Sunday, June 6, 2010


Borders are to the gardening world what they are to the international political world: sacrosanct staples of organization. Borders delimit, demarcate, denote, detach, disconnect, distinguish, and divide, contain, corral, encase, enclose, and exclude. (Aside: Rhetorically, aren’t such lists—even if they duplicate meanings—authoritative, commanding, conclusive, and even elegant?)

Yet borders blur. Garden borders curiously blend spaces even as they clarify them. The problem, it seems, is the concept of the border itself.

Take, for instance, my recent Google search on the compound term “garden borders.” Some websites defined borders in terms of botanical design: basic elements include “lacey fringes, accent colors, layers of short-to-tall plantings, and color echoes.” Likewise, deployment of ornamental grasses can be used to “soften walls” (the actual border, I suppose) by “creat[ing] leafy screens” (isn’t the effect a layering of borders, a duplication of them, the creation of a decidedly new space akin to the no-man’s land between the barbed wire fence and the Berlin Wall?).

Borders may also be defined in terms of functionality and specificity. Borders may be “invisible”—steel or plastic that is inserted into the ground to contain wayward roots—or visible aggregations that constitute the architecture of the garden—flagstone, brick, stone, cobblestone, and other such materials that are used to erect, heighten, elongate, guide, and otherwise carve out specific spaces. One particular website declared with perspicuous, stating-the-obvious (!) aplomb that “garden borders are not only attractive but functional. They prevent grass and weeds from spreading into your flower beds and keep mulch from spilling out.”

But my penchant for precision demands clarification. The hardscape materials are in my view properly termed “edging” (or “walls,” depending on height and construction). The collections of plants I call “beds.” So what, then, is a border?

I do not know. (Public confession #?)

“Border,” I conclude, is one of those terms of gardening—pretentious and old-fashioned—that when used seems to mask an esoteric knowledge but when interrogated appears to mean little. “Beds” may sound for some rather pedestrian; “gardens,” too generic. The chief function of the term and concept border, then, seems only to satisfy the innate snob in each of us gardeners ("My heavens: he doesn't know that plant or the Latin name for False Indigo?! Well, I never..." or "Look at that border! Such a clever arrangement!").

Yet “border” is much too fluid, much too imprecise.

So here is my humble solution. Let us dispose of the outdated term "border." Let us reserve the term “edging” to refer to the spade-produced incision marking the end of a lawn and the beginning of a collection of plants, or the low parapet of stone that distinguishes a "bed" from that beyond the bed. Let us use the term "bed" to refer to the actual span of property that contains the plants. And if "bed" remains too imprecise, then do what I do: name your beds (I have the Buddha Bed, the west side shade bed, etc.).

My solution precipitates not from my own innate snobbery, but from more serious, conceptual concerns as well.  Borders contain, and thus by their very nature seem to invite transgression. And we gardeners are inherently averse to such, for we like to control the "transgressions" (the alyssum spilling over the stone wall, the ajuga weaving its way over and beyond the beds and edges and onto the adjoining walkway, the lavender that extends beyond, begging the wandered to brush up against it and release its fragrance--all those are examples of planned, controlled transgression, not the result of sheer whimsy).

Anything less is surely blasphemy, an affront to the ordered life itself, a task for the intrepid gardener to demonstrate the putative law of the powerful: affirmation of the border by brute force.

Disclaimer: The photos used in this post are from the internet, and do not reflect my own disordered, un-bordered garden beds.

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