City Guides » Green

On Edge

Life in the garden

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Punishment isn't always swift or certain, but it would seem that breaking self-imposed dress code rules incurs the immediate wrath of the big foreman in the sky. It was hot. It was to be just a quick chat and some photos. I got off the job site in one wilted piece, but ran into trouble at the restaurant as I charged around in construction mode among a disarray of metal chairs. I recalled with each throb why appropriate footwear is imperative in the landscaping business, and highly recommended at home. The doctor said little toes are for finding furniture in the dark. Mine's broken, and too swollen for a boot. The rule is quite clear: no yardwork with long-handled tools in sandals. Deadheading maybe, helmet advisable.

As an advocate of the crisp, cut edge between turf and ornamental beds, I can't go outside to sniff my Stargazer lilies or snip my Pearl achillea. My borders are overgrown with proud beauties and vulgar bullies. The turf, a 70-year-old bastard of clover, fescue, bluegrass, and celestial mutants, ducks under this cover to breed indiscriminately and hoard scarce resources such as water and micronutrients. The screams of the astilbe would be audible if not for the muffling effects of the vinca, a plant that yields to no being.

Landscapers and gardeners select from several approaches to the difficulties on the edge. Continuous curb, that undulating, swirling squiggle of concrete upon which one mower wheel can glide, is a favorite of the grass cutter. It's a permanent and tidy solution, appealing both for its elegance and its utility. Tree geeks have noted, however, that it has an odd effect upon drainage, and sometimes subjects the tree invariably planted in the middle to an environment not unlike a bathtub with a clogged drain. This shouldn't be a problem with a large island bed, but a little circle with a conifer in the center requires a lifeguard.

Grasses possess varied social constraints. Newer turf-type fescues can be trusted to stay where they belong; bluegrass is a ramblin' man, likely to turn up anywhere. Pull it whenever it's busted, but expect more of the same. A deep, sharp cut can impede its progress, but it won't be stopped. Clumping grasses and sedges, used primarily as ornamentals, may reseed with abandon, but they yield fairly easily. Most grasses, many broadleaf plants, and some conifers, are susceptible to the heat reflected from hard edges on driveways and sidewalks. Always the opportunists, crabgrass, dandelions, spurge and oxalis snuggle right into that space and cram their roots under the concrete so that they can be punished but never eliminated.

Displayed in rolls or bales at the garden center is an assortment of flexible edging materials. Cuts and lesions on my hands and ankles notwithstanding, I recognize their desirable traits. Crabgrass regards flexible edging as the sort of trial we inflict upon our children so that they may hone their strength and resolve. Crabgrass sprouted and rooted on either side of this material can take down large dogs, strollers, tricycles and nubile vinca. This barrier must be countersunk all the way to torment bluegrass roots, but must be allowed enough aboveground to contain mulches. Take it on the top or take it on the bottom, but take it stoically to the end, and rake more.

Edges can be designed to drive gardeners insane or crafted with minimal maintenance in mind. (True minimal maintenance can be accomplished only in highrise condos with a pansy in a pot, but those folks don't read this column.) If turf grows up to a wall or elevation of some sort, the blades shove themselves tightly into vertical cracks and dents where the string trimmer can't reach. When the operator turns away, they slouch indolently onto the newly mowed perimeter. This infraction may be discouraged by leaving a bit of a margin at the base of the hardscape, into which the oxalis and buttonweed will quickly dart. If the gardener is dressed appropriately in steel-toed boots, loosening these creeps with a garden fork makes them easy to pull from damp soil.

Life is what transpires in the garden as we're trying to do laundry. Weeds beat up a forgotten annual, and people we love get cancer. One darling friend, a member of our book club, is ill. Her lovely garden has gone bad on us. There was nothing to be seen but derrières and elbows as the Dirt Diva Book Club and Poetry Society tore into the task at hand as if it were crab cakes and pinot. The dust settled now and then and I discerned a lovely, perfectly crafted brick border buried in the interface of turf to bed. Characteristically, I headed straight for the edge, and worked both sides of it until things became clearer.