Beautiful Edgings! Wrap your garden up neatly
by Carol Wallace
This year I am wrapping my yard in a ribbon of silver. Not tinsel, not a glittery ribbon at all, but one of velvety, soft silver. The material? Stachys byzantina - better known as lamb's ears. I was given a 2" pot of it four years ago, and have been steadily borrowing from the resulting growth ever since. Soon I will have edged all of the main gardens with it.
Yes - you might say it grows vigorously. Nevertheless, it is easy enough to dig up, certainly economical, and, most important of all, a beautiful edging for my flowerbeds. The sameness ties together a pretty eclectic set of plantings. I tend to be a collector of plants rather than one who plants in lovely drifts, and so the lambs ears have been critical in tying things together.
Luckily, since my garden is divided into "rooms" not visible to one another, I have also been able to experiment with many other great edging plants.
So why make a deal about edging plants? Because they add a finishing touch to the garden. Because they create order and help make your plantings look organized, drawing the eye along the sweep of plants and defining the form of the garden. Because they look so nice spilling over the rocks that edge all my beds. Because some of them feel good, or smell terrific if I happen to brush against them - something I won't do too often with the plants in the middle of the garden.
Edging plants create the frame that either makes or breaks the garden picture. Poorly or spottily done, they are mere rickrack on the fabric of your creation.
The trick with edgings is not to use too many. Two in perfect color harmony is good; you may get away with as many as three or four if your plantings are in big drifts. But if you're a plant collector, stick to one great edger and you'll tie everything together so that it actually looks organized!
Edgings can be orderly. They can be trimmed almost like a topiary, if you want to use miniature box, lavender or germander. They can be rambunctious, as in a froth of Bouncing Bet (Saponaria ocymoides) tumbling every which way, over its neighbors and into your path. They can even be edible! Two of my favorite edgers are nasturtiums and lettuce.
Yes - lettuce. Leaf lettuce comes in such lovely colors and textures that it's a shame to confine it to a kitchen garden. Imagine Red Sails, with its burgundy ruffles, outlining a bed. Or Australian Yellow - an heirloom variety I planted one year - a delicious chartreuse that lit up the entire rose garden it bordered.
If you prefer something more rambunctious, nasturtiums make terrific border plants, spilling all over, twining around, and brightening everything. 'Alaska' with its marbled edges is especially colorful, but now you can buy "nasties" in single color mixes ranging from cream to apricot to rose and all the traditional brights.
Basil is another neat edging plant. I am especially fond of the purple varieties to ground a basically pastel planting with accents of deeper purple. Thyme, too, is terrific. I especially like to use lemon thyme - just kneeling down to weed in that area becomes an olfactory pleasure. And all of these come in handy if I need a little snip to cook with. Why can't a garden be useful, as well as beautiful?
Daylilies (Hemerocallis) are edible (right down to the tuber-like roots) but it is their grassy foliage and fleeting flowers that we prize. While many are far too tall to serve as edging plants, small varieties such as H. 'Pennys Worth' and H. 'Elfin Stella' grow no higher than a foot tall and bloom in a soft yellow which blends well with most color schemes. Both of these rebloom in most areas.
Another interesting front of bed plant that is technically an edible is the miniature rose. Many of these stay quite tiny and bloom continuously, giving you interesting glossy foliage, a great choice of bloom colors, and in some cases, great fragrance. Weeding the bed can be a bit prickly, though.
Scented edgings are fabulous. Brush against them and you get an immediate reward. Lavender is among my favorites. Neatniks can shear it into a tidy, clipped shape, but I like to let mine sprawl so that I can bump into it often. Calamintha is another favorite for planting near walkways, because it, too releases a lovely aroma should you brush against it in your meanderings.
Among my own favorites for the front spot in a bed are catmint (Nepeta mussinii) and snow-in-summer (Cerastium tomentosum). I love gray and silver plants, and the catmint not only foams and froths deliciously but, if sheared back after first bloom, continues to give a nice show of lavender-blue blooms.
Many people find snow-in-summer invasive, but it has never been so for me, and I love not only its bright silver color but also the way it literally disappears under bright white blooms in late spring. Another great silver plant is Artemesia 'Silver Brocade' which is not the rampant thug that most of its relatives are, but hugs the ground neatly, looking like a lazy Dusty Miller.
We rarely think of grasses as edging plants, but I have two favorites that fill that role nicely. A line of the little powdery blue 'Elijah Blue' Fescue looks like a row of baby porcupines and provides a really interesting (and orderly) outline to a bed. But for real glamour I love Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola', whose arching green and gold blades look almost like waves foaming over the boundaries of my bed. It literally sparkles when hit by a stray ray of sunshine - and thrives in partial shade.
Another popular edger which resembles a grass is liriope. This comes in both plain grassy green and variegations of either green and gold or green and white, and provides not the plume-y flowers of the true grass but little blue blooming spikes. They can tolerate shade, and I've also seen them used effectively to outline a daylily bed. Personally, for daylilies and ther plants with blade-shaped leaves I prefer something with more contrast in the leaf shape, such as hostas.
Kabitan is gold with a nice deep green edge. The variegation is a nice feature in a shady garden, especially when nothing is in bloom. And the colors are an exact match for Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola'.
If I'm in the mood for subtlety, I use H. 'Blue Wedgewood' or H. 'Halcyon', both blue with a silvery cast that combines nicely with Heuchera and Japanese painted ferns.
And Heuchera may be one of my all-time favorite edging plants. You can probably find the bronze-y H. 'Palace Purple' at just about any garden center these days, but don't stop there! If you need to pick up silvery accents in the garden, try H. 'Pewter Veil' or "Cathedral Window', which are silver with deep purple undertones. To accent golds, try H. 'Chocolate Ruffles.' There's even a near-white heuchera. H. brizoides 'Snowstorm' that has subtle green flecks and brightens a shady border like nothing else I can imagine.
I could go on and on, because there are so many other terrific choices - but this is supposed to be an article, not a book. So I will leave you with a few good sources for more information.
About the Author
Carol is a garden writer and college professor in northeast Pennsylvania. She manages the Gardening section of Suite 101.com, where she also writes the column Virtually Gardening.
Copyright 1998 by Carol Wallace -- Originally published on the Internet at Suite 101 in the "Gardening" area.