Boundless Landscape Border Ideas

glass landscape border
Garden in West Seattle with a super-cool idea to separate the front yard from slope out front.

Landscape border ideas? “Boring!” you might be thinking. But wait a sec. Borders are brilliant! Something as simple and straightforward as that border can be the difference between a basic garden and a spectacularly innovative one. Perhaps you think I’m over-selling a bit here, but I assure you, this is exactly the detail that makes a garden stand out.

It’s true, in the most basic terms, borders are just lines in the ground that divide two spaces. But before you draw one of those basic lines in the garden with some bender board you must first ask yourself, What do I want from this design? Do I want a nature-scape where the borders are invisible—grasses, perennials and trailing vines tumbling over one another to make a sea of horticultural communion? Or do I want to separate the garden and the turf to let each region of the garden shine on its own?

Either way, never overlook this oft missed opportunity to insert your own panache into your design.

An aside about Turf

I’m going to break a little blogging rule now and mention turf which is not our main topic of conversation here. It’s related however, and, in my opinion, an important aside. There’s a huge movement for removing lawns, particularly in the hotter, drier regions of the US. The primary goal is to dramatically reduce water usage. There are numerous other angles to explore as well. I have strong opinions about this, and I assure you we will discuss it at length, so I encourage you to stay tuned for our series entitled To Grass or Not to Grass, which will look at these issues and investigate design solutions for turf and turf-free gardens. This post is not that space. Right here, we’re just acknowledging that lawns exist and they often require borders. No judgement! Ok, back to the subject at hand…

FUNCTION: Why Do We Need Borders in the Landscape?

landscape edging with river rock
The edging in front of the stone prevents grass from creeping in.

Separation. A little distance. That’s all we’re trying to do. We want our garden residents—turf, decomposed granite (referred to as dg), shrubs etc.—to stay on their own sides. First let’s look at how things spread.

Grass: By it’s nature, turf grass is a spreader. It either uses underground runners (rhizomes) or above ground runners (stolons) to propagate itself and take over any non paved area within reach. Without a border it’s grass, grass everywhere!

DG: It is strong and inexpensive and if it’s stabilized with a polymer it can be as hard as, well, rock. It’s an excellent choice for walkways and patios. Nonstabilized dg however, has a consistency not much firmer than wet sand. Without a proper border, dg will spill out into the surrounding areas, look messy, alter the soil biology and ultimately cause your space to lose shape.

These are just two factors that make landscape borders so important!

FORM: Why do we need borders in the Landscape?

Because they look great! We now know what can happen if we don’t install physical barriers, but looking beyond that the most important part of garden design is making every item look intentional. The hard objects that help us keep things separate in the garden are just as important and can be just as interesting as the plants they are there to retain.

basic landscape BORDER MATERIALS

Here are the super basic choices for borders. Note I didn’t say bad choices. Every one of them serves a purpose and may be the perfect one for your needs. Here are 7 of the most common ones. I’ll discuss the top three.

  • Benderboard
  • Steel edging
  • River rock
  • Concrete Band
  • Brick
  • Concrete paver
  • Wood
steel edge landscape border
Clean, invisible line of the steel edge

Benderboard vs. Steel Edging
In a battle between the two, steel edging is the clear winner, hands down. It comes in 20’ powder coated 4” sheets of brown, black and sometimes green. You get steel stakes with your purchase to anchor it into the ground, and it is sturdy stuff! The reason I prefer it is that it makes a very clean line—straight or curvy—and it almost never comes popping out of the ground when it’s installed correctly. The cost is typically around $55 per 20′ panel

Benderboard, on the other hand comes in two varieties: one is brown, about 1/4” thick x 5” high, comes in 40’ rolls and is made of HDPE plastic and also comes with plastic stakes, the other is a black edge with a rounded bubble at the top and made of an unspecified plastic. The black one, I never use, ever. It simply looks unprofessional and will often start inching it’s way out of the ground as soon as you turn your back on it. But at a cost of only around $25 for a 40′ roll plus installation, it is an adequate cost effective substitute.

river rock landscape border

River Rock
The third basic edging material is river rock. By this, I’m referring to the white-ish speckled stones that are relatively consistent at about 6”-9” in size, although you can certainly find them somewhat, and even much larger. I often see them used as borders in a garden, marched in a single file row around turf areas. While, I myself often use them in my borders, I assure you that this application (the single row of matching rocks) is not an elegant choice. But we’ll get to design in a moment.

River Rock Pro-Tip: The most important thing to know if you are using river rock is that you must ALSO add edging first! Rocks do not a true border make. These rocks, when laid out, leave holes and openings for sneaky creepy grass to find its way in, or dg to find its way out. If you’re going to be there to maintain the garden and keep the grasses at bay then have at it. But it’s a risky move and extremely frustrating and time consuming to keep that mess managed. I know! I’ve made that mistake exactly 3 times before figuring it out.

Beautiful landscape Border Materials

We know that borders are used to divide spaces, and that’s really all there is to it. No one ever said that it had to be rocks or a straight piece of metal or plastic. Somehow, over time however, that’s just what evolved in most typical gardens. But there are so many interesting materials out there that can be repurposed and used to do the same job.

I have a husband and wife client pair, one is an artist who works with pottery. Along the side of their property lived stacks of cast off bricks, multi-celled cement blocks, and pile upon pile of broken and unused pieces of the artist’s pottery. It was an absolute gold mine!

I started out using some randomly sized rocks and boulders and then interspersed small groups of varying patterns of old bricks and blocks. Finally I selected uncommon and exceptional pieces of pottery from what she referred to as the “chard pile” and voila! We had a border, literally unlike any other!

So many different materials to make a whimsical and unusual border.

unconventional border material ideas

I was lucky with that project. It’s not often that you find such a unique assortment materials all in one place and at no charge. You can however keep your eyes open for all kinds of items that would work well in your border. Here are a few examples of borders I’ve designed and others that I’ve seen and either fallen in love with or been intrigued and amused by.

  • A trench of pea gravel with tumbled glass. Contain it in edging with landscape fabric underneath to prevent weeds from emerging and rocks from sinking.
  • Spanish roof tiles on their ends to create an “S” curve.
  • PVC or metal drain pipe cut to varying sizes. Place on ends in the ground, then add plants into the actual pipes. Cascading plants such as Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’ or a wild strawberry would do the trick.
  • Gabions. Wire frames filled with rocks or any other chunky type of material. In collaboration with another designer, we once made gabions out of broken tiles and tea sets and won an award for it!
  • Dried bamboo poles—anything from 2” to 5” in diameter, cut to varying heights and “planted” on their ends. It makes an interesting natural edging with a twist.
  • Flagstone “planted” vertically to be about 6”-9” high, and irregularly organized: this is a great choice if you’ve had a recent flagstone project because there’s almost always leftover pieces that are too small for paving. Use these smaller pieces to make a low vertical border.
  • Skateboards. They will degrade but that’s part of the charm. I recommend wood decks not plastic. The plastic turns to powder with over exposure to sun and moisture.
  • Metal car rims (avoid plastic. See above). You get the best impact with a variety of designs!
  • Bicycle rims. Unlike with the car rims, bike rims are finer and thiner and look modern and streamlined when you use matching ones. But if you want to avoid the problem of many things marching in a row, it would be interesting to bury them to varying depths to make the border of a varying height.
  • Glass wine or other beverage bottles turned upside down and “planted”. Caution: don’t use clear. They get dirty and moldy inside and it’s unsightly. Darkly colored bottles mask this problem.

Try mixing materials! Bottles, bamboo and drain pipe—all round objects—can be combined to make a dynamically interesting, colorful and extraordinary border. If you’re adding something like rims or skateboards, it’s likely going to be difficult to find enough of them to make a complete border with only that subject. Consider using boulders and river rock to supplement with these special items.

So, what do you think? I hope now that you’ve poured over some of these unconventional landscape border ideas that you’ve come up with some of your own. I find that once you break away from the home improvement or landscape supply center’s choices for border materials, you begin to look around your world and consider everything a possibility. As long as you continue doing that, you are going to create some killer gardens!

Send me photos of your great borders and I’ll happily post them here!

Good luck! -Natalie

WHY ARE MY PLANTS DYING?

the Truth about plant death

I’ve got some cold, hard truths for you today. There’s no point in beating around the bush about it (pun intended) so I’m just going to say it. You ready?…Plants die. That’s right. It’s a grim fact and no one escapes the carnage. If you tend to plants, you will kill plants. If you think that’s rough, keep in mind that when you design or maintain gardens for others, you will kill their plants too.

Ouch! I know. But sometimes you just have to rip the band-aid off.

Who Kills Plants?

Everyone! If you want to know why plants are dying, here’s the thing, plants die for those with the proverbial “green thumb” and those with a “brown thumb”. No matter the color of your digits, no matter how much you pay attention to, or ignore them, they are living entities that have a cycle of life and death. Some impress us with their long liv-ed-ness and others seem to kick the bucket even before we’ve put our tools away after planting them. And others have a little help from the creatures and critters that share the space.

There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Even the best gardeners kill plants although they might make it seem otherwise. Those “plant whisperers”, have probably killed at least as many as they have nurtured to great beauty. In fact, you know what makes them so great at keeping beautiful plants? It’s in fact, because they’ve killed so many. The key is that each time one doesn’t survive, you learn something new about it. Perhaps the Sunset book said sun to part shade and you discover that, whoops! Not so happy with the shade part in that equation. Lesson learned.

My Plant Graveyard

Many years ago, I went to a course for Mediterranean garden design. The instructor was world famous in her field. Yet, of all the information that she shared the thing that really stuck was that she kept a very special planter in her garden. One that contained the markers for each of the plants that she had killed. Hundreds of them! She called it her plant graveyard and said, “If you’re not killing some plants, you’re just not trying hard enough”. She inspired me to be brave. I learned that when I’m not afraid of killing plants, I’m able to be way more creative in trying new ones. What a gift, not just for me but for my clients!

In an effort to embrace the truth, I created my own Plant Graveyard. I even performed a tiny little ceremony. Ok, not a ceremony per se, but when each new tag was placed in my horticultural place of repose, I’d take a moment and reflect on where I may have gone wrong. What signs did I miss that could have prevented this tragic outcome. Was I too neglectful? Did I smother it with too much…water, pruning love etc? It helped.

Understanding the life cycle of plants helped me become a more mindful gardener; also, a more mindful designer. And you can too. Some plants just aren’t meant for longevity. It’s helpful to know that before putting them in a garden.

What else can be learned from dying plants

Ok, now that you’re settling in to the idea of plant mortality, let’s dive into the nitty gritty of why plants die. Here’s the very important, key information about plant death: although we simply cannot prevent them all, we can definitely be vigilantes to defend the gardens we protect. There are a handful of the most pervasive culprits that with knowledge and a good checklist we can guard against.

Some dangers are obvious. Some very sneaky. Here’s what you should look for, and how to defeat the offenders. Having a plant graveyard is fine, but let’s save as many botanical souls as we can*.

Dying plant causes
Dying plant causes
Dying plant causes
Dying plant causes

*I have purposely not included plant diseases and pests in this post. They certainly are villains in the garden, however, they comprise a completely separate and unique topic which extends beyond our scope here. We will discuss in a later post.

LANDSCAPE DESIGN IDEAS: Straight Lines, Voluptuous Curves

Straight lines, voluptuous curves

Which Is Right For Your Garden Design?

When you’re designing a new garden, picking plants may be fun but don’t run off to the nursery just yet! Let’s talk lines. Do you like firm, straight ones or curvy, voluptuous ones? I have great news! You don’t have to choose only one! Sometimes you can have your cake and eat it too—straight lines and voluptuous curves. But there’s a right and a wrong way to do it.

Landscape Design Theory
Way back when I was taking my very first landscape design course, we were taught the two primary approaches to landscape design—rectilinear, with straight lines and precise angles, to create a formal and balanced look, and curvilinear, with free flowing lines to create a fluid and informal landscape. Over my twenty years in the industry these design principles have been reliable foundations to my designs. Early on, however, I discovered that melding the two can make magic!

Choosing only lines or curves when you’ve got a blank slate is easy, but as a designer or a homeowner, we typically start with some non-negotiables. Perhaps there is an existing rectangular, concrete patio, or a kidney shaped pool. Those are fixed objects that need to be preserved but don’t necessarily need to dictate that every other feature must mimic it. The key is to introduce complementary shapes, not necessarily identical ones.

Combine lines and curves
Let’s take a rectangular patio as our example today. One way to incorporate a curved walkway into this fixed element is to apply the rule of thirds. Imagine the rectangle being divided into 3 equal parts. Intersect your new curvy walkway 1/3 of the way from the end, not in the middle or at either end of the patio. This innately creates intrigue and interest as you interact with the landscape.

Next, create your curves. I recommend sweeping, undulating curves. In a walkway, make them uneven so it widens and narrows. This creates an informal and natural path which can be enhanced by plants gently spilling over the edges.

Once you have the design is in place visitors are forced to walk through the patio to get to the walkway, and again, through the garden. In this way they experience the whole garden, not simply zip past it.

Pitfall Warning

  • Avoid perfectly symmetrical curves. They seem unnatural and forced.
  • Avoid subtle curves. They appear to be a installation mistake.
  • Be intentional, always.

The wonderful thing about a curvy walkway or wall that is anchored with firm lines and angles is that it gives you the opportunity to create an informal, maybe even wistful garden, while maintaining a sense of order and structure.

If we then take this idea to the next stage, you can add shrubs, perennials and a tree on one side and a drought tolerant turf or ground cover on the other. Or if you’re going turf-free, plants all around!

If you only want straight lines in your design

Now, circling back to our original design theories we can see what the same patio would look like if we used a purely rectilinear design approach. The drawing below shows that adding straight lines for your walkway is a great solution for a different style garden. In the case of a formal or modern theme it is no doubt the best choice.

Know the rules. Then bend them.

Great design, be it in the landscape, in the home or in any other creative field, has rules. Curvilinear and rectilinear are just two of the foundational ones. As designers you need to first know the rules before breaking or bending them. They serve as guideposts in creating beautiful, accessible and functional gardens. And once you know how to use these important design tools, you will be able to manipulate them just enough to create unexpected and breathtaking results, every single time.

Good luck!
Natalie

SEASONAL SPECIAL; PLANNING YOUR NEW SUMMER LANDSCAPE, NOW!

I know what you’re thinking! Natalie, summer is over. The kids are back in school, there’s homework and karate classes to deal with. Work is ramping up and I’m already seeing Halloween decorations in the stores. I can’t possibly think about planning my summer landscape now.

But I’m here to tell you that you can. And you must. I cannot count the number of clients and prospective clients who have contacted me in spring to discuss their landscape ideas which they can’t wait to unveil for a May graduation or June wedding. Unfortunately, unless we’re talking about a super simple plant refresher, spring is way too late to get that ball rolling.

A full landscape project—out with the old, in with the new—simply takes time. How much time? More than most people think.

Let’s break it down.

THE DESIGN 8-16 weeks:
I hate to admit it but this part is a bit squishy on the specifics, mainly because it depends on both the designer’s schedule and the client’s response times. Additionally, if permits are required, it will rely on bureaucracy. Biggest. Time-suck. Ever. But this is why we want to start landscape planning early!

This is what you can plan on:

Site Plan: Most designers will need an accurate drawing of the property, some rare cases will require a survey. So, there’s scheduling the consultant for field work (1-2 weeks), and then drafting the data (1 week).
Site Analysis: Going to the property, interviewing the client, taking copious notes and photos of the site and interpreting them. (Just a matter of scheduling)
Preliminary Plans: Personally, I always give a client 2 design choices and a plant palette. (2 weeks). If needed or requested I may also include 3D renderings (adds 2 weeks)
Client Review Time: Rarely a client will give 100% feedback immediately. Most take 2-3 weeks. Still others I don’t hear from for 2 months or more. (0 days – 8 weeks)
Revised Plans: Taking client comments and making changes to the drawings, plus adding the specifics (2 weeks)
Client Review Time: See above (0 days – 8 weeks)
Final Touches/Final Plan: (1-2 weeks)


LANDSCAPE PLANNING Insider Tips

  • Consultants (structural or civil engineers, and irrigation designers require extra time because each has to wait for a completed design in order to begin their work
  • Personal challenges can put landscape on a lower priority for the client
  • The designer’s schedule may be loaded and cause delays

BIDDING up to 4 weeks:
Once you have a completed design it will be time to get estimates. Every designer has a magic recipe for this. Some turn the drawings over to the client to find a contractor, others submit their plans to a few trusted contractors and compare bids. Still others are licensed contractors and bid the job themselves.

Apart from Design/Builders, we—designers and clients—rely on the contractor’s schedule. During busy times it can take up to 4 weeks to get estimates. If it’s slow as little as 1 week.


Landscape Planning Insider Tips:

Bidding is super important! I cannot emphasize this enough. Sometimes a contractor will ask to come back 2 or 3 times to check things out. It’s not because they’re incompetent (usually). They just really want to make sure that the information is accurate. If not they may over or under charge. While it may seem like a win for the client if a contractor under-charges, I assure you it is NOT! The client is almost always the loser in that situation, just in unforeseen ways—quality, attention, overcharging on other items—all to make up cost.

  • Any project with special services—mason, carpenter, electrician, metal fabricator, etc—will take longer to get a bid for.
  • During spring and summer contractors are very busy. Their priority is on paying jobs so bidding tends to slide. Getting bids during winter (yes, even in Southern California) will tend to derive rapid results.

CONSTRUCTION 4-12 weeks

This is what you can plan on:

  • If permits are required it can take a very long time. It requires up front research during design and may require changes or additional drawing clarifications down the road. It varies city by city.
  • If the project is planting and irrigation only things will move very quickly. A front or back yard only will likely take only a week or two without any unusual circumstances. If it’s a full property, closer to 3 weeks
  • Adding basic hardscape to the project will add approximately 1-2 weeks if we’re just talking about average walkways, steps, patios etc.
  • Pools take months
  • Outdoor kitchens can take 2-4 weeks
  • Random issues are the real deal-breakers when it comes to schedule. These are the unpredictable things that cause extensions. Here are a few I’ve come across personally:
    • An actual 4’ concrete wall underground ran across an entire property where we were going to plant 36” box trees.
    • A water line directly under the tile we were removing busted the minute we started.
    • A different contractor did “demo” before we started and left the entire root system and stumps of 30 Oleanders that were supposed to be removed.

Landscape Planning Insider Tip:

Keep in mind that, just like in the design process, a smooth construction phase relies on both the contractor and the client. If the contractor is knowledgeable and prepared that’s a great start. Likewise, if the client is efficient in responding to requests, and making choices on materials the project will run more quickly.

CONCLUSION
If you have a plan for your landscape that involves a full property make over with many moving parts you’re looking at the possibility of needing 8-9 months from site analysis to sipping cool beverages on your deck. And when very momentous events such as weddings or graduations are involved, it is so satisfying to be ahead of the game.

Starting in September or October for for a fantastic summer fling gives you the best shot at having a stress free landscape makeover with plenty of time to spare.

Cheers!