You’re edging the grass around your garden beds wrong. Here are 4 ways to get it right.

Picture of Paul Cappiello Ph.D.

Paul Cappiello Ph.D.

Yew Dell Botanical Gardens Executive Director

I once heard a radio interview with the person at NASA who recruits candidates into the astronaut program. At one point in the interview the host asked the expert a simple question, “What qualities make someone a good potential astronaut?” 

Now with such a question I expected a long treatise on the engineering brain, the importance of complex problem solving thought patterns, self-reliance and fearlessness. What I didn’t expect was a one line answer… “ I ask them just one question” her responded… “May I see your garage?”  Huh?

But the reasoning is brilliant and it came in two parts: 1) The very best astronaut prospect will have an impeccable garage with everything in its place (don’t want to be wandering around the space shuttle looking for a screw driver when the oxygen generator is on the fritz!), and 2) The very worst astronaut prospect will open the garage door and immediately start to tell you about all the things he/she is going to do to organize the garage… “as soon as I…“)

Guess I’ll never be an astronaut…

But beyond boldly going where no one has gone before, I guess every field has its measuring sticks, its sign of experience and expertise… attention to detail. And the garden is no exception. 

Edging garden beds is one of those things that on the outside 1) seems like a minor and fussy detail, but isn’t, 2) looks easy, but isn’t, and 3) can be done with any old garden implement . . . but definitely can’t.

What’s the big deal about bed edging?

Basically, the answer to this question is two-fold. 

First, it is a clear sign to the observer that this gardener cares about the details. It’s a bit like polishing your shoes before Sunday service or ironing that errant crease out of your slacks before walking out the door. It says to your garden guest that you’re not just inviting them into your garden . . . you’re giving them your very best. 

Second, a properly edged bed goes a long way to helping your overall garden design hold together. While we often forget it, bed lines create the motion, direction and personality of the garden. Sloppy bed edges offer unwanted distractions… a bit like a drip of paint on the Mona Lisa’s smile. 

Pffft... edging? Isn’t that just digging a trench around the perimeter of your planting bed?

Ha… grasshopper. Allow me to let you in on a little secret. Edging takes practice. Straight lines require a guide – usually a tightly stretched string or other item to help you keep your lines straight. Curved lines also need a guide. (Hint – using a water filled garden hose works much better than an empty hose!) Without a guide you inevitably end up shaving a bit off this side and a bit off that, over and over again, until you run out of lawn.

Once you have the line established you start at one end and work slowly and consistently, making a sharp cut in the sod and removing a wedge of sod and soil. A well cut edge should be about 4” deep to provide both a good visual line and an easy to maintain border between bed and lawn.

Hand me that shovel... I’ll cut you an edge...

Not so fast there… whippersnapper. As with just about any task, choose the wrong tool and you’ll find yourself cursing and swearing, getting frustrated and ending up with a less than satisfying result. The best (and really only!) tool for hand cut bed edges is a flat bladed nursery spade (there’s a reason it’s often called a spade-cut edge!) Those rounded shovels with a bit of a blunt point to the blade just don’t do the trick. Talk about trying to put a round peg in a square hole, cutting straight lines with a curved shovel is a non-starter. And cutting even a curved line with a curved blade ends up in a mess.

To start your edging work, begin at one end of the line. Stand in the lawn with your string (or hose) just in front of your feet. Place the blade of the spade on the far side of the line. Force the spade in about 4” and pry out a wedge of turf and soil. And here’s another trick… Pick up the wedge and throw it in the wheelbarrow. If you dump it in the bed you’ll end up with another mess to clean up. Or if you leave all the wedges in the bed, they’ll eventually wash into your nicely cut edge and fill the space in no time at all. Work your way right to left or left to right, depending on your personal preference. 

Finally, everyone wants to run out and buy one of those long handled “bed edgers” basically a 6” wide half moon of metal on the end of a long stick. I know you can buy them with stainless steel blades, hand worked designer chrome or made from federally endangered spotted owl beaks… but they just don’t work. They’re all undersized for the job and to make matters worse, you can’t do anything else with them. A good nursery spade works for edging, digging, hurling at that pesky neighborhood gopher… and a million and one other garden tasks. 

There. Now that’s I’ve gotten that off my chest, I think I’ll go straighten up my garage!

This article was originally submitted to the Courier Journal on May 10, 2022.

About the Author

Blurb about Paul here.

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