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Garden Pathways

Garden pathways should be designed to be more than a utilitarian element in your garden. Pathways provide walking surfaces through your garden which force your eyes to be drawn to carefully placed focal points.  Your visual and physical experience while walking around your property is defined by its pathways.  Paths connect the entire garden.  Regardless of the size of your garden, a series of lovely paths will encourage you to take regular walks to observe what is happening throughout the seasons and what needs attention.

Primary pathways are those leading to the front door, connecting to the back door and other primary spaces. They should be approximately 48 inches wide so that two people can walk comfortably and easily. The walk from the sidewalk to the front door is usually straight for practical reasons. Planting along the edges of the walk softens the formality of straight pathways. It is a good idea that primary pathways be securely set and done in a non-slip surface.

Secondary pathways branch off from the primary path and extend further into the garden areas or possibly to gates. They tend to be less formal and can be created with mulch, stepping stones, pavers, or gravel.  These paths will make your garden more inviting as they will guide you under an archway or around a corner.  A pathway that curves and slowly reveals what lies ahead will add an element of mystery to the garden. In Japan, the concept of “hide and reveal” is used in many garden designs.  By intentionally obscuring some parts of the garden from view, the entire garden is never seen from only one point which inevitably creates pleasant surprises as you walk.

Secondary pathways provide great opportunities for creative designs.  A mulch path can be hardwood bark, pine needles, or saw dust. These materials give a naturalistic feel but they will need to be refreshed every one to two years to look great. Broad stepping stones or pavers with low-growing plants (“stepables” work well) can create a charming path. Gravel pathways should be made with unsifted gravel as it contains various sized aggregates that will compact firmly and provide solid footing. Gravel can be difficult to keep clean from leaves, soil, and sticks. Using an edging material will help to keep the gravel within the walkway space. Or, using mixed materials such a brick, stone, ceramics, or tile will create unique designs.

What look do you want? For inspiration study the materials used in your own house, fences, and look at the surrounding architecture. Avoid introducing too many new materials or styles that don’t reflect what already exists. Invest in quality materials and great design so that your hardscape is part of your year-round garden pleasure.

Choose surfaces that work within the context of your space. Natural stone is my favorite material for pathways. It is usually more expensive but offers a variety of colors and textures. Stone can be set in sand, stone dust, or in concrete with mortar joints. If using mortar, many people choose to hire a professional to avoid the mortar from cracking.  If choosing brick, be sure that you use paving brick rather than wall bricks. Think about some of the lovely patterns that are possible with brick such as herringbone where the bricks are laid at 45 or 90-degree angles. This process requires more precision and patience so perhaps a simpler design might be easier.  Consider a whimsical design that allows for irregularities and surprises.

Using pavers is an option and there are many to choose from with a wide range of shapes, sizes and colors. Be aware that some pavers have an artificial look so keep that in mind when making selections.  Stamped concrete can also be used and is stamped with different patterns to achieve a certain look.

Whatever material is used, the pathway needs to be set at a 1 to 2 percent slope and the finished surface is ¼ to ½ inch above the adjacent grade.  A well-designed series of garden pathways should blend practicality and aesthetics to create a harmonious, high impact and a functional feature of your garden.


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