arhs Yachts International
arhs Yachts International

The Joys of Garden Paths

By Linda van Vulpen

Originally published May 1994

What could be more pleasant on a warm, relaxing day then a casual stroll down a path bordered by shrubs of colour and arousing fragrances that stir the senses, ground covers of subtle colours softening a forest floor, the mystery that awaits you as the path winds its way, leaving you in anticipation as you approach the bend. Garden paths contribute to the flow of a garden, provide direction, a sense of movement and purpose, encourage the observer to venture into the garden, to explore the secrets beyond.

No matter how small the garden may be, there is a place for a path. The path allows the viewer to become enfolded into the garden, so that it becomes a world of its own, a safe haven, removed and separate from everything around it. It is more pleasant to be beckoned into a garden, to become surrounded by its beauty, than to be limited by observation from the outside. To observe from a deck or an inside window has its joys, but it is not enough.

Paths do not require expensive materials like brick or concrete blocks, though these materials are wonderful if you can afford them. I have developed my paths by using narrow poles found in the woods to represent my path edges. The material used for the path itself is shredded wood chips and spruce needles collected from discarded Christmas trees or debris at road construction sites. Shredded wood and needles provide a soft, soundless path as you move across it. There is also a wonderful spruce aroma arising from this mulch material. I was concerned the pole edges might look tacky but the effect has been rustic and natural. Eventually, my ground covers of assorted hostas, Carpet Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans), ferns and other greenery will dip over the path edges, softening the path’s appearance and naturalize it that much more.

Other garden path materials include wood rounds, decking boards, gravel, flat stones and even turf. A turf pathway should be a comfortable width to accommodate a lawnmower without the wheels slipping off the edge. Since grass spreads, it should be edged with any edging material available in garden centers or manually edged using an edging tool. This task would be necessary only once or twice a growing season to maintain the cut edge.

Space between any of the materials mentioned above can be filled in with assorted creeping thyme for sunny spots or moss for less sunny areas. Of course thyme has the advantage of a wonderful scent as it is stirred by feet brushing across it.

There are new materials entering the market place also. I’ve recently seen an ad of a mould representing a group of assorted stone shapes. The mould is filled with premix concrete, allowed to sit for two minutes, then picked up and repositioned for the next pouring. It was simple to use and a quick way of constructing a pathway. There are rubberized bricks available, built to withstand our climate and the sun’s rays. Then there is concrete which can be dyed and imprinted to replicate a variety of stone or brick designs, a less costly option to the real thing. There are numerous options depending on your personal taste and budget — and imagination.

Paths in a formal setting, as in the front path to the house are recommended to be a minimum of 1.2 meters wide, but it is not necessary to maintain this width in less formal areas of the garden. The formal path to the house is expected to accommodate two people walking abreast comfortably. The less formal paths may be narrower, allowing only one person at a time to travel through. The narrower path encourages the user to focus more carefully on his/her surroundings as each step must be more conscientiously taken.

Path curves are encouraged in the garden design to provide some mystique about what extends beyond, to arouse the curiosity in the stroller in his/her amblings. Curves aught to appear to be necessary, natural. A zigzag path through a span of lawn will look forced and will not be followed by users who will succumb to shortcuts, defeating the purpose of the path. Therefore, the curve can be accomplished by placing a shrub inside the curve so it will appear as if the path was forced to sinuate around this garden feature.

This brings me to another point. Functional paths which you know will be travelled frequently by children, etc., are best placed where the beaten path has already been made, or, create one in the most logical direction you can imagine because shortcuts will be trampled into place if the path is “not convenient.” The only other way to discourage path strayers is to use thorny plant material like roses or the flowering quince (Chaenomeles).

Garden paths often lead to a focal point in the garden, a bench, birdbath, a piece of sculpture or perhaps a special ornamental shrub or tree. The bend in the path prevents the stroller from immediately seeing the focal point, providing that element of surprise.

Garden paths can make all the difference between seeing a beautiful garden or experiencing one. If you have not yet placed your garden path(s), you may wish to give it some serious consideration.