After gardening for 30 years, and working in the landscape business for almost the same amount of time, I have found that there are three things that are necessary for a successful and low maintenance landscape.
The first thing is a good edge to your beds. If you do not have a clear edge, the weeds and grass waste no time taking over. The perennial grasses are the worst. They send runners just below the surface of the soil, and come up, in and around your plant material. Once this happens, it is almost impossible to get rid of the grass without removing everything and starting over.
I most often use the plastic edging shown in this photo. Many people complain that this edging works it's way out of the ground, but if it is installed properly, this edging will stay in place for many years, and can even be dug up, and moved out as your plants grow. The key is to install it straight, not slanted, and always keep grass on one side, and soil on the other. Sometimes the soil will wash out on either side of the edging, especially if a plant is hanging over the edging and shading the soil. You also need to drive steel spikes through the edging back into the soil. These spikes are usually supplied with the edging when you buy it. There are different grades of this plastic edging. Hint: If it is rolled up in a box, it is probably not of the best quality. The best edging of this kind is usually sold in 20 foot strips, at about $1.00 per foot, and you will only find it sold this way at garden centers.
If the edging is cut, it can also fill with water and freeze in the winter, which will also cause it to work it's way out of the ground. Sometimes I add a row of bricks on the outside edge to add a little bit of interest to the bed. This also gives you a place to run your mower wheel. I have this edging installed on my property, and in some places it has been there for 10-12 years, and still in good condition.
I also use boulders, or other types of rock as an edge. I have found if these types of edging are used, you must keep a few inches of bare ground along the edge facing the lawn, in order to keep the weeds and grass from creeping around and underneath.
Sometimes you can get these types of edging materials from people tearing out landscapes, or farmers that are happy to have some crazy city person, load their trunk with the rocks that they have piled at the edges of their fields. Always ask permission first though, because sometime the farmers wives have the same idea.
You can also use timbers as an edge to your bed. The problem with these is sometime they are not deep enough to keep grasses from creeping underneath. They also don't last as long as the plastic or rock. They tend to rot after 8-10 years. They are also often treated, so you wouldn't want to use them around edible plants. If you do decide to use them, it will help keep them in place if you drill holes about every 5 feet, and pound a 2-3 foot piece of rebar through the timber and into the ground. This will keep it is place, especially over the winter. I used timbers around my fruit garden which allowed me to put my fence up, leaving about 4 inches extra along the bottom. I then lay this extra fence flat, and lay bricks on top of it. This has kept my fruit garden free from rabbit damage. They are not able to get under the fence because the brick is anchoring the extra fencing to the ground. You can't see the bricks in the picture, because of the leaf mulch, but they line the entire inside of the fence line. Because of the timber on one side and the brick on the other, the rabbits can't get in.
Another kind of edging that I have tried this year, and have been extremely happy with, is a composite plastic timber. These are made from recycled tires, and come in landscape timber, 4x4, and 6x6 sizes. They are fairly expensive, but because they will last forever, I think that they are a good investment. I have used the 6x6 as an edge in an area, where constant traffic with tractors and trucks would not allow use of any other kind of edging. So far, they have held up very well. They are an attractive brown/black color, but be warned, they are very heavy, and very hard to cut. I have commented to my husband that if we move from this property, these timbers are going with us.
I only have two beds on my property with no edging. These are both along a white pine border, and the edging would have to be moved to often to justify having it. So every other year, I cut these edges by hand. I don't have much trouble in these beds with weeds and grass, because of the dense shade, and pine needle cover.
So, a good edge, in my opinion, is the most important thing to having a successful and low maintenance landscape. I know when I come out to work in my garden, I am not going to have to spend any time on edges. That means a lot, when you have a limited amount of time each week in your garden.
Tomorrow I will post on the second element to having a successful and low maintenance landscape.