Garden bed shapes - enbracing the un-natural....

woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)September 18, 2010

OK - I'm a bit cranky, stuck indoors with a fractured foot when the weather is perfect for being in the garden... The thread re a garden against the fence hits on one of the things that irritates me :-) Why does a 'natural' edge - i.e. wiggly-waggley curves - always seem to be touted as the best/only acceptable option for bed edge/shape? I find the vast majority of 'natural' bed edges to be more annoying than attractive. The curvy edges are 'busy' and draw your eye to the front edge of the space which

* makes the bed appear shallower,

* over-emphasizes the front plantings at the expense of the rest of the plantings,

* makes the space appear smaller because your focus is kept short

* increases maintenance because it make a longer line to edge an trickier manoevering to mow the adjacent lawn.

Below are a few crude drawings where I'm trying to illustrate why I prefer an 'unnatural' smooth curve to the wavy edges:

Top left: at a bed shape that mirrors the 90 degree corner is not ideal, in large part because it is awkward to mow around that corner.

Top right: But if you round out that corner with a big, smooth curve, you get a number of advantages:

- It's easier maintain/mow adjacent grass because here are no complicated mowing lines,

- there is a shorter distance to edge and, if you want a brick or stone mowing edge, it is easier/cheaper to install,

- your eyes sweep smoothly down the line into the distance, making the space look longer - and wider since the focus is no longer drawn to the front edge.

Bottom left: my attempt to show the curvy bed option - OK, I'm sure you can make a nicer one...:-)

Bottom right: a smoth curve superimposed on the wavy edge. You gain planting space by the smooth line since the ins and out of the wavy edge is essentially wasted space - it's not available to plant and is not particularly useful as lawn space.

In a very large (e.g. acres of space) garden, the differences between the two are less obvious but in ordinary, smaller gardens these days, I think one should think carefully whether the wavy 'natural' edge is actually the best option.

I know I'm wildy out of step with the preferred 'look' but I think there are atvantages to keeping the lines simple that are too often ignored or dismissed. So think about it before you follow the crowd...

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I prefer simple curves with "lobes" or straight lines to excessively curvy beds. NO bed will look natural if there's a mulched area next to turf. None! So the overly fussy "look, this is informal!" is just too much for me.

My front bed is ruler-straight, defined by the stepping stones that lead to the front door. The ends are curved--one ends at the driveway, and the other is curved out to the end of a wall.

    Bookmark   September 19, 2010 at 1:19AM
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Curvy works if you have patio then bed but next to lawn, it's a pain. As years go by in Ca. anyway the edging moves up or down & you end up hand trimming something. Hard to mow & little stuff at "humps" of curve either get stepped on or damaged or the indents stuff goes outside into grass. Friend got injured & I did her yard & it was a pain trying to make it look good. Folks back yard is edged with native rock, dad cemented in with concrete mowing edge & was hard to mow. They just changed it out to dichondra , they aren't going to mow it, just let it look natural. A gentle curve around hill is about as much curve as I like.

    Bookmark   September 19, 2010 at 2:06AM
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missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)

Some time back, laag addressed the issue of extra curves in a bed. As best I remember, he said the bed edge shouldn't curve unless there was a reason for the curve. A bed might logically curve out around a tree or large shrub. I don't remember if he said anything about the shape of the bed following terrain, but that seems like another logical reason.

That said, I blush to mention my large front lawn bed. It is where it is because the part of the lawn by the street was the only place in the front yard that got any amount of sun, and I wanted to plant sun-loving flowers. The bed is set back from the street because of state highway regulations, also because there's a fairly steep slope down a couple of feet from the road.

As for curves, the bed frankly wiggles -- think of a snake with a large head.

The tail of the snake bends to fit inside the property line (that whole corner of "my" front lawn belongs to the next-door driveway, so they'll have clear sight-lines).

Then the bed curves toward the house a few feet to encompass the trunk of a smallish maple (because it would have looked weird if the tree was next to but outside the flowerbed).

And then the bed curves toward where the road and the driveway meet, and widens into something resembling a circle. That's the welcome-to-my-house part of the bed; in a few weeks I'll plant a flowering shrub in the middle of the circle.

    Bookmark   September 19, 2010 at 3:09AM
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Aww, sorry to hear about your foot! Are you still re-arranging your garden?
I think that curves/rounded corners are often the easy way out, just because a misplaced straight line sticks out more. My garden has a couple straight lines that really hurt the eye - maybe because they're misplaced? My first instinct was to turn them all into curves, but I'm having second thoughts now - will people walking on the curved path start cutting across lawn? How about winter, when we need to shovel snow from that path? I've also been pondering over the appropriateness of curves in a garden that surrounds a house like mine, with no curves at all - just lots of straight lines. One solution seems to be - make the curves big, and don't make them too perfect. (photos would explain what I'm trying to say, but am reluctant to post pictures, for fear of them getting ideasshared all over...)
I seem to mentally divide my yard into "busy" areas where we walk faster, in straight lines, with a goal in mind, and "slow" ones for relaxing - it's the transitions between the two that are giving me a hard time, especially since I don't have the classic divide into front yard/backyard (my house is on a street corner). And I need to start paving the paths, dammit...

    Bookmark   September 19, 2010 at 4:35AM
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There is nothing wrong with curves in a bed or straight lines in a bed. You can decide that you would like to use curves, lines, or a combo before you plan your bed. What makes no sense is to actually plan the bed before you plan your planting plan.

Missingtheobvious had it right. Whatever you do in shaping your bed should fit what is in and around it. Most of the time it is more important to determine what is in the bed and what it is doing for your landscape than to plan a bed shape.

A small fenced in back yard can intensify the importance of bed shape for a number of reasons. One is that you have very limited smace left over after the planting, so economy of space comes into play. Another is that the limitation of space minimizes what affect the planting will have on the overall space as the existing built work has a greater influence on the overall landscape.

Last winter I had a small project on a very small lot with an enclosed back yard. The newly built deck was leaving a bowling alley effect because the previous design maximised open space by minimizing bed width. Since the deck changed the whole context of the landscape, the directional visual pull from that hallway feeling needed to be changed.

You want to feel centered and comfortable on a deck and not drawn in an odd direction. Building that centered feeling comes from altering the space to support the context. It was obvious to me that the bed shape would reflect a pushing out of the space away from the deck and more planting to contain the space to either side as you looked out from the deck. I had a rough idea of bed shape at that point, but that is not because I started with bed shape. I, in fact, started with a conceptual understanding of what the plantings would need to be like and the bed shape followed.

The next step was to actually plan the planting to support the concept. In the end, the bed shape was drawn around the planting.

Plan your space. Then plan your planting to support that space. Then plan your bed shape to support both the space and the planting. These are not separate things and should not be treated separately. A garden can be a piece of art within itself, but it should be supporting the greater landscape.

The same holds true with bed shape. It can be a piece of art, but it must support the planting. The planting must support the needs of the space that it is in. That space must support the greater landscape around it.

This is what was existing when I entered the project just ater a renovation of the house, a new deck, and new hardscaping. My job was a planting plan to largely re-use the existing plants from a four year old landscape.

This was the proposed landscape. It is a mix of straight and curve. Bed shape is important because it is a reflection of the shape of the lawn which is a strong space defining psychological element in this very small space. The landscape is designed to make the deck feel like the heart of the space all else is designed to support that while working for its own smaller context as well.

    Bookmark   September 19, 2010 at 8:29AM
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I like it most when the plants are allowed to create their own shaped edge, with some growing more outward breaking up any straight lines for example, making it hard to figure out what is the bed shape underneath the plants(though gentle curves are usually needed to achieve this natural look). A really maintained edge looks silly to me often unless the whole garden supports that kind of(formal) look. Any kind of mulch edges are a big no-no for me. Guess I'm the "clean" gardener's nightmare. lol

    Bookmark   September 19, 2010 at 10:05AM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

timbu - I'd love to see more pictures of your garden! Don't be inhibited about posting them... Only a little rearranging in the garden here this year. The main plant-based project was removing the New Dawn roses on the south alley arbour and swag chains (beautiful roses but much too vigorous and thorny!) and replacing the roses with clematises, so it will become a clematis arbour and swag. We also replaced a couple of other big roses with hydrangea/clematis combinations. I've never been a big rose fan and our brief fling with adding them to the garden is largely over. We've kept a few for now but their long-term future remains in doubt! The other significant projects for this year was the painting of the garden shed, and having an 8' iron tuteur made and installed in the front bed for growing clematises. That was a fun project - I designed the tuteur for an assignment in the Landscape Design class I took in the winter of 2009. I liked the tuteur design so much, I decided to have it made for our garden after making a few changes to it!

laag - the 'before' image you posted is a good example of how 'busy' I find gardens with a lot of curvy edges. The 'after' has a nice, clean simplicity that appeals to me.

I'm not sure what next year's projects here will be. We're at the point where we've run out of space to do new things without ripping out something already there. Actually, this year we started changing the herb bed on the south bank of the driveway into a place for warmer colors; I think that area will be a focus for next year. I want it to shade from pink to apricot/peachy colors through shades of orange to rusty reds at the house end. It needs more work and a better rock wall at thae base, so that will likely be where we start next year....

But first I need my right foot functional again!

    Bookmark   September 19, 2010 at 10:34AM
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People tired so much rule,formal.feel they be straight line.someone's goal is relax in garden,people enjoy some good curve.creating nice curve need much experience.your property size,colour,scale,zone,plants,rock,fence,pond,pergola...must match curve.almost curve are ugly.smooth curve often relax people.

    Bookmark   September 19, 2010 at 7:58PM
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I am not an expert but after visiting 4 or 5 gardens, I noticed that be it straight or curve, garden will look gorgeous. I found out that as long as the mixture of plants goes well with other plants like mixing patterns, grouping colors, it will work really well. I've also noticed on the gardens I've seen that the beds are properly size based on the area.

I love curves but when I saw a straight bed, I was "hmmmm, that works! I guess, I should try it". :)

    Bookmark   September 19, 2010 at 9:44PM
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sleepy33(5b KS)

Yeah, but laag's before drawing is precisely the shape you touted as the best in your original post, and the after has curved beds which you claim to dislike.

Is it possible perhaps you have a misconception about a properly executed curved-edge bed? Your example drawing shows a super-narrow bed with a very strange, extremely wiggly line as the front edge. I've never seen a professional advise or implement a bed like that. What is advised, instead, is to use a long, gradual curve that is easy to mow, edge and maintain. Ideasshare is actually...right. A long, gradual curve is pleasing to the eye. Any bed or path shape that you can't easily follow with a mower has too tight a curve.

    Bookmark   September 19, 2010 at 10:29PM
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sleepy33, your message is for woodyoak right?

    Bookmark   September 19, 2010 at 11:34PM
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Woody, I'm starting a new thread with a plan view of my garden. Advice wanted!

    Bookmark   September 20, 2010 at 4:39AM
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Temes, you said "A really maintained edge looks silly to me often unless the whole garden supports that kind of(formal) look. Any kind of mulch edges are a big no-no for me. Guess I'm the "clean" gardener's nightmare. lol

Here is the land of bermuda grass, I feel edges have to be maintained. Edging then killing the grass that intruded in the prior two weeks is necessary. Softness can be accomplished, just not where the beds meet the lawn. All of you who don't have bermuda count your blessings.

Rosie, Sugar Hill, GA

    Bookmark   September 20, 2010 at 7:29AM
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sleepy33(5b KS)

Yes, virtuosity, it was for woodyoak.

    Bookmark   September 20, 2010 at 9:23AM
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sleepy33(5b KS)

Yes, virtuosity, it was for woodyoak.

    Bookmark   September 20, 2010 at 9:24AM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

sleepy - I seem to have misudnerstood laag's post - as I read it, the 'before' with the curvy lines seemed to be the second picture and the 'after' with the nice clean curves is the first picture. Re-reading it, I see that the opposite may true (it depends whether you assume the caption is above or below the picture....) - but I still find that the curvy one is too 'busy'-looking. I prefer the lines of the first picture - but the plantings at the fence need to be denser.

Yes, my drawings are a bit exaggerated re the curvy edges and reflect more of what I see as examples in the neighbourhod - and in pictures on various garden forums. While more professional gardens tend to use more open curves, I've certainly seen designed gardens with uncomfortably tight curves and busy lines. But, as I said, I know I'm wildly out of step with current fashion on this issue. I prefer more classic/formal lines - combined with dense plantings to provide the balance of both order and variety that I find pleasing.

timbu - I'm looking forward to seeing more pictures of yoyr garden. The ones I remember seeing before were very nice!

    Bookmark   September 20, 2010 at 10:02AM
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karinl(BC Z8)

Woody, I think your assessment of Laag's design is based on the plan view and not visualizing yourself in the space. If you think about being on the deck, I thing you'd agree that the amounts of plants added and the places they were put, as well as the addition of the path, shape the space better.

The whole thing could maybe have been done with straight lines and right angles though. But I'm betting that bed shape is not what you'd notice when you were in the space.


    Bookmark   September 20, 2010 at 12:05PM
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Check this out, straight shaped bed but gorgeous!

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   September 20, 2010 at 12:15PM
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v1rtu0s1ty - It's not a straight bed. Look at the way those big-leaved plants break up the straight line by adding an outward curve.

The shape of the dirt is not always the shape of the plants in the dirt.

    Bookmark   September 20, 2010 at 1:56PM
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sleepy33(5b KS)

woodyoak, I think there is a place for both straight and curved lines in the landscape bed. But I think that for most DIY landscapers/gardeners, sticking with straight line beds encourages straight line thinking. It encourages matchy-matchy symmetry, narrow, anemic beds and perimeteritis. I know for me personally, adding curving paths and beds to my landscape has really helped me to think outside the box. Here's an example from my yard. This first pic is how the yard looked before, with a straight path and straight bed edge:

Here is the new curving path I've just completed (excuse the mess and rough condition):

Another angle to try to see more of the shape:

I'm so much happier with the new curved path. Very soft, gradual curves, but they make such a difference and look so much more interesting to me. And, as was mentioned above, it was so easy to do, the yard and house practically defined the curves for themselves. The path/bed curves out at the front for a nice, wide planting area by the front porch, then curves in closer to the house right next to the hose and gutter where I'm about to put in a rain barrel, to allow for access. Then the path/bed curves out wide again where the boxed window sticks out of the house, to mirror that shape and allow easier planting without having to duck under the window or have plants growing into it. The path then curves back to end right where there is a gate in the back fence.

I plan to leave a strip of grass, and then form a bed on the right hand side of the yard that mirrors the curve in the path. I really feel like the end result will be a much more cohesive and sophisticated aesthetic than I ever could have pulled off if I'd have just stuck to straight lines.

    Bookmark   September 20, 2010 at 3:51PM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

I doubt that I'm ever going to convince many/any of you that straighter lines are good - or any of you conivince me that wavy lines are best! To each his own is the conclusion I think:-)

Karin - From the deck, or in the space, the lines of the first of laag's drawings would still be what pleases me most. That gently rounded quasi-rectangular lawn is a shape I like (you might remember I have a rather larger version of that in my backyard!) and I can 'feel' myself moving easily along the path around the tree and to the front yard. I just think that flows better...

v1rtu0s1ty - when I mean straight lines when there are planting beds, that what I 'see' - i.e. the edges are naturally softened by plants spilling over during the growing season. But the clear lines are still there guiding you deep into the garden and will still be making a strong statement in the off-seasons when the plants are not visible or less showy.

sleepy - sorry, but I prefer the straight path version :-) If I'm going from point A to point B, I prefer to get there along the shortest path (which is a straight line). If there's no reason for a wiggle, it annoys me to have to follow that longer path. With a nice planting, a straight path doesn't have to be unattractive. I've posted this picture here before - straght path along the north side of our house - June 2009:

    Bookmark   September 20, 2010 at 4:20PM
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missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)

But woody, your wondrous front garden is the antithesis of straight lines! So it seems you can appreciate curves -- and even design them. I suspect it's the type of curve and the location that makes the difference.

Wow: a purple foot. I'm glad they gave you a color you could coordinate with. Hang in there!

    Bookmark   September 20, 2010 at 5:01PM
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sleepy33(5b KS)

But walking through the garden shouldn't be a race from A to B. And come on now, at most the curves in that path add possibly one or two extra steps. That's the beauty, also, of a nice wide path; by walking from the extreme right side of the path to the extreme left side, you can walk in a straight line down the path. You don't have to dawdle down the precise center of it like a rollercoaster on a track. Believe me, as I have walked the length of that path approximately 1000 times in the last month. Did I mention that underneath the former planting bed next to the house was a 5 inch thick concrete sidewalk I discovered under 18 inches of sand? It's gone now... :)

Like I said, the curves are there for a reason; to allow me to have nice wide beds, but still have access to the water. That is the natural path I follow when working in that part of the yard; come around the corner from the front yard, get some water, swing over to the other side to water the plants in the bed on the right, zig back over to the back gate. Not only that, but the side yard looks infinitely wider than it did.

I will believe you if you say you like the old, straight path, but I'll also tell you that you're the only one who's said that so far. :)

    Bookmark   September 20, 2010 at 5:40PM
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rosiew, of course I understand the functionality of maintained edges. And no, I don't have bermuda grass to worry about. lol Plus I didn't mean all neatly maintained edges look silly to me, just ones that really stick out and don't go with with the plant selection for example and ones that form all kinds of clearly defined waves and whatnot. :)

    Bookmark   September 20, 2010 at 5:48PM
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Here is another straight bed. I took this shot at Olbrich Gardens in Madison. Ignore the leaves that are breaking up the straight line. We're talking about the bed being straight.


I don't like straight beds before but after seeing straight beds, I should consider them as well. It will actually depend on the area. Like what you said, it's personal preference. :)

Go for it!

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   September 20, 2010 at 6:53PM
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In that straight bed pic I like how the beds soften the road but I'm not sure if the straight beds would work as well with grass instead of tile. Might need a little curve in that case.

    Bookmark   September 20, 2010 at 7:05PM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

missingtheobvious - I certainly do appreciate curves - big, sweeping ones like the one I used in the rough drawing at the top to smooth the right angle at the corner. The curves in my wonderous (love that description, thank you! :- ) front garden are all of that nature - not a wiggle-waggle in sight! This picture from early last summer shows some of the curves that are important there.

There are more curving paths - through the main bed, the bark path you can just see the ends of that goes behind/around the plants on the left and the path around the back of the bed - that aren't visible in that picture. The curves all are the same sort of bent straight line so to speak and not the wiggly-waggly curves that look awkward to me. There are similar curving paths in the woodland garden in the backyard. So it's not curves as such that I don't like; it's awkward ones that end up looking very unnatural that I object to. That is the distinction I was trying to illustrate in the drawings at the top.

(Purple was the best cast alternative - choices were lime green, hot pink, purple or black! - I'm a purple sort of gal :-) I'm crossing my fingers that I will be released to a brace at the fracture clinic tomorrow!

sleepy - I don't think we'll ever be on the same wavelength on this so there's no point in me responding to your response...:-)

    Bookmark   September 20, 2010 at 7:12PM
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missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)

I think some of the "wiggle-waggle" curves fail because the radius of the curves is too small. The curve is too small for the bed as a whole.

The same is true for some curves that soften a right-angle. Those with a larger radius generally look better. (There must be some way to quantify how small is too small, and how large is too large.)

And in some cases, the curves fail because too much of the circle sticks out (or in) from the line of the bed. For instance, a bed that curved out in a half-circle would probably look weird.
That's the best I can figure it out.

Maybe the guy who analyzed the plantings in front of Michigan Avenue stores could work on the problem.

I'm not a purple gal, and I would be hard put to choose a cast from those colors if I needed one. It would be between lime green and hot pink, though ... unless maybe I chose black with the idea of painting my own designs on it.

    Bookmark   September 20, 2010 at 11:29PM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

Liberated to an 'air cast' this morning!

'Let pain be your guide' re walking on it... If pain is greater that 3 on a 1-10 scale, stop....

The first thing I need to do is go get a haircut!

    Bookmark   September 21, 2010 at 12:00PM
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Woodyoak- Sorry about your foot, but glad to see you're in the new cast :)

As for straight lines vs. curves, I like both, depending on the type of garden. My kitchen garden is all straight lines (or so I hope) because the veggies, fruit, herbs and flowers need that structure, or it would be least IMHO.

The fairy garden has a bit more curve, as does the bed under the trees, but they're gentle curves. These beds are more for roses and companion plants, so the slight curve on the edges of the bed make it a little less formal. It's hard to be taken too seriously, when you have a small castle under the rose bush and a ceramic toad on a lily pad, hanging out under the bee balm. LOL

I think the curves in Laag's 'after' look good, especially the way they wrap around the pear tree in the back yard, on the right. It kind of shelters the tree and brings more interest to the design.

    Bookmark   September 21, 2010 at 7:24PM
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