The open space of a garden path immediately catches your eye—the invitation to share what is down the path is irresistible! Paths are fundamental to beautiful landscape design, whether they are elaborate or simple, costly or inexpensive.
- Paths serve as guides. Gardens may be for growing food, showing off collected plants, or for peace and meditation. Paths create important visual and physical access to planted areas in the landscape.
- Paths are points of interest. Paths’ design, structure, and materials mark garden areas and add texture.
- Paths provide access. They provide a way to negotiate the landscape—moving among plants and around physical barriers and difficult topography.
As in all landscape design, line, color, form, and texture are central to a successful path. Both formal and informal garden paths require planning.
- Establish the location—chose an origin, a destination, and the line that will connect them. Consider the slope and drainage of both the garden and the path. Wet places cause problems for users and also accelerate deterioration. Paths should have a maximum slope of 5 percent—no more than a 1-foot rise to 20 feet of run for easy walking and moving of equipment such as wheelbarrows in the garden. Always consider safe passage in developing your design: on steeper slopes. Plan to use steps or include breaks that allow crossflow of water using drainage berms and/or underground drainage pipes.
- Choose materials—choice of material creates color, form, and texture. Use edging materials such as stone, wood, synthetic, or metal to define the walking area. The path’s surface can be the same materials or a complementary material—for example, fill well-defined metal edges with crushed stone. Consider whether your path will be impermeable—stone, concrete—or permeable—grass, gravel, wood chips. Properly installed manufactured paving stone or brick properly can be environmentally friendly permeable walkways.
Building a path
- Mark the path design with string or paint.
- Dig to an appropriate depth to accommodate the path materials PLUS a base material such as crushed stone or sand to provide necessary drainage.
- Install any edging materials—anchor with stakes, concrete mortar or compacted soil.
- Smooth the base material to provide a uniform bed for the surface material.
- If you use stone, level and space it to provide a safe and comfortable walking surface. Stones should be large enough to accommodate your entire foot and spaced from 24 to 36 inches apart. You can fill the space between stepping stones with sand, crushed rock, gravel or “steppable” plants such as grass or other groundcovers.
- Consider studying universal design principles to make your path more accessible (see Resources).
Two examples of informal paths
- The first is a path of hard-packed soil and decaying leaves in a minimally maintained woodland area. It is simply a cleared area that takes the viewer’s eye toward an unknown area in the distance, easily created and maintained by a home gardener. Cutting away encroaching plants keeps the path’s edges defined. Fallen branches arranged to mark the edge and/or wood chips or mulch for the surface could further enhance this path. In high traffic areas a different surface treatment may be necessary to keep muddy areas in check.
- The second path uses large stones. Once the area and design for the path and the patio it leads to were defined, soil was excavated to the desired grade, and a base material of small stone and sand placed as a base for the larger stone. Power equipment was required to move and place stones this large. Cracks between the large stones were filled with small gravel. Because there is a step from this path to a patio, a handrail was added for safety.
Paths that create an appropriate guide, add interest, and promote access are a joyful part of a creative landscape.
Article by James C. Wade, Extension Master GardenerSM Volunteer
Designing your landscape:
More about universal design principles: