Tag Archives: edging plants

Edging garden borders

We have been looking at English summer gardens for the last few weeks. In my quest to offer alternatives to edging plants and tidy little hedges delineating garden beds, I collected some examples.

Beth Chatto’s dry garden in Essex

1) Beth Chatto’s dry garden in Essex was groundbreaking in its day and is still a remarkable place to visit. Here the same honey-coloured gravel has been used both for paths and as garden mulch, blurring the transition between garden bed and access ways. There are no straight lines anywhere and the effect is relaxed, soft and inviting.

The grass garden at Bury Court in Hampshire

2) The grass garden at Bury Court in Hampshire was hard-edged, contemporary design. We did not expect to like it but were won over by the movement and texture. The contrast between geometric design and the wayward growth and sway of the tall grasses and perennials gives dynamic tension. The hard edged, rectilinear constraints have been achieved using rusted metal, coarse stone chip and fine gravel, put together with considerable precision.

Also at Bury Court, the flower gardens

3) Also at Bury Court, the flower gardens were defined simply with a sharply cut edge where garden beds met lawns. You can do this with a spade if you lack the requisite edging tool but you need to make sure you are not shaving a little more off the lawn every time. I speak from experience on this. One day you may look and realise the lawn has shrunk.

Gresgarth Hall in Lancashire

4) Gresgarth Hall in Lancashire had purpose-built miniature hurdles to restrain wayward plants. These are only about 25 to 30cm high, as you may realise looking at the catmint (nepeta) behind. We saw variations on this theme but the rule of thumb is that if you craft them a little, rather than using tanalised timber offcuts, they will look more discreet and natural. Their purpose here is to stop the plant from flopping outwards onto the lawn, leaving a hole in the border while smothering the grass.

stack of woven screens

5) Also at Gresgarth, we saw stack of woven screens of a similar size to be used as plant restrainers. Rather than following the oft-repeated advice to spend cold winter days cleaning and sharpening your garden tools, you may like to try your hand at weaving little screens for summer use. Hazel is the most common UK material but you can use any flexible prunings including grapevines, michelia, willow or birch.


6) Froth! If you have a voluptuous planting, paving up to the garden allows the plant to cascade over the edging. This softens hard lines, gives room to the plants and is altogether more relaxed and romantic than straitjacketing the garden borders into rigid lines. This is at Wisley, the flagship garden of the Royal Horticultural Society. Their main twin herbaceous borders have wide pavers laid either side with a wide grass lawn down the centre. It gives a softer effect than paved right across as shown here.

For earlier thoughts on this topic, check Begone edging plants!

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

Begone edging plants!

Shocked to realise I had planted the Tiger’s Jaw (Faucaria tigrinia) in a row...

Shocked to realise I had planted the Tiger’s Jaw (Faucaria tigrinia) in a row…

Ahem. I risk annoying many readers this morning. I know this because odds on, many follow trend and do not think gardens are complete without tidy rows of edging plants. Noooo, I say.

There is a difference between hedges and edgers. Hedges are living walls, usually green, giving structure to a garden. Edgers are edging plants. The baby Buxus suffruticosa is commonly an edging plant. Edgers are designed to make a garden look tidy.

There is a school of thought that if you have tidy rows of edging plants, the garden will always look neat. I beg to differ. If you have a messy garden, you have a messy garden. If you have a messy garden with a tidy row of edging plants, said edging does not make the rest of your garden look neat. It will look precisely what it is.

When you have a garden bed already defined by sharp edging – whether a path, pavers, or a mowing strip – you don’t actually need edging plants to add further definition. That is unless you like gardening in stripes.

I looked at a photo in another publication last week. There was a border beside a driveway. The drive was paved and then edged in a concrete nib wall. But that double definition was apparently insufficient for the owner. The line was further defined by an unbroken row of variegated Agapanthus Tinkerbelle, with another row of matched low shrubs behind, punctuated by dot plants at regular intervals, used as vertical accents.

If you asked ten year olds to design a garden, what would most of them come up with? A bed in long stripes, I would guess. A row of one colour, backed by another row of a different colour and broken up by regular placement of upright lollipops or pillars. Just as the adult owner of the aforementioned garden did. Tidy. Tidy and suburban. It is so ubiquitous these days that it has become the norm.

Mondo grass – black or green, liriope, blue carex, fescue, dwarf agapanthus, dietes, lavender, rosemary, renga renga lilies, even hostas in shady conditions – what is with this need to plant them all in edging rows, I ask. It is all a bit too reminiscent of traffic island planting, in my opinion.

Would an edging of mondo grass really improve this bed of cyclamen which is already defined by brick edging and mowing strip?

Would an edging of mondo grass really improve this bed of cyclamen which is already defined by brick edging and mowing strip?

Yes, defining lines and shapes in the garden by ribbon planting the same plant is a tool, but only one tool and not a compulsory one at that. I had hoped that the advent of buxus blight with the unfortunate result of a whole lot of dying edging plants might encourage a rethink on their role by many gardeners. Alas that does not appear to be the situation, judging by the frequent searches I see for alternatives to buxus. Many people are simply looking for a suitable plant to use instead rather than reviewing the role of the little garden hedge.

Formal gardens are planted in stripes and blocks, everything measured so that the spaces are even. It is all about control and maintenance. That is the style. Informal or naturalistic gardens are at the other end of the scale. There is nothing so contrived or tightly managed as a row or an edging stripe. This style is more about emulating Nature, recreating but improving on what occurs naturally. Most of us choose to garden somewhere in the middle between those two ends of the spectrum. As such, we are in good company. That mix is the hallmark of some great gardeners like Vita Sackville West and Gertrude Jekyll.

I just can’t imagine that Vita or Gertrude would have forseen the translation into edgings of mondo grass or bedding begonias. They didn’t ever straitjacket every garden bed and every garden border in behind tidy edges of border plants. Woodland and cottage gardens were spared. Herbaceous borders were allowed to festoon outwards over the wide mowing strips, softening the hard lines. One of the lovely distinctive styles of many English gardens is their use of wide gravel paths (usually a honey coloured gravel rather than sombre grey) with voluptuous plantings allowed to overflow to the path and often gently seeding down.

I admit that I gave myself a shock when I headed out to photograph the Tiger’s Jaw (Faucaria tigrinia) plants which were opening their faces to the sun. It wasn’t until I lined up the photo that I realised I had planted them in a row at the front of that particular garden border. There was a good reason. They are very low growing and will rot out if larger plants flop over them. But a row! I shocked myself. It may just be the only edging row you will find our garden outside of the vegetable patch (excluding proper hedges) but we are in a minority among New Zealand gardens. Pretty much every one I go into these days is defined by the use of edging plants.

Consider grouping the plants, darlings, rather than planting them in single file. You may even like the different effect.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.