By Mel Bellar
There as so many metaphors using the concept of the path, so I don’t appreciate that the “garden path” implies a deception. I am a huge fan of paths in the garden and I am a big believer that the journey is what is important and not necessarily the destination. Sometimes a path is all about the journey and sometimes a path is a means to an end. My preference is often to enjoy the path of least resistance!
Paths are an essential component of any garden, and you can almost never have too many. They have many purposes and styles, and a host of less obvious contributions to the overall effect of the landscape. Of course, function is the primary reason for a path; we need comfortable ways to get to and from areas in our significant locations in the landscape. As a designer, I see the path to be almost as important an architectural and visual element as a functional component. The path to the entrance of the house (one or more) should be sufficiently generous to be not only safe but inviting and part of what I call the arrival experience. This is a little journey that you take thousands of times; it should be enjoyable.
In general, paths are a great way to create structure in the garden by adding nice lines and different textures, all in the name of function. For instance, a stone or stepping-stone path from a side door to a patio in the back of the house makes the journey more pleasant, especially if the grass hasn’t been cut, and adds a cool visual component and invitation. A path across turf grass is generally better if it is stone. I love stepping-stones but they have a lot of subtleties. Big natural-looking stepping stones are cool but it is hard to get them spaced in a way that they look great and walk easily; smaller stepping stones (18 inches wide) with an 8 to 9 inch space between them is optimal for most folks to traverse but can look busy if the path cuts across a big space. You have to decide what is more important, best look or best utility. Paths through the lawn need to be generous enough to feel substantial (not look too thin and out of scale), preferably 4 feet, or wide enough for 2 people to walk side by side.
Now, paths in the garden are another story altogether, taking on a variety of roles and having more good options for materials. A path through a garden not only adds structure but it is really an invitation to explore the garden. I love a stroll garden just as an experience, but the path can do both and deliver you to a destination as well. The journey allows you to see details in the garden in a different way and also, if the path is curved, it can provide mystery and offer the gardener with a way to present different views of the garden, depending on which way you are walking. Looking down a curved path going through the garden can present really cool and changing scenes with the juxtapositions of various revealed areas as you move through.
Paths in the garden are also good for the gardener, and the garden. They provide easy access to the garden so that it can be maintained without stepping in the garden and compacting the soil. I nearly always add narrow gardener’s paths that are not necessarily meant for strolling but provide access; it is good to have some sort of access every 4 or 5 feet as we often do in vegetable gardens.
Paths also increase air flow by providing some open space around the plants; open space that adds a different texture and background canvas for the plants. Paths in the garden can be stone, gravel, wood chips, grass (although it is a pain to cut) and who doesn’t love a boardwalk? If you remove the sod and/or weed roots before putting in the path material, the path will be pretty easy to maintain with a little regular attention. It is an area where the weeds are less likely to grow; they are easy to see, access and pull.
I particularly like the look and feel of a pea gravel path in the garden. If the path is abutted only by planting beds, the pea gravel does not have to be contained and can create a clean but informal look when the plants tilt into the path a little. Pea gravel paths through the turf look great too but are very hard to maintain without some sort of edging which is expensive to purchase and install. Pea gravel is great combined with stepping-stones. Wood chips also make a good-looking and comfortable surface material.
Get creative and put paths in your landscape. Use them to continue trudging the path to happy destiny. I am going to!
Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardene