About gardening at the edges – edging options

Paver edgings in Wisley’s herbaceous borders – both practical and a design feature in this situation

The thing about garden edgings is that you shouldn’t notice them. Speaking, you understand, in general terms. They are handy things to separate garden and path or lawn, to keep mulch on the garden and to give a sharp edge if mowing beside it, if a sharp edge is what is wanted. But most are infrastructure, not design feature, so should be playing an unobtrusive, support role.

The horror. The horror.

Often, the first choice for a garden edging is the concrete mowing strip. It is very permanent. This one was not long poured when I photographed it. What worried me was the lack of attention to keeping the lines smooth and pleasing on the curves. I have photos that look way worse than this  but I can’t crop them enough to disguise the identity of this place. Added to that, the owners like to keep the concrete white – as in very W H I T E – which makes the mowing strip even more obvious. I am told they get out with the bleach and scrub the edgings. Each to their own. It is just not to my taste.

Corten steel edging at Bury Court – understated quality

I am similarly dismissive about using thinly cut tanalised timber, including tanalised ply, anywhere where it is visible, really, and as a retaining edging, it is visible. If you are going to use tanalised timber, I really do think that taking the time to stain it in a dark charcoal colour is worth the extra effort. The problem is that the tanalising means that it never weathers as untreated timbers do. It is preferable by far, to my eyes, to use metal strip edging, sometimes referred to as corten edging but I think that is just a brand name. It gently rusts and ages and has an unobtrusive air of quality, especially compared to tanalised plywood edging.

Subtle detail in the edging at Hatfield House

We have a few mowing strips that we have just left to mellow and age (as in, we let the moss and lichen grow). Most of them have a brick added for additional height with the concrete strip on the outside of the brick. What has happened here over time is that the concrete and brick have remained in position but both the garden level and lawn have risen. I think this is a sign of a healthy garden environment (building up the top soil layer) but it has also rendered some of the mowing strips pointless. Were I starting again, I would probably opt for the wide pavers that I have seen used, particularly in English gardens. At least they can be lifted and repositioned if need be. The problem with excessive use of hard, visible concrete definition is that it can make any garden look very suburban. Which is fine if you want the hard-edged, tidy, suburban look but we aim for something altogether more natural in appearance.

I photographed this casual arrangement of river rocks defining a woodland path because it struck me at the time that the rocks were wrong. Unless you have a rocky stream flowing through your woodland, then the rocks are out of context. Some form of wood off-cuts or branches would seem more logical because they belong in that scene. But others may not be as picky as I am.

We tend to use what is at hand in the woodland areas – which in one garden means chunks of  pine bark. I like the little pine bark walls that serve as an unobtrusive retaining structure while still allowing some soft definition. Pine bark has good longevity and is a natural alternative for us to use, given our pine trees. Sometimes we will use lengths of wood that have fallen from the trees above and that is a softer, more environmentally friendly option than hard edged concrete or similar. A bit like a horizontal bug hotel, if you like (bug hotels being super trendy these days).

Blurring the lines between paths and garden in at Beth Chatto’s

Beth Chatto’s famous dry garden eliminated all edgings and further blurred the lines between walking path and garden by using the same honey coloured gravel as both path surface and mulch. It is a very different effect and one we admired a great deal in that context.

We have chosen just to use the cut edge on two of the four straight stretches in our Avenue Garden.

Sometimes, a straight cut line is all that is required. Would this view be better for railway tracks of hard edging in concrete or weathered steel? It just seems unnecessary.

It comes back to why you feel you need edgings and then what material and style is appropriate in the setting. Not every garden benefits from tidy edgings constraining the vegetation.

Rope hawsers, seen in somebody’s garden

5 thoughts on “About gardening at the edges – edging options

  1. tonytomeo

    That is an amusing topic only because I have seen so many weirdly . . . lavish (?) edging in the gardens of clients. Some can be pretty. Others are just silly. One client had dark blue granite imported from Chine where concrete or simple local stone would have worked just as well, and probably looked better. On the Monterey Peninsula, redwood edging is good, but redwood edging wrapped in copper is better. Some go so far as to have the copper polished. Well, I am no designer, so will not continue my rant on this.

      1. tonytomeo

        Okay, just so you know, most of us here are not Californians. They just migrated here because they were not welcome where they came from, and forced most of us natives out.

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