Setting the Edge

If your garden includes both grass (i.e. a lawn) and something that isn’t grass, like perennial beds, a shrub border, a mixed border or an area to grow vegetables or herbs, you probably know about edging. If you don’t, you should.

Lawns necessitate some of the more tedious tasks in gardening, the major one being mowing. Some gardeners would contend that lawn maintenance really isn’t gardening at all, being more akin to vacuuming or cleaning out the eavestroughs. I’m not going to get into that argument, because what I want to focus on here is edging, which I consider to be a fundamental gardening task.

I don’t have “a lawn.” I have lawns. That sounds pretty grand, but what I mean is that the grass plots in my garden do not form one large expanse. Rather, they are discrete areas among beds, borders and walkways, ranging in size from 15 x 15 feet (roughly speaking) to perhaps 15 x 30 feet. Just about all of them adjoin planted areas in which grass is not welcome. In order to keep it out, I edge two or three times in a growing season.

Like many other garden jobs, edging may be done with a machine or with hand tools. The machine is either a gas-powered or electric string trimmer. The hand tool is a half-moon-shaped blade with a handle and “footsteps” or treads that make it easy to push the tool into the sod using one’s foot. I admit that string trimmers are faster, especially for cutting the turf that often impinges on concrete sidewalks, but I don’t recommend using them near plants that you want to keep. The foot-powered edger is the tool of choice in places where grass is next to soil.

If you edge at regular intervals it need not be a major project. You don’t even need to stretch a string or lay out a hose for accuracy, because the turf edge will be easily found, and only the tentative incursions of grass that have grown since the last edging session will need to be removed. On the other hand, if you’re carving out a new bed or restoring a nearly obliterated edge, setting up a guide is a good idea.

Using the edger is actually kind of fun. There is a great description of the process in Sara B. Stein’s delightful book, My Weeds : a gardener’s botany. The tedious part of edging is dealing with the chunks of turf you cut off, which is why it’s best to edge regularly.  In any case, you will have to get down on your knees and remove the unwanted grass, be it small clumps or big chunks. Large pieces of turf are best turned over and allowed to dry, after which you can shake out some of the soil. As you work your way along the edge, you can check out what’s going on in the bed or border — plants needing division or getting too pushy, or surprises such as desirable seedlings or plants that you thought were dead, but aren’t.

Once you’ve removed the unwanted grass and fluffed up the soil along the edge, you can, if perfection is your goal, get out your grass shears and trim the grass along the newly cut edge.  This, in fact, is routine maintenance between edging sessions. Lawn grass has a tendency to grow sideways, so every two or three mowings, you should trim the edge with grass shears. There are different models, including some that allow one to do the job while standing upright. I can’t comment on their effectiveness because my shears are a simple, hand-held type. Three tips: number one, wear gloves; a lengthy trimming session can cause blisters.  Number two, use a kneeling pad, especially if the grass is damp.  Number three, don’t rush.

Some may be appalled by now at the prospect of grubbing around on your knees, using primitive hand tools, snipping grass blades with what are really just oversized scissors. But I have found that an edge-trimming session, if conducted at leisure without interruptions, is a kind of meditation. The task is simple enough that you can let your mind idle and drift. Ideas float up from who knows where. It’s sort of like fishing. If nothing else, you develop a better relationship with some of your plants while vastly improving the look of your garden.

That’s the main reason for edging, as far as I’m concerned. Almost nothing else has such an immediately beneficial effect on the look of a garden as refreshing the edges. Fuzzy, overgrown edges with long grass lying over the plants in a border make a garden look sloppy and uncared-for, no matter how well the plants are growing. If you spend an hour or two trimming the edges, without doing anything else, there will be a 100% improvement. I know because I’ve done it many times. My “lawns” are nothing special — mixed grass of dubious pedigree — and my borders contend with light, sandy soil full of invading tree roots. My garden is not exactly paradise, but when the beds are freshly edged and clipped, and the sunlight filters through the leaves of the maples at just the right angle, and you view the vista from just the right spot, there is a resemblance.