Edging plants, whether growing along a walkway, flower beds or some other spot, lend a decorative touch that can transform a garden from nice to lovely. Like a cake that’s delicious without garnishing, add frosting, rosettes and a happy wish written in butter cream, and you elevate it to a different sphere.
Among the many compact little perennials that qualify as edging plants, my personal favorite is santolina, also called lavender cotton. Its silvery grey leaves look similar to those of its namesake lavender, but more decorative — like thick, silver lace — and soft to the touch, like felt. Rub them and they give off a delightful aromatic scent, as pleasant as lavender, but different.
The plant, which can become shrubby if not pruned, grows 18 to 24 inches tall and in summer produces flowers that resemble bright yellow buttons sewn onto the ends of long stalks. Other advantages of the plant: It grows well in poor soil and full sun, and – of interest to the frugal gardener – it can be propagated by division.
Speaking of lavender, that’s another top-notch edging plant, known mainly for its beautifully fragrant, purplish flowers which also grow on spikes above the foliage. Dried for potpourris and tea or used fresh in salads and desserts (you could sprinkle some on a cake), lavender flowers are useful also to pollinators such as butterflies and bees. Dried dried lavender repels moths.
Originally a Mediterranean plant, lavender, a herb, does best in fairly dry soil and a sunny location, but will grow in almost any well-drained loam. It, too, can be propagated from cuttings or by division, with cuttings and seedlings planted in early spring. A word of warning: The plant, which grows to about the same height as santolina, needs to be well protected with deep mulch in winter.
Much hardier is thyme, also a herb with narrow leaves and edible flowers and foliage. Possibly the most popular culinary seasoning from time immemorial, thyme also survives on poor, dry soil and can be propagated from cuttings. In its native setting, I’ve seen it growing on land that appeared to be almost solid rock. In the garden, it will thrive happily around gravel and rocks.
Of the many varieties of thyme that exist, creeping thyme may be best suited to edging. It spreads like a carpet, stands barely eight inches tall and flowers in summer, producing blossom ranging from white to pinkish purple. But other varieties – lemon thyme, wooly thyme, English thyme, French thyme, etc. – would do an excellent job, too.
Incidentally, a few small stalks of thyme make a wonderful tea, which I once found to be more effective against the achiness of flu than the antibiotic a doctor had prescribed. Most herbs were once used as medicine. The next time you have flu or a cold, try thyme tea before resorting to pills.
Soups and stews are vastly improved by adding several sprigs of thyme, a key ingredient in French cooking’s famous “bouquet garni,” a small bunch of herbs. Stewing meat, when marinated for at least 24 hours in thyme and olive oil, has a finer flavor, by far.
If thyme dies back in winter, don’t despair. Usually, new shoots will appear in spring. In warmer areas, the plant may be evergreen. Like santolina and lavender, the leaves give off a lovely fragrance when rubbed between fingers and can perk up the gardener no end, I’ve found, during a break in a tiring bout of gardening.
If you think I’m concentrating too much on aromatic herbs for edging plants, consider that any plant growing at the edge of a path or border may get brushed up against or stepped on from thyme to thyme (sorry, time to time). If its leaves give off a lovely smell then, so much the better.
In the previous gardening column, about plants that will grow in standing water, I made the mistake of implying a gardener might want to try growing a skunk cabbage, just out of curiosity, since it’s unusual looking and one of a very few plants that will tolerate year-round standing water. (I had never encountered a skunk cabbage when I wrote that and I still have not.)
A faithful reader, kind enough not to criticize me openly for such an idiotic idea, wrote to describe how when she was a child, her family lived near a large patch of skunk cabbage. When passing by it, they would always run, not walk, because the plants smelled so bad.
Mea culpa. From now on, I’ll advise choosing fragrant plants whenever possible and staying as far away as possible from the stinky ones!
Creeping phlox, a low-growing (six to 18 inches tall) perennial, makes another excellent edging plant. It’s native to our region, produces fragrant flowers in spring in a host of colors, and, like santolina, lavender and thyme, attracts pollinators like mad. Its cousin moss phlox, or moss pink, grows only six inches tall and is also a native with fragrant, colorful blossom in spring.
A long-blooming plant well-suited to edging is candytuft. Evergreen and a perennial or half-hardy annual, depending on the variety, it grows 12 to 18 inches tall and has fragrant white or pastel-colored flowers from early spring through summer, often re-blooming in fall. One can propagate it from seeds or cuttings and it’s drought-tolerant and very easy to grow, but does not like shade or overly damp soil.
Many other short plants, both perennials and annuals, suit well for edging. Among my favorites: Pinks, whose flowers resemble small, sweet-scented carnations, campanula (think bluebells), viola (like wee pansies), sweet alyssum (flowers in white or purple), pansies, lobelia (blue or white flowers) and chamomile (a herb resembling small daisies), to name just a few.
Whichever you choose, many of them can be planted in spring, which is right now. So, happy gardening!
Editor’s Note: Laetitia Sands is a master gardener in Dorchester County.