Give Your Yard an Edge

Whether you want to add visual interest to a boring lawn or you simply long for less to mow, you’ll get your wish by incorporating a planting bed into your outdoor space. This project requires a few tools and a little elbow grease. Before you start pulling up sod, you need to consider the size and shape of the bed; the plants you want to include; and one overlooked but important element: edging.

Edging Options
Though they serve the same purpose, these three edging options are installed differently.

When used effectively, landscape edging not only helps to visually define a planting bed but also keeps new plants within a designated area while preventing grass and weeds from migrating in. Many edging options are available: Some are installed flush with the ground and remain hidden from view; others rest aboveground and become part of the bed’s design. To help you plan and execute a planting bed that will enhance your landscape, we’ve provided an overview of some common edging options, step-by-step instructions for installing steel edging and a few notes for successful planting.

Design decisions
You may already have a location in mind for your planting bed, perhaps along a fence or against the garage, but you need to make sure that it will accommodate the plants you plan to grow. Consider sunlight, shade, moisture and the amount of space needed for the plants to reach their mature sizes. Be mindful of overhangs on nearby structures, which can create inconsistencies in these factors.

Use graph paper to create a scale drawing of your planting bed design; then experiment with different types of plants to see what will work best in your space. Too many different species of plants can look busy and disorganized. Narrow your selection to a few complementary species and then repeat those plants throughout the bed in groups of three, five, seven or more. (When it comes to design, odd numbers are more aesthetically pleasing.)

Generous use of metal stakes as well as pressing soil up against plastic edging can help to keep this budget-friendly option in place.

In addition to choosing plants, you’ll need to decide which type of edging you want to use. Consider these options:

  • Plastic edging (photo, above) is a popular choice for many homeowners, mainly because it’s inexpensive, flexible and easy to install, but it does have some drawbacks. The tubular crown, for example, rests partially above ground and can become damaged by a lawn mower or string trimmer. In northern regions, plastic edging is also susceptible to frost heave and usually requires readjustment after cold seasons.
  • Brick, concrete pavers or natural stone (photo, below) can add eye-catching appeal to a planting bed. Many colors and shapes are available, and this type of edging requires little maintenance after installation. Brick and paver edging can also function as a mowing strip, which simplifies cutting grass along the edge. However, these materials require more space and more work to install: You’ll have to first put down landscape fabric and about an inch of coarse sand to create a level surface.
  • Steel edging (photo, below) is proving to be a durable, low-maintenance, attractive choice. It is flexible and is installed in the same way as plastic edging, though it is more expensive. It also holds up well in cold weather. If it does work its way out of the ground during the winter, steel edging is easier to pound back in place than plastic edging is, as it won’t crack or break under a hammer. The following section provides step-by-step instructions for installing steel edging.

Paver edging is exceptionally durable, but it requires a level base of landscape fabric and sand.

Steel edging provides an unobtrusive yet clearly defined and sturdy line between the yard and the planting bed.

Elegant edging how-to
For this project (photo, above), the planting bed was designed to abut the edge of the yard. In cases like this, you must first mark the property line. (Many residential neighborhoods identify property lines with underground stakes that can be pulled up temporarily.) Mark the location of the edging using spray landscape chalk (photo 1). Tip: For a curved planting bed, use a hose or rope to map out the edge before you mark it.

Mark the property line and the location of the edging; then remove the grass using a sod kicker.

The next step is to remove the sod within the marks using a sod kicker (photo 1). Tip: If you carefully pull up the sod, you can reuse it in another area of the yard. Once you’ve removed the sod, dig a trench along the edge of the bed that is as deep as the edging is wide (photo 2), making sure that the outer wall is straight and smooth so it can support the edging during installation. We used 4-in.-wide x 1/8-in.-thick black steel edging for this project.

For 4-in.-wide steel edging, dig a 4-in.-deep trench that will support the edging during installation.

It’s helpful to lay the edging in tricky spots first. To form a corner, simply cut halfway through the material using a metal-cutting tool (photo 3) and then bend it into a right angle. Stabilize the first section of edging with stakes, but don’t pound them in completely yet; you may need to make adjustments as you go. Use your feet to press the edging against the outer wall of the trench. Backfill or dig out dirt between the edging and the outer wall to even out any gaps or bumps (photo 4). Once the edging is in place, drive the stakes all the way into the ground.

Corners can be tricky, so complete them first. Steel edging can be bent easily after a partial cut through the surface.

Make adjustments during installation by removing or replacing soil along the edge.

After the edging is installed, you can work on the rest of the bed. For this project, we dug out 12 in. of soil, leaving a 6-in. buffer along the edging, trees and fence panels, and replaced it with a mixture of equal parts topsoil, peat moss and sand (photo 5). Depending on your soil and climate and the types of plants you’ll be working with, you may need to use a different combination of ingredients. Consult a local nursery for recommendations.

Beds require nutrient-rich soil for plants to survive. In this project we replaced 12 in. of dirt with an equal mix of topsoil, peat moss and sand.

Perfect planting
Before removing the plants from their containers, position them throughout the planting bed, making adjustments to the layout as needed. Remember to allow enough space for each plant to reach its mature size. When you’re satisfied with the layout, start planting taller items in the back and then work toward the front.

Remove each plant from its pot and gently loosen the roots if needed. Place the plant into a depression that measures no deeper than the height of the root ball (photo, below).

For each plant, dig a hole that measures only as deep as the height of the root ball. When backfilling, do not bury any part of the stem.

As you backfill soil, be sure that the stem remains uncovered. Add about 2 in. of mulch across the surface of the planting bed to help hold moisture and keep weeds out (photo, below). To learn about various mulch options, see “Mulling Over Mulch,” below.

Top-dressing with compost and fertilizer helps to replenish nutrients in a planting bed. Apply a fresh layer of mulch over the surface each year.

Mulling over mulch
Mulch helps to protect plants and limit weeds in a landscape bed. Here’s what you need to know about various types:

  • Chipped mulch, such as bark or wood chips, decomposes slowly and tends to last longer than shredded products. However, it doesn’t hold together well on slopes.
  • Shredded mulch decomposes quicker than chipped products and holds together on slopes, but it can be more expensive and must be replenished frequently.
  • Shredder/chipper waste has a higher nutrient content than most commercial mulches, and it’s often free.
  • Cocoa mulch is darker and more refined than most commercial products; it’s also more expensive.
  • Stone mulch is low-maintenance, but it can become very hot and even burn plants during warm seasons.
  • Winter mulch, such as straw or hay, works well for insulating plants during cold seasons. It prevents thawing and refreezing and winter drying