Fragrance Underfoot

Extend your garden to include herbs around the stones of a walkway.

| December/January 2002

  • Alpine liverwort
  • Bellflower
  • Corsican mint
  • Cranesbill

  • Soapwort


Is it a pathway or a garden? A stone walkway in which numerous crevices give rise to pretty plants always begs the question, especially in summer, when fragrant herbs and flowers are at their peak. But in winter, when most of the plants recede into dormancy, the stones take over the scene, and the notion that the place is, indeed, a garden fades to a whisper.

The concept of a stone walkway that also supports plants is open to endless interpretations, with one or the other element receiving primary emphasis. If the stones are set over soil, with only enough sand or paver base beneath them to help keep them level, you can even change things from year to year, adding and subtracting stones or plants according to your gardening plans for the coming season. Some gardeners find such delight in having plants arise between stones that they find places for them everywhere, including the center of the walkway, so that actually using the corridor forces you to take a series of mincing steps. Yet logic and reason suggest that all upright plants should be limited to the walkway’s outer edges, with only ground-hugging dwarfs allowed to claim the middle ground.

For many gardeners, the greatest challenge of creating a walkway that prominently includes plants is to avoid the appearance of messy chaos. One obvious approach is to limit crevice plants to one or two species, such as creeping thyme in the sun or sweet woodruff in the shade. Then, along the edges, you can organize plants according to a rhythmic, linear plan. Place similar plants on opposite sides of the walkway, so they appear to echo each other across the path. Include an intermittent edging of curly parsley, dwarf basil, mound-forming dianthus, or other naturally neat plants. Finally, since paving stone is often gray, broaden the color band by growing drifts of artemisia, dusty miller, sage, or other gray-foliage plants along the walkway’s edges.

Keep in mind that during the winter you will be looking at bare stone. Because of this, some type of pattern in the placement of the stone will be welcome, so it’s wise to keep your ideas about plants on the back burner until the walkway itself takes shape. To allow for future changes, compose the walkway so that large stones occupy the center, with smaller stones nearer the edges where you are more likely to place plants. It’s much easier to lift a small stone to pop in a plant than to custom fit a stone into a hole that insists on sprouting up in weeds.

As much as I would like to tell you that this type of garden is easy to plant and maintain, this is simply not true. Because of the way stones hold on to heat in summer and cold in winter, finding plants that are happy in any particular site is often a trial-and-error process. The plants described on pages 28 and 29 are a good place to start, but you should also visit public gardens in your area to learn about well-adapted species and cultivars. Of course, when you do find a plant that likes your walkway, you are wise to capitalize on this discovery by planting it more widely.

Weeds also can be a nuisance, and I don’t consider chemical control to be a reasonable option when edible plants are grown nearby. If you let weeds grow too long, their roots become so extensive that you can easily pull stones loose while weeding, so the only solution is to weed early and often, all the while plugging in plants that grow so tenaciously that they cover places where weeds would otherwise appear.

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