By Mel Bellar
Here I go again, harping on the edges. Despite previously having written philosophically, design-wise, and even a little practically about the importance of edges, I am compelled to revisit this important element in the garden. In addition to doing design and installations, my business performs a lot of maintenance and garden restoration as a first step with a new client. This work underscores the importance and impact of edging. I do a lot of the edging personally and even though it is hard work, it is a most gratifying task.
When we visit a garden that we haven’t worked in before, first order of business is to edge the garden beds. Clarifying the shapes of the beds and defining where the lawn stops and the up. Psychologically and physically, it gives a boost, as everything immediately looks much better and makes the weeding and cleaning up more satisfying. It is also the first thing I do in any maintenance pass for the same reason.
When I talk about edging a bed, I am talking about planting beds that are bordered by turf grass, lawn, or mown weeds, not paths, patios or any non-turf material. Defining an edge between turf and bed comes in different flavors. The first time a bed is edged it is a grueling task in our Catskills,
because nearly every cut is going to hit a rock. When I edge a bed, I use a straight spade (technically a Scraper/Edger Spade; I know! who thought you could geek-out on shovels!) with good shoulders so that I can jump on the shoulders to provide extra power to cut through tough turf in hard, dry clay. The first time you edge a bed you will often hit a rock with each cut. This requires getting down on the ground and removing the rock with your hands or another tool, like a trowel, mini-pick ax (hackey-hoe—see Garden Therapy May 2015) or small pry bar. Indeed, the first pass can be an arduous task! Subsequent edgings are much easier because the rocks should mostly be gone, and you are just cutting through the grass that has encroached on the bed.
It can be hard to find a straight (edger) spade these days, at least in the local hardware stores and garden centers. Most straight spades/shovels these days have little angled corners and will not create the nice straight cut. Also, some of them have angled shoulders which makes “shovel jumping” very difficult (more on shovel jumping later). Please Google the difference between shovels and spades if you want to go for the geek. There are edging tools that have a rounded blade and square shoulders that some of my colleagues like, but for some reason they don’t appeal to me. This is probably because you can’t cut and lift out the material with the edging tool like you can with the spade, even though I often cut a lot of the edge at one time and then get down on my knees to actually lift out the severed sod.
After the initial edging it is easy to manage the edges with a weed-whacker turned on its side. It allows you to take off just the small new growth and not to increase the size of the beds. It is difficult to impossible to cut off just new growth with the spade or edger. There needs to be enough heft on the offending turf for the spade to catch it, even if the spade is really sharp. It takes a little practice, but using a weed-whacker is easy and very effective. You can also use hand clippers. Lee Valley makes a long-handled clipper that allows you to do the job while standing. However, if you can use the weed-whacker, it is the way to go. I do hundreds of feet of edging in 20 to 30 minutes with my trusty Husqvarna 525L.
After a bed is mature, and especially later in the season when the plants have grown in, there is often growth billowing over the edges of the beds. We like this look. However, it makes edging more difficult and requires some finesse and sophisticated decision making. Unless the billowing is particularly adorable or a cut will look glaringly obvious, like with big hosta leaves, I say go for the edge! The plant will recover quickly, and the edge is more important. I have been doing this for years and I don’t ever remember having a big regret about sacrificing some billow for the edge.
A quick word on “shovel jumping.” Most folks approach edging with the one-foot-on-the-shovel technique followed by the application of a forceful push or maybe even a quick stomp-like motion to force the shovel into the ground, or through the sod in the case of edging. Sometimes this works, but often it takes a jump, and many are afraid. You have to lift off the ground with both feet (jump) and firmly land on the shoulders of the shovel with both feet and all your weight, and then are rewarded with the glorious satisfaction of the shovel cutting through the sod, leaving your nice edging cut. This is of course very disappointing when you hit a big rock and the shovel throws your back. My wife once messed up her neck doing this entertaining activity. However, after removing the offending stone, you have to get right back on the shovel and ride some more. I am a shovel jumper! I love some shovel jumping and the resulting beautiful beds. Very therapeutic!
Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardener.~