Saturday, 29 April 2017

cutting the edges

As a change from spreading gravel I have been cutting the edges of the grass in the back garden. I'd rather not do either two days on the trot, to vary the load on my middle aged body and so (I hope) lessen the chance of sprains, tears, and general seizing up.  I cut the edges with hand shears, bent on one knee as if about to make a proposal of marriage to the roses, since keeping one foot flat on the ground when kneeling reduces the strain on the lower back.  I have in the past experimented with long handled lawn shears, two pairs, one with vertical and one with horizontal blades, and a very long time ago I possessed a lightweight battery powered strimmer, but I've ended up back where I started, with hand shears.  The edges are too varied, sometimes disappearing under overhanging shrubs, sometimes infested with clover that has started to run into the adjacent bed and needs prising up, or with tufts of coarse grass, or little points where the grass has begun to root and run into the bed, or places where the herbaceous occupants of the border have run right up to the front and need parting from the grass with both hands before you can cut the latter.  The long handled shears couldn't cope and it was a fiddle swapping between them, and I hate strimmers, too noisy, and too hazardous to wildlife.  Every other month there is a horrific account in the parish magazine of some animal that has sustained awful injuries being accidentally caught by a garden strimmer.

The cultural expectation in western gardens is that edges will be kept trimmed.  On a Writtle college visit to Wakehurst Place in West Sussex the gardener showing us around told us, if you only have time to do one thing, mow the lawn, and if you don't have time to do that, do the edges. Flicking on the radio the other day I heard a voice opining that there was no point in cutting the grass if you didn't cut the edges.  It is What One Does, a social marker that you are doing things properly, adhering to norms, taking it seriously.  But I am sure that one of the tutors on the garden history modules mentioned that in Regency gardens the edges were allowed to stay whiskery.

The Arts and Crafts movement and Lutyens and Jekyll solved the problem with the use of mowing strips, broad lines of paving round the edges of the lawn, probably Cotswold stone to match the house and the rest of the garden architecture.  Then plants flopping out of the borders, that bane of the tidy edge fetishist's life, can sprawl on the stone without damaging the hallowed lawn, and the mower can run over the other edge of the strip without damage.  Given the tendency of turf to creep across slabs you'd need to go along cutting it back with a half moon edger every so often, but it would be much less work than having edges to maintain.  And the edging strips would give you access to look at the borders when the grass was frozen or very wet and you'd rather not walk on it. I once suggested to the National Trust that they could do with some wide ones along the dahlia borders at Anglesey Abbey, to avoid having to shut them off to visitors every time we have a wet autumn, but they rejected the idea huffily saying that it was not in Lord Fairhaven's original design (it wasn't, but nor was having tens of thousands of visitors annually).

It is true that edging strips do alter the look of a garden considerably, and may not be what you had in mind.  And they would be very expensive, with not just the cost of the paving but the installation with proper layers of hard core and so on, if you wanted them to remain firm and level and with good weed resistant joins between the slabs.  I have covetously eyed up metal edging strips as used in Oxford quadrangles and the little modernist gardens outside City of London offices where money is no object because the hard landscaping is small change compared to the cost of the rest of the development.  I imagine what smooth curves and reliable straight edges I could make with the metal strips, that would not creep or sag like my existing combination of wooden edges and no edging strip at all.  I imagine the Systems Administrator being able to take the lawnmower right up to the neat, beautiful, tidy edge, so that there was virtually no trimming afterwards to be done with the shears.  But the metal edging strips would cost an obscene amount of money which this garden could not justify even if I could afford it.

There are people who will not tolerate any plant spilling out of their borders on to The Lawn.  It might kill or injure some of the grass, or at least mean they cannot mow in neat lines.  I am in the opposing camp, and like the relaxed air that it gives a garden when the odd plant sprawls as it wants to.  I like the edges to have clean lines under the vegetation, be they curves or straight lines, but I don't mind the line being crossed here and there.  The Systems Administrator, who does most of the mowing, obligingly cuts around any wandering plants, only complaining slightly if they are prickly or at the wrong height to duck under.  Worse still are the folk who make great terrifying gullies between lawn and border.  There was a garden down in south Essex, lovely in many other respects with some very tasteful plant combinations and nice use of colour, whose sterile, gaping voids between planting and lawn were terribly jarring on the eye.  Actually, the whole thing was a bit too tidy for my taste.  You could not imagine that you were going to bump into the great god Pan around the next corner in that garden.

Edges do take ages, which is one reason why our back garden has a few large borders and not loads of twiddly little ones, and why edges, like so many other aspects of gardening, can be used as statements of wealth and prestige.  The next time you visit a garden with lines of pleached or trimmed hornbeam or holm oak, have a look at how they are set in the ground.  The easy version is to plant them in the path, surrounded by gravel or hoggin, with the lawn or border running straight alongside.  But there is a more elaborate variant in which the adjacent lawn has a keyhole or crenellated edge, so that each trunk sits in a square of hoggin with a rectangle of turf between it and the next trunk.  Imagine how fiddly that is to cut and the extra work created.  It looks great as long as it's kept neatly trimmed but be warned, if you don't have the staff and it gets whiskery it will look awfully tatty.

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