The Inside Edge on Edgers

Features - Maintenance

More tools are available to landscape contractors that make edging easier to manage.

July 12, 2000

Imagine yourself at the local ice cream parlor ordering a banana split. You are handed a delicious-looking concoction with the finest ice cream, bananas, syrup and whipped cream. But the cherry is wrinkled and dry. Is the banana split as appetizing now?

For landscape contractors, edging can be like that cherry. Performed correctly, edging can make the landscape look much more appealing. Edging performed incorrectly or not at all, however, can make the best maintenance job look incomplete.

Many landscape contractors, to their detriment, have resorted to string trimmers for creating an edge. Often, their decision comes down to an edger’s cost – they cannot fathom spending a few hundred dollars for a machine they will use no more than one hour each day. But spending that money and using the machine properly is crucial to putting the finishing touches on any landscape.

   The Bed

    Natural, bed-defined edges are becoming an alternative to plastic and steel edging as a bed construction method in the eastern United States, and the trend is slowly moving westward.

    Defining a bed was often a laborious task involving a shovel to cut the edge, then chop or remove the dirt. Not only was this process time intensive, but it was labor intensive, as well. But that has changed.

    Today, bed-defining edgers are available that make quick work of cutting the edge. They allow the contractor to cut edges efficiently with a better edge than a shovel could do. An edger’s increased speed also allows the contractor to be more productive.

    Because the edger is set to a specific height and angle, the edge will be more precise – 3 to 5 inches deep, with a slope of about 8 inches – throughout the bed.

    Unlike driveway edgers, a host of attachments are available for bed-defining edgers to make them more versatile tools. A variety of different blades on the market allows contractors to convert their equipment to trenchers for irrigation or lighting. Some manufacturers sell stump- and rock-grinding blades for applications in demanding environments.

    Purchasing a bed edger can be an investment that pays off in labor savings almost immediately. "When you are redefining beds, you do it often when the ground is cold," said Paul Sullivan, president, Mainline of North America, London, Ohio. "You are trying to get as much labor done as possible in less-than-ideal conditions. Since the bed edging is part of the entire package, getting it done as efficiently as possible is important.

    "If you are defining a bed edge by hand, you will not make any money," Sullivan continued. "With a bed-defining edge, you can get the entire job done quickly and be more profitable – it just makes good business sense."
    – Dave Clancy

EDGER STYLES. The two basic styles of edgers – stick and walk-behind – both can provide a crisp edge on the lawn where it butts up against a flower bed, curb or sidewalk. Each type of edger operates differently, however, and has its advantages and disadvantages.

"The trend toward stick edgers is really growing lately," said Pete Fernald, manager of technical services, Shindaiwa, Tualatin, Ore. "Their popularity started in the Southeast and now is moving northward."

Fernald said the stick edger’s growing popularity has a lot to do with its portability. "An operator can have the stick down off the truck and the edge done in the time it takes to get the walk-behind unit off a truck.

"The contractor wants the equipment off the truck, the job done, the equipment back on the truck and to be down the block as quickly as possible," Fernald said. "That is how contractors make their money."

That is not to say walk-behind edgers have no place in the industry. "You get a wider edge with the walk-behind unit," Fernald said. "Walk-behind edgers are especially good to use when the edge is overgrown and nonexistent. In the North, walk-behind edgers work very well for the first cut of the spring because they cut through all the winter growth."

Walk-behind edgers are mainly used to establish the edge of a lawn, said Jim Elmer, vice president, marketing, Tanaka Power Equipment, Kent, Wash. "Once the edge is established, it can be cleaned up regularly with the stick unit. The stick units are quick and easy for cleaning up the edge, but they are not really turf cutters."

Walk-behind edgers are also not as easy to maneuver, said Nick Jiannas, product manager, power tools, Stihl, Virginia Beach, Va. "They do have more power than stick edgers, but I am not sure you need all that power," Jiannas said. "In areas like Ohio, where there is a lot of clay soil, the additional torque is needed. A good edger is also necessary in the Southeast, where St. Augustine grass is prevalent.

"Edgers have always been strong in the Southeast," Jiannas continued. "But we are starting to see more progressive landscape contractors in the Midwest and the North moving toward edgers. They realize they can get jobs done a lot quicker and a lot more efficiently with an edger over a string trimmer. Plus, contractors can burn a lot of string very quickly if they use it to edge."

Edger blades are more durable than string and do not need replaced as often. However, edger blades often rub against a sidewalk or driveway, which can dull them. In addition, since the blade is cutting through earth as well as grass, they will dull somewhat just with regular wear and tear.

"Blades that go through dirt and sand regularly will wear out very quickly," Elmer said. "Florida soil is especially tough on blades."

EDGER MAINTENANCE. Many contractors do not consider their edgers investments. Since they are low-ticket items, edger maintenance is often neglected until the machine breaks down. The result is a throwaway item. But with a little care, an edger can last a long time.

"A piece of hand-held equipment is not viewed as strong an investment as a $40,000 piece of equipment," Jiannas said. "Even the small contractor can properly maintain his equipment so it will run more efficiently."

Edger maintenance includes checking the air filter and greasing the shaft and gear heads. Operators should also inspect the blade for wear. A blade that is worn will not cut as efficiently, forcing the unit to work harder and putting extra stress on the clutch.

"A flex shaft will probably take up some stress from the resistance of the ground, but there will still be extra wear on a clutch that you won’t see in other power equipment," said Elmer in talking about stick edgers. "But we haven’t seen any great wear patterns or failures over the years."

Lubricating the blades and keeping them in good working order will enable the unit to last three to five times longer, Fernald pointed out. "Lubricate the cable and clean the dirt and debris out of the housing," he said. "Make sure the guide wheel is free and the blade is in good shape. These are just common sense maintenance practices."

Fernald recommends lubricating the gear case every 50 hours of use. "That really is not that often, considering the edger is in use maybe three to five hours per week," he said.

Also, don’t abuse the machine. Many contractors use edgers as mini trenchers, sidewalk cutters and cleaning equipment. This is not recommended by any manufacturer, unless it provides the attachments.

"I have seen someone put an abrasive wheel on an edger to cut concrete, and someone else put a wirewheel on it for cleaning," Elmer said. "We don’t recommend these types of improper uses of the equipment.

"And, remember, any time you use a product for something it was not designed for, you are voiding the warranty," he added.

Manufacturers offer some accessories to make edgers easier to use. "We have a drop wheel kit for when you edge along a curb," Elmer said. "This enables the operator to drop a wheel down to street level, so he or she does not have to balance the edger along the curb."

When deciding to buy an edger – regardless of if you want a walk-behind unit or a stick edger – look at the amount of edging you will be doing and when you will be doing it. Maintaining an edge is much easier than recutting an edge every year, so in warmer climates, the stick edger can be your main tool. Where you must redefine the edge annually, the walk-behind unit provides a good base. After the edge is cut, switching to the stick unit for maintenance is an option.

Ask your dealer what he recommends. Ask a service mechanic what he works on the most and what he works on the least. Ask him what his opinions of a machine are as a mechanic. Also, find out how easy it is to keep the edger maintained in the field.

Ask your employees what they prefer. Some prefer to just pull the stick unit off the truck and cut very quickly. Others prefer the steadiness of the walk behind.

Proper selection and use of the edger can make that property as appealing as that stop at the ice cream parlor after work.

The author is a free-lance writer based in Gahanna, Ohio.