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Garden Spaces: Herbs for Edging Paths and Beds

Put your favorites out front, where you can see, smell and enjoy them.

| August/September 2009

  • Chives make tidy, tasty edging plants; their pink blooms unify other pink hues in the landscape
    Gayle Ford
  • Sage adds a sense of mystery when planted at the curve of a pathway.
    Gayle Ford
  • Low-growing thymes are ideal for softening edges of walkways, planters and walls.
    Gayle Ford

When planning and planting a new garden space, we gardeners like to carefully consider the shape of the bed, how we will prepare the soil, where to place trees and shrubs, and what plants we will feature. One of the last things we think about is the edge of the garden, where it meets a path or lawn. Yet a garden’s edge is the first part we see. It draws us in, sets the boundaries, and entices us with scents and softness. The edge, as much as anywhere else in the garden, demands both practicality and beauty.

Many herbs are perfect for edging perennial beds, vegetable gardens, foundation plantings and garden pathways. Placing herbs at the garden’s edge puts their fragrances out front and keeps their leaves and blooms within reach for frequent snipping. Some herbs, such as some thymes and chamomile, even can take occasional trampling by dogs, kids and other wild animals. Think of the edges of garden beds and walkways as wonderful opportunities for making the most of your favorite herbs.

First the Walkway

One of the best ways to gain an edge in garden design is to create a pathway. Pathways are essential not only for maintenance and harvest, but also for increasing our enjoyment of the garden by taking us into the middle of it.

The pathway should be the first thing you plan when designing a new garden space. I like simple mulched dirt pathways, with the garden beds mounding up on either side. But you might prefer stepping stones, rock, gravel, brick, boardwalk or other locally available material. Grass pathways look good, too, and are fairly easy to maintain.

Remember some basic rules when you design your walkway: 1) A path should have a destination to draw visitors into the garden. A garden destination can be a piece of art that acts as a focal point, a gate, a shaded bench, a water feature or bird bath—almost anything. 2) Paths should take you in the direction you would normally walk; otherwise you and your guests will want to save time by cutting through beds. And, 3) avoid making overly curving, fussy pathways; long, gentle curves are the most appealing.

For a simple mulched pathway, dig down about 3 or 4 inches all along the path, and toss the excavated dirt back onto the bed to raise it slightly. A raised bed will drain better, and most herbs need good drainage to thrive. Next, lay landscape fabric over the path to block weeds. Then top it off with the mulch of your choosing—a 3-inch layer of native hardwood mulch works well. Or try decomposed granite for a firm walking surface that you can easily rake clear of debris. Be sure to make your pathways wide enough for comfort; to allow two people to walk side by side through the garden, the path will need to be about 4 feet wide. A narrower pathway will allow you access to the interior portions for maintenance.

Edging Paths and Beds

When choosing herbs for the edges of your garden, consider color, scent and size. The colors of your edging plants should draw your eye into the garden and help unify the overall display. For instance, the bright pink of heirloom roses along the fence line could be echoed in the smaller pink blooms of chives planted along the garden’s edge.  

Scent is another consideration when planting herbs along edges. As the plants become established and begin to lean into the pathway, they soften hard lines and release their fragrance as you brush past them. Putting fragrant herbs at front edges of beds will bring them closer to your nose.

The size of herbs need not be as limiting as you might think. The old-school advice of putting big plants in the back and little plants at the front edge might be practical for viewing, but the effect can be predictable and boring. Instead, consider planting a large herb, such as a feathery bronze fennel or a big, airy Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), at the edge where a path curves. Obscuring the view adds mystery and surprise: As you round the bend, a whole new scene unfolds.

Use the varying sizes and shapes of the herbs in your garden beds to create a sense of play and excitement. Do you want a low-growing herbal edge to frame a riotous garden space and bring a sense of order and peace to the chaos? Or do you wish to define the edges of a more formal garden space? Your own sense of style and aesthetics will influence your plant selections.  A tidy line of lavender, a small hedge of rosemary or boxwood, or a dense planting of catmint or other long-blooming perennial herb can escort you down the garden path with style. 

Try Bricks, Blocks or Wood

Using blocks, wood or other non-plant materials to edge beds surrounded by lawn is optional. One of the most appealing and practical methods is to create a brick “mowing strip.” Lay bricks side by side, perpendicular to the edge at ground level. That way, the wheels of a lawnmower can ride on the brick for a clean, neat mowing that doesn’t require subsequent trimming. The brick also helps keep the mower away from the plants that spill over the sides of the bed.

Best Herbs for Borders

• Low-growers: Onion and garlic chives, thymes, oregano and marjoram, lamb’s-ears, mints, winter savory, santolinas, rue, dianthus, violets

• For convenience: All the culinary herbs you use most often; favorite tea herbs; any herbs you use for emergency medicine. Any herb you use regularly should be on the garden’s edge, where it’s handy. Pennyroyal planted at the edge of a patio can deter mosquitoes.

• For fragrance and color: Lavenders, basils, roses, purple coneflower, feverfew, chamomile, scented pelargoniums, rosemary, hyssop, dill and fennel, cilantro, calendula, nasturtiums, lobelia.

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