden maintenance. But one of her best ideas was also the simplest. Once when I was fretting about a garden Open Day, she said to just make sure the edges are crisp. “If the edges look good,” she said, “you can get away with a multitude of sins.” And you know what? She’s right. It doesn’t even have to be any kind of traditional edge, as her margin of lamb’s ears shows.

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One of the primary structural aspects of almost any garden is the shape of its beds and borders, and nothing better defines those shapes than the lines that give them a sense of order. They are, so to speak, the border’s border. So, to tweak those lines is to reinforce those fundamental forms. And using some kind of consistent edge throughout the garden helps to impose a sense of unity to the overall garden. These bricks add so much to the structure of this whimsical scene at Bob Dash’s Madoo onLong Island.

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In my own garden, all the beds are edged with stone. I kind of borrowed the idea from Nancy Britz’s garden, above. It was really never my intent at the outset, but around here you can’t dig a hole without hitting rock, and as the beds of emerged from the property’s primordial chaos, the piles of stone grew. And grew. And grew. I had to find something to do with them. The choices were simple-either haul them off somewhere, or find a way to use them more in less in situ. The latter option seeming less labor intensive. I started using those stones to edge the beds, paths and ultimately just about anything that had form. At first I sometimes doubted the wisdom of my decision, but no longer. It provides a kind of primitive rustic touch that’s in keeping with the spirit of the garden. It’s not maintenance free-weed whacking is definitely a chore. It takes longer to do that than it does to mow the lawn. But it’s easier than maintaining a spade-cut edge, like the razor-cut one at Raymond Hagel’s Westport, Ct garden (below), that’s for sure.

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Whatever the edge, keeping it crisp will provide a quick clean up for that garden–and easily distract viewers from a few weeds and such. In fact I ‘ve learned the swiftest way to make the garden look good and to emphasize its overall form is to address the edges and to make the paths between them immaculate. Really, all I’m doing is sharpening the lines and defining the forms.  But it works wonders. Let’s look at some edges.

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idyll-patioBelgian block works especially well as an edge for paved areas. I used it for a garden I did at a local school; Sue Webel used it along a patio at her Wethersfield, Ct garden.  Block is a pricey option, but it is nice and solid. Very solid. And it underscores the basic advantage, labor-wise, of most kinds of edging–once it’s in the ground, it’s in for good, and the materials are very unlikely to require any further attention.

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dsc_0047-11Flexible plastic or metal edging, once installed, keeps an area looking good and requires virtually no maintence. An even easier variation is to edge that edge with a row of reclining brick pavers to create a mowing edge, a track for the lawnmower’s wheels. Yahoo! No weed whacking! These scenes are from Les and Monique Anthony’s Wallingford, Ct garden–I posted about it earlier at Clatter Valley.

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wavy-3Lastly, a couple cool and different edgings from that font of innovative design, Naumkeag, Fletcher Steele’s masterpiece in the Massachusetts Berkshires. Love the bluestone edges and the old roofing tile edges, both in the Oriental garden there. It’s an edgy place–in the very best ways.

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19 Responses to On The Edge

  1. Sylvia (England) May 21, 2009 at 5:33 am #

    I do agree Steve, getting the edges right makes such a difference to the whole garden. I am working on it! Very useful post, thank you.

    Best wishes Sylvia (England)

    It certainly takes some work to get those edges up and running Sylvia, but once they’re in, you aren’t going to have to futz with them for a long time.–Steve

  2. our friend Ben May 21, 2009 at 9:17 am #

    Thanks, Steve! Thought-provoking post and fantastic photos. I’m inspired! And I agree, Sydney Eddison’s great.

    Thanks OFB, there’s more than one way to edge a bed. And the plant edge is a different and, I think, effective alternative.–Steve

  3. Darla May 21, 2009 at 9:22 am #

    My edges have been driving me nuts about what to do with them. Thanks for the inspiration!

    Hope you got an idea that works for you, Darla.–Steve

  4. Dave May 21, 2009 at 9:25 am #

    Edges really do make things look clean and well kept. Very cool examples. Nancy Britz’s garden especially.

    Yep, they keep things nice and tidy, and agreed, Nancy’s garden is spectacular–some of the nooks and crannies between the stones have cool-looking, dwarfy things growing in them too.–Steve

  5. Bobbi May 21, 2009 at 12:03 pm #

    I so agree about edges although I do like a spade edge and don’t find it difficult to keep up at all.

    I guess it all depends how much edge you have to tend, Bobbi. By the time I got finished edging with a spade, I’d have to go start over at the beginning again.–Steve

  6. Benjamin May 21, 2009 at 2:11 pm #

    Nothing like a clean edge, and to pick up that edging in the style or organization or color of the plants seems key to me. I have aluminum edging and an aluminum sculpture set amongst the perennials. I like this subtle reflection of material.

    Sounds good to me Benjamin. I also like to see repeating materials, and the kind of tie-in you’re talking about with the plants is definitely worth pursuing.–Steve

  7. Gary J May 21, 2009 at 4:20 pm #

    What about a stone path through a garden area? Would an edge for the path be appropriate or a bit much?

    Hi Gary-Actually I have a path paved with irregular-shaped stones and it is edged with cut bluestone, almost like curbs. I really like how it looks. So yes, I think an edge isn’t too much, though it could be–it all depends on the kind of garden you’re trying to make. My feeling is that if you have elements of formality, go ahead and edge it–otherwise, maybe not.–Steve

  8. Ellen May 21, 2009 at 5:18 pm #

    I’d like to see a photo of YOUR edges, Steve. My garden in PA is full of rocks and I like the idea of using them as I unearth them. Nancy’s gardens look kind of burm-y. Is each bed raised?

    I wanted to include a photo of my edges, but I discovered I didn’t have any photos that showed them especially well, and the grass needed weed whacking big time…so I showed Nancy’s. Yes her beds are raised, she trucked in all this special mix of soil so her many conifers would thrive. My beds are raised too, as we have awful clay soil and it needs lots of amending–mostly with compost. I’ll put up a photo of my edges soon.–Steve

  9. Helen at Toronto Gardens May 21, 2009 at 5:35 pm #

    So true about the edges. I’ve let mine get a little flaccid — there’s stone edging under all that encroaching grass. Time to get out the elbow grease!

    Sounds like you need bigger stones, Helen. Bring that edge back to life!–Steve

  10. Neil May 21, 2009 at 9:40 pm #

    Hi Steve,

    All your pictures are gorgeous! I have a question though on the first picture. What is the plant beside the lawn, the one with silvery foliage?

    Thanks!

    Hi Neil–That’s lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina)–go for the cultivar Helene von Stein, somewhat bigger leaves than the norm, and no flowers, which on lamb’s ears can be messy.–Steve

  11. Tammy May 22, 2009 at 12:06 am #

    Steve -

    You definitely have the edge! Great post. Totally correct, if the edges look good the rest will follow suit.

    Thanks Tammy–I think it’s an easily overlooked way to spiff up the garden in a hurry.–Steve

  12. Wildsuburbia May 22, 2009 at 3:10 am #

    Very helpful post. Now that I think about it, when I want to spruce up the garden quickly I sweep the paths and tidy up the edges. It does seem to help more than going after every last weed – an impossible task. Thanks for the post – I’ll be looking at the placement and direction of my edges as well.

    Yep, that’s all it takes Wild, unless you’re totally overrun with weeds–as I am right now. Gads!–Steve

  13. Loree May 22, 2009 at 3:47 pm #

    So true – neat edges just make a garden look cleaner! I’ve used bricks to edge and make a track for the mower wheel to travel on. I do end up having to use a spade to keep the grass from growing over the bricks. I think given a year it would completely cover them.

    Loree-Sounds as if you need to put one of those metal or plastic edge things on the border side of your bricks–that should cut down infiltration.–Steve

  14. Pam Kersting May 22, 2009 at 5:36 pm #

    Edging does seem to make things neat and tidy. I’m not a fan of it in my own garden, but I do like a nice mulch path with steel edging. I also like edging between paved areas and bedding to help contain the organic material. Nice post!

    Thanks, Pam. Not only does edging make the garden look tidy, it also helps cut down on maintenance. So, if you’re looking to lighten your gardening chores…–Steve

  15. Priscilla May 22, 2009 at 7:57 pm #

    What perfect timing. I just bought that cheap white plastic picket fence…as that is what my husband liked. I hate it and have been racking my brain one what to put there. We have black plastic edging which I would like to just keep it like that but the dogs don’t know boundaries. To keep them out we need a fence like structure…nice ideas but none of them are fence like except for the roof tiles and the stone. I think I’ll use the stone idea as that looks the best and more natural.

    It is tough to show their dogs their boundaries. You might try painting the plastic fence-Krylon spray paint works great on plastic–you could paint it some bright, fun color or a gray-green hue that would help the fence kind of disappear against garden greenery.–Steve

  16. Dee/reddirtramblings May 23, 2009 at 7:02 pm #

    Nice and oh so true about the edging. Here, it is difficult because of the Bermuda grass, but we still do our best. Thanks for the tip.~~Dee

    That would be tough to combat, maybe some of that metal or plastic edging, then an overlay of something more ornamental. Did you see Eva’s comment?–Steve

  17. Lisa at Greenbow May 23, 2009 at 7:59 pm #

    Yes, I have read this suggestion before and have taken it to heart. Neat edges give the illusion of a well kept garden.

    Hi Lisa–Illusion is right, but in a way my whole idea of gardening is to make an illusion–I’m trying to create my own imaginary country.–Steve

  18. Eva May 24, 2009 at 3:50 pm #

    I have black plastic edging around my garden to keep the grass out, but for a more rustic feel I’ve placed cedar fence posts from old barbed wire fencing along the edge. They’re stacked two or three high to adjust for their curves and knots. It really looks great.

    That sounds neat, Eva. It would be just the thing for a rustic kind of primitive look.–Steve

  19. Hilary May 28, 2009 at 1:18 pm #

    Hi Steve,

    Sometimes simple is the best remedy.

    While crips edges can create the illusion of unity and cover up other problems, another simple idea using edges is to use them to create the illusion of distance.

    I found this neat article that people might enjoy.

    Create The Illusion of Distance

    Hilary—Yep, forced persepctiver is a whole other topic for edging. It works well with edges–I’ve used that technique myself–and especially well with small allees.–Steve

    Thanks!