Planning garden beds for maximum impact and minimum maintenance

Story and Photography by Susan Jasan

A little planning ahead can maximize your enjoyment and minimize headaches when dealing with your landscape – the maintenance in particular. A simple concept, yes; but most often overlooked. This particularly applies to the layout and design of your planting beds. 

What could be so hard about that? It isn’t hard actually. In reality, it is quite easy when given some forethought.

The grass path through this narrow area was planned to be wide enough for a mower. It keeps maintenance down, while still achieving a meandering pathway through a narrow space.

Take for example a planting bed with square corners. Yes, they are easily made with straight-edged materials such as landscape timbers or railroad ties. However, typically they’re more time consuming when it comes to mowing and trimming.

The curved edge of this planting utilizes a steel edge between the pavers and the mulched bed. This helps keep the mulch from washing into the walkway. Note that when using a curved edge for a paver walkway, there are many more cuts required to get the geometrically shaped pavers to fit well along the curve.

Now consider the curved garden shape. Curves are often considered more “organic” or “natural.” And when curved edges are using in a garden border, mowing can be easier – but only if done correctly. This is particularly true when using a riding mower, but it also makes more work when mowing with a push mower. If the radius of the curve is smaller than the turning radius of your lawn mower, you’ve just created a trimming nightmare that will take a lot of the fun out of your mowing. 

The irregular shapes of the stones in this patio area are reflected in the irregular shape of the garden border. In this application it works well, particularly as the junipers (Juniperus spp.) creep across the surface.

In the case of a riding mower, be aware of the turning radius of your lawn mower. If you’re not sure what that is, then make as tight a circle as you can with the mower and measure the radius. For those fortunate to have a zero turn radius mower, you still have maneuvering room to consider. In either case, always design your planting beds so that you can mow in a continuous motion without having to stop and start to get into all those tight little turf areas. 

The broad sweeping curves of this garden allow for easy mowing. The repetition of colors draws the eye from foreground to the background.

A general rule of thumb is to be sure your curves are never tighter than a 6-foot radius. Remember too that the wider the radius, the more sweeping the curves, typically the more pleasing design…not to mention easier care. 

This owner very intentionally designed the wide sweeping edge of their garden for easy maintenance.

Where your garden edge meets pavement, whether it’s the driveway, a sidewalk, or a patio area, the transition to the hardscape can take several forms: The edging simply “T’s” into the hardscape, or the edging curves and seems to disappear into the edge of the hardscape. There are pros and cons to both approaches:

The T Transition:  
PRO: The T makes an abrupt clean edge and makes a strong definition for the planting bed. 
CON: When mowing, one will have a 90-degree turn to make with this transition.

The Curved Transition:
PRO: It makes mowing very easy as one follows the gentle curved edge as it meets the hardscape edge.
CON: It makes growing plants in the narrow transition area very difficult.

There’s no right or wrong, there’s just a difference in style and choices.

Just one portion of an expansive property with extensive gardens, the owner has utilized the broad curves to facilitate mowing. However, they’ve gone a step further by creating a mowing edge along the beds that not only includes the vertical edge of the bed, but the horizontal mowing strip for the mower wheels, thus eliminating any need for trimming.

Remember to keep the above radii in mind when mulching trees. Even small starter trees will grow large, so start by giving them some extra room and mulching around them at the same radius as your mower. If the “bare” mulch area seems too much to you, then plant annuals in the mulched area until the tree grows. With the mulch, you’re also protecting the trunk of the tree from lawn mowers or string trimmers that can damage bark and ultimately kill your young tree.

Sometimes straight lines are a must to achieve the intended design, despite the added maintenance. Here the formality of this garden requires the straight bed edges along with the highly manicured plantings.

Probably one of the most common mistakes made by gardeners is lining the edge of the driveway with plant material. What makes this particularly problematic is that most driveways are quite narrow. Typically, driveways are 20 feet wide, allowing two vehicles to be parked side by side. However, this doesn’t allow for the 4-5-foot space required to open a vehicle door and to step out of the vehicle. The result: crushed plants.

If you’re ever tempted to “soften the edge of your driveway” with a border, be sure that your guests won’t be trampling your hard work. If you have an oversized driveway that has extra space for egress from vehicles, then be sure to plant your greenery away from the edge of the concrete. 

Here a tree base is mulched, edged, and planted. The circle bed is large enough to make mowing easy by simply mowing around the edge with a radius similar to the typical riding mower.

While we’re talking about sidewalks, remember that it is best to have (at a minimum) a 54-inch-wide sidewalk for the main approach your home. Most residential walkways are 48 inches wide and can be found as narrow as 36 inches. Reality: two people walking comfortably side-by-side typically requires 54 inches. The economics of the cost of concrete may dictate what you can afford, but whenever possible keep the approach to your home grand, and reduce the width of the more utilitarian areas if possible.

The planting bed along this fence line serves a dual purpose. The first, as a screening and accent between the driveway area in the foreground and the pool area beyond. The second purpose is less obvious, but extremely important. The planting bed is planned at 5-foot depth: the standard overhang of the back of a vehicle. Between the 5 feet and the soft plants, should a vehicle back into this area, the plants will soften the blow, and the depth helps prevent any damage to the fencing.

And just as you plan for visitors, be sure to avoid narrow turf areas where a mower cannot fit. This too makes for more maintenance, which with a little planning can be easily avoided.

Generally, curves are easier to maintain, the broader more sweeping forms being the easiest. Reserve straight lines for those formal gardens where you fully expect to spend extra time on maintenance. Some of the greatest gardens are built on geometry of angles and lines, so if that’s your style, by all means make the most of it and enjoy!!!

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