Editor’s Note: This column is the first of two discussing garden paths and walkways. Part one deals with layout and functionality.
Garden paths serve many functions and can be strictly utilitarian to decidedly decorative. The construction of many walkways and paths is easily accomplished by the average gardener, and the simple addition of a path can greatly enhance both your garden’s accessibility and its appeal.
Paths beckon us into the garden, inviting us to explore the landscape. We may be visually led to a strong focal point, such as a fountain or sculpture at the end of a straight vista, or we may be more subtly enticed by a curving pathway whose destination is out of view and therefore somewhat mysterious and intriguing.
A garden path can also serve as a temporal design element by establishing a pace for the garden visit. A faster speed is encouraged by straight or wide paths, especially if composed of smooth, even material that provides a sure footing. On the other hand, meandering, narrow paths slow our footsteps, as do widely spaced steppingstones or uneven surfaces, such as cobblestone or rough fieldstone.
The placement of a path can encourage us to appreciate a particular aspect of the garden, such as an ornamental pond adjacent to the path or an ancient oak that towers overhead. Perhaps just as important, a path’s route can lead your garden visitors away from an undesirable view, for instance a compost pile or messy work area.
Paths also serve as protectors of the garden, keeping wandering feet off the plants. Minor paths, for use by the gardener alone, can provide access into garden beds for maintenance while preventing the compaction of soil. These paths may consist of just a few strategically placed steppingstones or a narrow strip of wood chips.
The need for paths evolves right along with the garden. For instance, when a gazebo is built, a route leading to it is often necessary. As flower beds are added, paths may be needed to link them together. Perhaps there are areas in your yard that are underutilized, for instance a woodland area where you could plant shade-loving perennials if only a path made for easier access.
Once the need for a path is established, it’s time to think about layout, design, and style, all of which are interrelated. Carefully consider what will complement your property best, keeping in mind the character of the landscape and existing garden.
A heavily wooded, natural site will look most appropriate with paths of an informal nature, ones that meander through the site in gentle curves. On the other hand, symmetrical or geometrically shaped garden beds lend a formal air to landscape design, and such a garden is well suited to paths with crisp, clean lines.
Extensive paths or formal walkways are often best planned and drawn out on a scaled plot of the property. However, for smaller projects, you may find it just as effective to simply lay out the path right in your garden. As you plan the path, keep in mind how it will be seen from within the house or from other parts of the yard.
For straight paths, use stakes and string and take careful measurements; for curved paths, use a garden hose as a flexible guide and mark the path with landscape marking paint or powdered lime.
Once you have the layout determined, walk the route several times to evaluate it. Does the path allow for a smooth and natural progression through the landscape? Are there areas that should be widened to allow placement of a bench to appreciate an exceptional view? Do changes in grade need attention?
A width of 4 feet will accommodate two people walking side by side. A 2-foot width may be sufficient for a single person, provided plants are not overhanging the path or encroaching on the space too much. If steppingstones are used, they should be spaced 18 inches to 2 feet apart from center to center, and they should be large enough to easily accommodate an adult’s foot.
Casual or formal, curved or straight, utilitarian or decorative, a well-designed walkway is sure to be a path to garden enhancement. In a subsequent article, we’ll look at material selection, another important consideration for your garden paths.