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,” she responded. “May I see your garage?”
But the reasoning is brilliant and it came in two parts: First, 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 two, 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…
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But beyond boldly going where no one has gone before, I guess every field has its measuring sticks, its sign of experience and expertise and attention to detail. And the garden is no exception.
Edging garden beds is one of those things that on the outside one, seems like a minor and fussy detail, but isn’t, two, looks easy, but isn’t, and three, 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.
What does bed edging add to your garden?
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.
How do you properly edge a garden bed?
Pfft… edging? Isn’t that just digging a trench around the perimeter of your planting bed? Not so nearly, 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. 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 established the line 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-inches deep to provide both a good visual line and an easy to maintain border between bed and lawn.
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What tool should I use to edge a garden bed?
Hand me that shovel and I’ll cut you an edge. Not so nearly 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 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.
Everyone wants to run out and buy one of those long handled “bed edgers” basically a 6-inch 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.
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What direction should I edge a garden bed?
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-inches and pry out a wedge of turf and soil. Another trick — pick up the wedge and throw it into 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.
There. Now that’s I’ve gotten that off my chest, I think I’ll go straight up my garage.
Paul Cappiello is the executive director at Yew Dell Botanical Gardens, 6220 Old Lagrange Road, yewdellgardens.org.