On Edging


At mid-winter it’s still too soon to start preparing garden beds for spring planting, even in areas of the country that aren’t under permafrost. There are cleanup tasks, as always, and if the garden beds are in need of edging this would be a good time to do it as long as the soil isn’t too mucky and hard to work. For gardeners who will do the work themselves, the kind of edging to do, or whether or not edging is desirable, depends on tolerance for heavy labor. Those easy-to-install plastic edging strips are also quickly and easily heaved out of the ground by frost and soon become useless.

Flowers, Regent's Park, London - DSC07043
Garden vase, flower beds, and stone edgings in the Avenue Gardens, Regent’s Park, London, in July 2010. Photo by Rept0n1x.

Almost every heavy duty and reasonably attractive garden edging is going to take back breaking labor to install, though it’s true that installation may last a lifetime. There does appear to be one fair compromise between heavy labor, appearance, and durability and cost of the installation, which is to use a low profile nylon no-dig edging material that is staked down on the grass side of an edge made up of paver blocks laid on fast setting concrete. Dramatically decreasing the preparation work takes out much of the heavy labor, leaving only the lifting and setting of paver blocks, which can weigh up to 25 pounds apiece, and wrangling 50 pound bags of concrete mix.

Roger Cook of This Old House gives an overview of the easier ways to edge.
The durability of such edging can be increased by resorting to some of the shovel work and use of drainage rock or sand that is the method for standard paver installation. Without a drainage base under the concrete, no-dig edging, and paver blocks, there will inevitably be some cracking of the concrete and consequent heaving of the materials. As mentioned earlier, however, this type of installation is a compromise between all of the elements of an edging job, and is particularly intended to cut down on back breaking shovel work and cost of additional materials. The best way to ensure the eventual frost heaving does not render the edging completely useless and unattractive is to deploy paver blocks that are as large and as heavy as possible without themselves being back breaking.

No-dig gardening is a method that has been gaining adherents for over a half century now, and it makes sense for gardeners interested in saving themselves some labor and possible injury to apply the same method elsewhere when possible, such as in edging garden beds. The simplest method of edging, and certainly the cheapest, requires digging an edge straight down three or four inches into the lawn, and then shaving that edge back in a slope toward the garden bed. This presents an attractive edge for a few months, but grass and weeds from the lawn inevitably infiltrate the bed, muddying the clean line of the edge, with the result that the gardener has to renew a cut edge at least once a year to keep it looking its best. That is obviously the opposite of no-dig gardening.

Mark Powers of This Old House demonstrates the full on labor and expense method of edging a garden bed. The editing makes the job look easier than it is, and while the edge looks great, this method is only for the most dedicated gardener.
A gardener who is healthy and strong and unafraid of hard work can certainly install a beautiful and durable garden bed edge and stand back to admire it as a job well done when it’s finished. The extensive materials required for a really top notch installation may cost quite a lot, but since the goal is lifetime durability, then the cost is a one time expense. For the gardener who may not be entirely healthy, or very strong, or interested in expending enormous energy in the garden, there are easier and cheaper edging alternatives, but such a gardener should beware foolishly wasting money and time on some of them advertised as cheap and easy.

No-dig edging seems a reasonable compromise, though one thing to be aware of when installing an edge on top of the ground rather than level with it is to avoid grading soil down from the top of the paver blocks toward a building. To avoid improper drainage toward a building, soil should always grade away from it. It would appear to be a rather obvious error to avoid in theory, but it is an error too often made in practice, though usually gradually over a long time. That means there may still be some shovel work necessary to finesse a no-dig edging installation. It would be nearly impossible to do every job in the garden without wielding a shovel at all, though some can thankfully be made easier on the gardener’s back.
— Izzy

Pause from Work, a road sign diagram posted to Pixabay with the Portuguese caption Pausa no Trabalho.


To Every Thing There Is a Season


People enjoy their home grown tomatoes so much more than store bought that they try to extend the growing season and stretch out the harvest. The primary limiting factor is the weather, and secondarily the genetics of tomato varieties. Tomato plants prefer temperatures between 55 and 95 degrees, and in most of the continental United States that means they do their best between June and September. Summer is their season. Genetically, full-sized tomato plants, as opposed to dwarf or cherry tomato varieties, fall into two groups – determinate or indeterminate. Determinate plants grow to a certain point, set fruit, and then are done for the season. Indeterminate plants continue growing and setting fruit throughout the season.


There are conditions and variables to all these factors, and they play an important part in seeing that, hard as a gardener may try, most of their tomatoes will ripen over a shorter period than plant information tags would have them believe. Plant tags give maturation dates for the tomato varieties they describe. They are only rough guides, not to be taken at face value! Too many gardeners believe the tags and think that by planting tomato varieties with as wide a spread of maturation dates as possible they will be ensured a lengthy harvest season. Not necessarily! The weather plays the biggest part in dictating when you will get ripe tomatoes and over how long a period. The next most important factor is whether the plant is determinate or indeterminate, since determinate varieties will almost always be the first to fruit and the first to stop bearing. The maturation date on the plant tag is the least reliable factor and is nearly useless.


Lufa Farms Strawberry Tomatoes
Strawberry tomatoes at Lufa Farms, the world’s first commercial rooftop greenhouses, in the Montreal, Canada, neighborhood of Ahuntsic-Cartierville; photo by Benoit Rochon.

Some gardeners think that by staggering the planting dates of their tomato plants they will stagger the harvest dates as well. Not necessarily! Again, the weather is the most important factor in how quickly or slowly your tomato plants grow. Plants started later in the spring will often catch up to ones planted earlier. Plants started too early in the spring will often sit there and do nothing until the weather warms up. You can’t fool Mother Nature!

The best way to lengthen the growing season, and therefore the harvest, is to make use of either a cold frame or a greenhouse, or both. Of the two, a greenhouse is the better option because it is ultimately more useful. A cold frame is useful mainly for starting plants, though it can also be used for low-growing vegetables and fruits like lettuce and strawberries. A greenhouse should be tall enough for fully grown tomato plants, even when they are in raised beds. A greenhouse is not a hothouse. A hothouse is, of course, heated. That would be stepping up another level in expense and trouble, which for a home gardener with a ten by twelve foot greenhouse would make every tomato unnecessarily expensive. No, a simple and inexpensive home greenhouse is primarily useful for extending the growing season from summer into spring at the front end, and autumn at the back end.

Roger Cook of This Old House helped this Mississippi homeowner build an inexpensive backyard greenhouse. At the end, Mr. Cook tells the homeowner he should be able to grow vegetables year round in the greenhouse. Since the greenhouse will be unheated, year round use would be possible in Mississippi, most of which is in winter hardiness zone 8a. Use in your location may be limited to three seasons.

There are home greenhouse kits on the market, and a gardener could spend over 1,000 dollars for a nicely appointed one. The very cheap ones are not worth even their low price, and will cause you more trouble than they’re worth. The greenhouse depicted in the This Old House video here is a solid, utilitarian model that should cost less than 500 dollars. It won’t win any awards for looks, but that would probably present an obstacle only for homeowners association members. One suggestion to improve upon the construction method in the video would involve using weather stripping or batting between the plastic and the staples to distribute the force of the plastic against the staples, reducing the chances of the plastic tearing loose in the wind. 1/2 inch staples would hold everything well, and to reduce frustration a quality staple gun is a must. As with a tarpaulin or any other lightweight material used outdoors, the plastic needs to be stretched tight to lessen its movement in the wind. After all that work and expense, you can look forward to a longer tomato harvest season, and to tomatoes that don’t cost a small fortune. You may even save a few dollars over the long haul, though it might be a stretch to say you could pay off your mortgage early, the way Radiator Charlie of West Virginia did with his ‘Mortgage Lifter’ tomatoes back in the 1940s.
― Izzy


Don’t Scalp It If You Can Help It


Grass mowing time is here and many folks like to save themselves time and trouble by cutting their lawn very short. They give their lawn a “two week cut”, reasoning that it won’t be much different than an extra short haircut which will look good in two weeks and stay that way for a while before it needs cutting again. Some people cut their lawn short frequently because that’s the way they prefer it. Those are the ones who are outside on the job at least once a week, all season long, mowing the grass to within an inch of its life. Others are elderly and want the lawn kept short because it feels safer to them that way, long grass being difficult for them to maneuver through since they tend to shuffle their feet along rather than lifting them up, and they are ever fearful of falling and breaking a hip.
Induction Day hair cut 150701-N-TO519-054
Tim Corcio, member of the U.S. Naval Academy’s incoming Class of 2019, gets his first military haircut on Induction Day, July 1, 2015. Induction Day marks the beginning of Plebe Summer, the six week indoctrination that transitions civilian students to military life; U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communications Specialist 2nd Class Nathan Wilkes.

Roger Cook from This Old House talks about seasonal mower height settings.

Personal preferences aside, the cool season grasses which predominate in lawns in the northern two thirds of the country really should be mowed at a height of two to three inches at least for the health of the grass and the appearance and lushness of the lawn. The warm season grasses which predominate in the South can be mowed shorter, at about one to two inches, though St. Augustine grass should be mowed higher than that. Regardless of North or South, a good rule to follow is to start with a short mowing height at the beginning of the season, increase the height as temperatures increase, and then lower the height again going into autumn. The worst mistake people inflict on their lawns is to keep the mower at a short height throughout the year, and the worst damage occurs then at the hottest part of summer, when grass that is too short burns up in the heat, allowing weeds to proliferate in the gaps.

The late, great philosopher comedian George Carlin riffs on golf courses and cemeteries, two enormous, grassy wastes of real estate in a bit from his 1992 show, Jammin’ in New York. Warning: foul language.

A good thing to consider as you are either out in the heat yourself this summer mowing the grass or paying a service to do it for you, is how much lawn you really need and whether what you have is enough, or too much of a good thing, also known as a maintenance headache. Plenty of time to think out there. There is just about no entity other than a snooty neighborhood association or nosy, indignant neighbor that will blame you for turning over some or all of your lawn to garden bed or some kind of no mow alternative. The critters will love you for it. You yourself may enjoy more free time away from a fume-belching mower or the few extra dollars in your pocket saved by not hiring out the work to a lawn service. Of course, the increased garden bed space will require some more time for weeding. It’s a trade-off, though not necessarily one that doesn’t benefit you in the long run. Whatever grass you keep, let it grow so that you can feel it between your toes.
― Izzy


Mulch too Much



As summer fades into fall, gardeners consider tidying their flower beds and around their trees and shrubs. Putting down new mulch can be part of this process, and it raises the question: How much mulch? Mulching two to three inches in total depth is plenty, making sure to keep the mulch from touching plant stems, and not piling up volcanoes of the stuff around trees. Any “professional” landscaping outfit or individual who does otherwise is acting out of either ignorance or the desire to sell more mulch, perhaps both.

Garden gnome with wheelbarrow-20051026

Another consideration is whether to put down commercially produced mulch or wood chips. The term “mulch” can apply to organic or inorganic ground covers, such as pine bark, shredded hardwood, or stone. Wood chips are made from every part of a tree, and chips range in size from coarse chunks to finely ground pieces no larger than an inch. Gardeners should be careful to check the source of wood chips because they may have come from trees infested with beetles or borers, and if the chips have not been ground up finely enough or heat treated, then the insects may survive to cause further damage in new surroundings. Commercial wood mulch should not cause similar problems if the manufacturer has effectively screened it for pests, though gardeners should not apply it directly up to the foundation of a house, where it can serve as cover for termites already present in the soil.


A good rule of thumb to follow when applying mulch is not to apply it so thickly as to make it a heavy slog for the average happy garden gnome pushing a wheelbarrow.
– Izzy