Why Hard Edges Won’t Work for You in the Garden

Sweet potato vines act as a ground cover to keep my backyard banana circle from being overrun with grass.
Sweet potato vines act as a ground cover to keep my backyard banana circle from being overrun with grass.

This is the final week to submit designs for my online PDC with Geoff Lawton, and as I work and review the course materials, I came across a great video with Geoff doing a small consultancy project with a couple in New Zealand and their slightly farmy property. Two real gems in this piece sparkled brightest for me, and I want to talk about one of them today.

In the brief, the couple says that one of their biggest challenges is mowing the property and they want to have less much less of it to do. The current “design” takes them hours. Jeff says that’s understandable and makes a comment that often we mow a piece of land “when we don’t know what else to do with it.” Otherwise, we’re giving the green light for succession to proceed, right?

To lessen mowing duties, and especially weed trimmer work (or “whipper-snipping”, in Australian, I learned), Geoff recommends planting “soft edges” as opposed to hard ones because:

“…If you start putting rocks and logs around here [as garden border elements], every one of them catches a little extra water, every one of them has a little nutrient catch from the mower, every one of them is going to grow weeds around it, next thing you know you’re going to be weeding around lots and lots of edges…Be very cautious of hard edges because that’s where you’ll spend lots of time maintaining. A soft edge can be run over by the mower and gone past in a second. A hard edge is something you tend to sort of own it because you put it in there but it won’t work for you, it won’t perform, it’s just an inert, static element.”

So what does that mean in your yard and garden? It means at least two things to me:

  1. I need to step up my ground cover game. I love the idea of more nasturtiums, more herbs, and clover, herbaceous (non-woody) plants I can mow right over without a care and that shade out grass. Grass needs sunlight to thrive and rather than having it creep onto my beds, I want to design beds that hold their own and even creep onto grass’ “turf,” ha ha!
     
  2. I need to think it through before installing hard edges. Sure, some edges can’t be avoided like fence lines, sidewalks and driveways, and the home foundation, but how I border and hem those boundaries with plants that do their thing and don’t need intense attention and maintenance—that’s something you have a plan for. Otherwise, unwanted weeds and grasses move in—they have to, it’s their job! Remember, nature abhors bare earth and will send wave after wave of pioneering species to cover it over and get succession going.

So set your yard and garden up for success by planning soft borders. The harder the edge, the more attention it will demand. For example, I didn’t think it all through with the white marble stone bed we installed this summer.

Grass finds a way! This edge requires weekly maintenance, for sure.
Grass finds a way! This edge requires weekly maintenance, for sure.

I chose these stones to reflect sunlight and warmth back onto a nearby olive tree and create a microclimate for it. The stones also add a different aesthetic to the yard, but with their edge has come some troubling maintenance, let me tell you! Not only did I perhaps not use enough cardboard on the under layer—grass shoots were coming up within months—but the edge has to be weed-whacked (or whipper-snipped) to be neat and that’s extra work, and then the clippings get lost down in the stone on one side of the rubber edging making that nutrient catch that Lawton speaks of. That biomass just breaks down waiting to support whatever seed finds its way into those cracks, creating more maintenance.

>sigh<

I need to come up with some sort of soft border for that area pronto, one that I can mow past with little care. I’m thinking small shrubs, maybe tiny hugel beds to support some fall veggies and mulched heavily, or researching xenoscaping techniques from the southwest. I am looking for a spot to plant prickly pear…

~Ben

Nasturtium vs Lawn! I need about 30 more of these planted around my bed edges.
Nasturtium vs Lawn! I need about 30 more of these planted around my bed edges.
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