"Edging Plants": Explanation, Examples

Plan Carefully Before You Edge That Strip of Land

Mixture of annuals and perennials used to edge a walkway.
You can use a mixture of annual and perennial plants to edge a walkway. David Beaulieu

The very name, "edging plants" indicates how these plants are used: They are grown along the edges (borders) of various features in the landscape; for example, the edges of driveways

So, to a great degree, the definition of edging plants is to be found in how they are used. But that still leaves us with a question: When landscaping your yard, how do you determine which plants are suitable for use as edging plants?

Or, to put it another way, how do you exclude the rest as being unsuitable? Well, personal tastes aside, it depends on a variety of factors that you should be considering when planning your project, including:

  1. What you hope to accomplish by installing the edging plants.
  2. The conditions (sun vs. shade, dry soil vs. wet soil, etc.).
  3. Your broader landscape-design goals (such as sticking to a particular color scheme or achieving a low-maintenance landscape).

Let's elaborate on factor #1 above, since it is not self-explanatory. Say you have, for example, a stone walkway that you use all of the time to bring supplies from the garage to the house. You wish to soften its cold, hard edges with edging plants, but you do not want to impact the functionality of the walkway negatively. Consequently, you would use short plants (something with leaves and/or flowers close to the ground that will "take the edge off" the hardscape, visually), perhaps all of one species, massed together to achieve greater visual impact (some of the best choices here will be ground covers).

You would also avoid plants that are messy, such as those that drop berries, which could create a slippery mess and become a safety hazard. Another reason for avoiding such messy plants is that you would have to clean up after them, which, in turn, would add to your landscape maintenance (an example of how factor #3 comes into play).

However, consider the following case. Let's say the "edge" in question is the edge of your property: that is, a property border. If you wish to define it with a row of plants, what you hope to accomplish in so doing may be entirely different than in the case of the walkway. It is not uncommon for homeowners to desire a living privacy fence along a property border, composed, for example, of tall shrubs.

Thus edging plants are also sometimes called "border plants." It is easy to see why, since, in everyday language, "border" can be synonymous with "edge." But you can also see how a stickler for precision could become uneasy over the definition for edging plants. It should be apparent from the foregoing examples that there is a monumental gap between the short plants used to edge a walkway and the tall shrubs required for privacy in a border planting. Therefore, keep in mind that, when you call something an "edging plant," you are making a statement more about how you are using it than about the plant, itself (in other words, "edging plants" is not a botanical classification). 

The area along a fence constitutes yet another "edge." See my article on landscaping fence lines to gain ideas for complementing your fencing with plantings.

Edging Plants for Shade, Full Sun

Here are some examples, then, of true edging plants (that is, short plants), broken down according to whether they will grow in an area with some shade or need full sun (that is, factor #2 above). Examples suitable for partial shade include:

  1. Halcyon hosta
  2. Pachysandra
  3. Impatiens
  4. Lenten rose

Examples best for spots with full sun include:

  1. Phlox subulata
  2. Yellow alyssum
  3. Creeping juniper
  4. Silver Mound artemisia
  5. Angelina stonecrop

Annual flowers can also be used as edging plants or to supplement perennials in that role, as in the picture.

Note that "edging" also refers to a low, partially underground structure that divides a lawn area from a flower bed with the intention of, among other things, keeping the grass of the lawn area from invading the soil of the flower bed. Learn how to install such "lawn edging" here.