Defining your space is essential in garden design. A well-defined border provides the overall garden scheme a polished, clean look and adds a sense of order to both formal and informal designs. Garden borders can be created by digging a trench edge, laying a brick or stone border, or planting a continuous line of one variety of plants, such as liriope or mondo grass. Using a combination of these types of borders can also be effective in achieving an aesthetic, well-groomed garden.
Garden borders should be installed at the initial time of planting. Digging a trench edge is a common and successful method to keep the newly planted beds neat and tidy.
Four simple steps are required to create a trench edge:
Step 1: Lay out the desired bed shape by using a garden hose or marking paint. Decide whether it will be a formal style garden with straight lines and angles or a more informal garden incorporating more curves. If using a garden hose to lay out the bed, make sure that the hose is supple and can be easily manipulated to get the desired straight lines or curves. If the hose is stiff, lay it out flat in a sunny spot until it absorbs the sun’s warmth. This makes it easier to handle. Marking paint sold in hardware stores can also be used to lay out the desired planting beds. Make sure to get a color that will stand out if sprayed over grass or soil, like bright orange or pink.
Step 2: Use a traditional spade or a half-moon edger with a sharp, clean blade to define the trench edge. You can also use an electric or gas-powered edger. With any of these tools, follow the line of the bed and start creating a straight downward cut into the soil.
Step 3: Go back to the beginning of the bed and use the spade or shovel to create a 45-degree angle. Continue until you reach the end of the bed line. Remove this V-shaped plug of soil and add to the compost pile or discard.
Step 4: Remove any grass, stones, or unwanted plants on the inside of the planting bed. Level the soil and install the plants.
This common way of defining a planting bed is relatively inexpensive and only requires some elbow grease. This type of edge is easy to maintain using a string trimmer or by re-digging the trench periodically with a shovel. As with most projects, the prep work is very important. Make sure to dig the trench deep enough so that the space between the inside and outside of the planting bed is clearly defined. When the trench edge is established, it is easy to maintain using a half-moon-shaped straight shovel or a string trimmer turned on its side. Keep this edge maintained weekly during the growing season and at least once a month during the dormant season to keep the garden beautifully groomed.
You can also define garden beds by installing metal edging. Plastic, wood, and rubber products are available, but they do not hold up as long as high-quality metal edging. Metal edging is found at big box stores such as Lowe’s and Home Depot, hardware stores such as Ace, and many local nurseries.
Again, proper preparation before installing metal edging is imperative. Lay out the beds using the hose method or marking paint. Dig a 4 to 5 inch deep trench along the edge of the beds. If installing a curved bed, make sure you are happy with the curved trenches before installing the metal edging. Install the metal edging according to the instructions. Check that the pegs or stakes are securely in place. Also, make sure that the top of the metal edge is at least 3/4 inch above the soil or top of the grass. Shovel soil on both sides of the edging to fill in the trench and to support the metal edging. This type of border inhibits weeds and grass from growing in the planted bed. Maintain the border weekly during the growing season and once a month during the dormant season.
In a less formal garden, rocks or stacked stones may be used to define the beds or even the edges of a path. Large round river rocks can be used easily to delineate a perennial border from the grassy area. Stacked stone when installed properly will allow for a raised bed where quality organic material and topsoil may be added. A man-made product called “castle rock,” a modular stone system, is easy to install for the do-it-yourself gardener. These “stones” are actually poured concrete. This system works well when drainage is a problem. The design and installation allows for moisture to seep through the gaps between the stones. Big Box stores have monthly classes explaining how to install these castle rock systems.
Garden tiles provide an underused but charming option for edging garden borders. This type of border, used more frequently in European gardens, is usually made of terra cotta or metal. They can be from 6 to 12 inch size up to 8 to 10 inches. Some have a spike at the bottom to make them easier to install. The installation process is just the same as installing a metal edge, but dig the trench a few inches deeper than the tiles. Install the tiles, making sure that they are straight and standing tall. Fill in the trench with soil and pack it down to insure that the tiles will remain erect and not fall down. Antique stores are a good place to start the hunt for this type of garden tile.
Plants are another beautiful option for bordering a garden bed. They do not require much more maintenance than a non-organic border, such as metal edging or brick. If the plant border is maintained properly, however, it can be a wonderful asset and will enhance the entire garden design. Many plants provide ideal choices, such as liriope, mondo, and dwarf mondo. A variety of dwarf boxwood can be used effectively if the conditions are right for them to grow easily. Whichever type of plant you choose, make sure to use all the same variety to edge the bed. Selecting too many different plant varieties can look haphazard in a garden border. Use 1-gallon plants so they can be planted much closer together than usual. Plan for one plant for each linear foot of border, or if the budget allows, plant root-ball to root-ball.
Brick, without a doubt the best material for garden borders, can be used in many ways. Many different kinds of bricks are available: solid, handmade, oversized, and pavers. First walk through the neighborhoods to discover different borders that have been installed. Look through gardening books and visit the brickyard to see in person the various types of brick available. Brick chosen for garden borders should match or blend well with any other brick on the property, such as the house, wall, or driveway. A popular one is “Savannah Grey,” an oversized, handmade brick. It is definitely more expensive, but it is stunning.
Brick borders offer a myriad of choices. The bricks can be laid with or without mortar. Use mortar whenever possible to insure that the border stays in place. Bricks are laid in courses, which refers to one layer or row of brick. The most common brick courses are sailor, soldier, and rowlock, or a combination. With a soldier course, the bricks are laid standing on end with the narrow edge facing out. This edge above the soil keeps the planting bed separated from the grass area or hardscape. A sailor course is similar to the soldier course but with the wide edge facing out. This method uses fewer bricks so it can be slightly more economical. A rowlock course is laid flat on the ground and is usually installed in addition to a sailor or soldier course. This is sometimes referred to as a “mowing edge.”
All of this brick vocabulary can be confusing, but it really does not matter. As with any type of gardening project, preparation is vital. The area for the brick border should be level, free of any debris, and able to drain well. Several helpful DIY books can guide you through a brick installation. Or call a professional and let them do it for you! Visit the Historic Gardens at the Robert Mills House or the Caldwell-Boylston House at the Governor’s Mansion complex to see many examples of how garden beds and paths are bordered and how these borders are creating strong lines and clearly defined plant areas or hardscapes.
Gardening Chores for October
The month of October is a gift for gardeners after enduring the long, hot summer. Now is the time to get back into the garden and enjoy the outdoors.
• Even if spring and summer annuals are still alive, they probably look pretty tired. Cut them back severely one more time. You may get lucky and get one last flush of color before the first frost in November.
• Chill any flowering bulbs that need to be cooled before planting.
• Keep grass free of too many fallen leaves so it does not get smothered by the leaf material.
• Start a compost pile of leaves. The leaf material should be broken down by late spring, providing a wonderful additive to garden beds.
• Harvest any fall vegetables that are ripe and ready. Plant another crop of lettuce before it gets too cold in November.
• Continue light pruning or selective pruning of dead limbs in trees and shrubbery.
• Cut back any perennials that are leggy or tired looking.
• Cut the seed pods from daylilies so they use their energy for flowers instead of more plants.
• If you collected poppy seeds this summer, now is the time to sow them in the garden.
• It is also time to sow Queen Anne’s lace and other wildflower seeds.
• Divide liriope, mondo, daylilies, or any other plants that have gotten too crowded.
• Over-seed the lawn with annual rye grass for green grass all winter long.
• Plant fall and winter annuals, such as pansies, violas, and snapdragons.
• Monitor irrigation. Don’t overwater this time of year. Pay special attention to grass.
• Make sure houseplants are taken back inside. Check for insects first so they do not hibernate inside the house this winter.
• Straighten up and maintain gardening tools.
• Reorganize the garage or garden shed.
• Order spring flowering bulbs. Some may be planted in late October if it is cool enough.
• Prune any flowers from hosta for a neater appearance.
• Clean any fountains or birdbaths.
• Check outdoor lighting. Prune any foliage that is hanging over the fixture.
What’s in Bloom?
Buddleia, Joe-Pye weed, tea olive, salvia, chrysanthemum, daisy, lantana, farfugium, marigold, plumbago, rudbeckia, sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, roses, zinnias, pansy, viola, and snapdragon.