More than just a route from one weeding location to the next, a well-planned path also invites a late-evening stroll through fragrant blossoms, pulls visitors to that quiet corner of your garden or brings together disparate garden elements. A good path is practical, providing direction and definition and keeping your feet dry, but it also can be compelling, bringing cohesion and style to your outdoor environment.
Groundwork for Great Paths
The need for a path often presents itself long before the planning pro-cess begins. When looking at your flowerbed or border, is it apparent which routes you take to maintain plants? Existing travel patterns might lay out your path for you, so all you need to do is fill it in with the appropriate building material. Or perhaps you’d like to do some trailblazing through a part of your garden where no trail exists. With some of the steps outlined here, you might discover that it’s easier than you think.
The path’s purpose and functionality should be your first consideration when deciding its direction and dimensions. If it’s a secondary path to allow for plant maintenance or a walkway meant for strolling, a width of 2 feet will do nicely. Plan on a width of 3 feet if it needs to accommodate a wheelbarrow or lawn mower. If it is to be a main path, you might want it 4 feet wide so two people can comfortably walk side by side.
But also consider your yard: If any plants or structures, such as a fence or foundation, will be crowding the path’s edge, you may need to increase the width. Be sure the path is in scale with the rest of the garden. If you’re lucky enough to have a massive courtyard garden, a 3-foot path might look out of place and undersized. On the other hand, a walkway to a garden bench or small potting shed should be narrow and intimate, not overpowering.
Setting The Tone
Next, decide the shape and direction your path will take. Straight paths can be a no-nonsense approach that quickly takes you — or your eye — from one destination to the next, but more often straight lines and strict symmetry impart a more formal ambience. Straight pathways can look crisp and traditional, even stately, compared with winding paths, which can create an element of surprise and encourage visitors to stop along the way and experience the garden from a new perspective. The key is to create curves with a sense of purpose by either revealing or concealing some element beyond the bend. For example, the curve might reveal an ornamental shrub, small tree, or a large ornamental grass in a colorful pot. It might also conceal a garden sculpture, small water feature or special planting that only can be detected upon closer inspection.
Choosing a Plant Material
For a guide to our 15 favorite picks for groundcover plants, click here for low-growing herbs and click here for spillers and shrubby herbs.
Your choice of materials for walkways can complement the style of your house and garden. A bark mulch path, for example, might be perfect for a woodland garden, but not so appropriate in a formal garden. Regardless, it isn’t necessary to go into hock to create a path you’ll love. Just about any natural material can look fine on a pathway if you want to use what’s available rather than spending a lot of money.
The type of path material you choose can set a tone for your walks and reflect the personality of the garden. Path materials can range from contemporary to classic, formal to casual. Naturalistic, informal options include pine needles, bark mulch or chips, pea stone, crushed gravel, polished pebbles and nut hulls. Even grass, crushed oyster shells and wood planks or rounds can serve as fitting path materials in the right setting. More substantial, permanent materials include brick, flagstone, slate, ceramic tile, concrete pavers and stamped concrete, as well as mosaics made of broken pottery or polished glass stones and concrete.
A fun way to personalize your path is to combine colors, textures and materials, such as wood planks edged in brick, or concrete pavers edged with bits of mosaic tile.
In considering path materials, be practical. For example, bark or crushed stone on an entry path might be tracked inside the home. Likewise, slate gets slippery when wet and would be a poor choice as a path leading to the front door. A better bet for a primary path would be one with a nonslip surface strong enough to endure daily traffic. Not all these materials may be accessible in your area, let alone suitable to your situation. And though flagstone (a generic term for paving stone) is available everywhere, the type of stone, texture and colors will vary by region.
Paths in which surface materials are laid over packed sand, or a combination of sand and crushed gravel, are easier to build than those in which solid materials are set in concrete or mortar. The excavation depth needed for your path can vary from 3 to 8 inches, depending on the type of material you’re using and how deeply your ground freezes. (The deeper your ground freezes, the deeper you should dig. In general, dig below freezing point, but eight inches is the maximum.)
Loose materials, such as bark or crushed gravel, can be set on firm soil, while more permanent materials must be laid on a 2-inch sand base, or a 2-inch layer of crushed gravel followed by a 2-inch layer of sand. Don’t forget to include the thickness of your surface material when calculating how deep you will need to dig.
Use stakes and string or lengths of rope to lay out the course of your path, then prepare the area by excavating the site and leveling the surface. Sloping the path away from foundations or permanent structures by 1/4 inch for every foot of width will help ensure proper drainage (for example, if you are building a 3-foot-wide path, slope down and away 3/4 inch in areas near your home’s foundation). Next, if desired, line the path with a landscape fabric to keep weeds down, and install edging to help keep surface materials in place. Edging options include strips of metal or wood, bricks, concrete or stone.
As you fill the area with sand, or crushed gravel and sand, be sure to firmly pack each layer down. You can rent a drum roller, purchase or borrow a hand tamper or make do with any smooth, heavy object that rolls. Once you have a smooth and level base, position your pavers or other path materials, set them in place or tamp down firmly with a rubber mallet. Fill any gaps between pavers or stones by sweeping sand between the gaps or by adding “underfoot plants” between the cracks. Choose low-growing plants that can take at least some degree of foot traffic, such as green carpet (Herniaria glabra), Corsican mint (Mentha requienii), New Zealand brass buttons (Leptinella squalida), woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus) and Scotch or Irish moss (Sagina subulata).
You can soften the edges of your path with an intriguing mix of colorful and fragrant herbs, arranging them so that some plants spill naturally over the edges. A thoughtfully placed bench or chair, a birdbath, birdfeeder or sculptural objet d’art will set off your handiwork.