“A garden to walk in and immensity to dream in – what more could he ask? A few flowers at his feet and above him the stars.”
Victor Hugo, “Les Miserables”
A front walkway is all business. It’s the primary path, leading visitors from the curb or driveway to the front door. But a path that meanders through the garden is an invitation to explore.
“From a design perspective, at the start of a path, we want to create a focal point, like a personalized piece of art, whether it’s a gnome or sculpture,” says Steve Kooyenga, senior landscape architect at Chalet in Wilmette, Ill. “I want to go down the path and get a close look at that object or plant.”
Designing a path begins with determining whether the garden is formal or informal. A formal-style path typically includes straight lines. Informal paths tend to have soft curving lines.
“I take cues from the architecture and the material used on the house or found on the property,” says landscape designer Kristin Pategas of Hortus Oasis in Winter Park, Fla. “If there’s brick on the house or natural stone in the landscape, I may repeat those materials in the path.”
Secondary paths – those found in side yards and backyards – can be made from many materials, including mulch, brick pavers, clay pavers, crushed stone, flagstone, bluestone or a mixture of any of them.
If the path leads to a garage and you live in an area with snowy winters, you'll want a material that allows for easy snow removal. In that case, something firm, like brick pavers or flat stones will be better than mulch or gravel.
“Here, in Central Florida, I like using pine needles in a pathway because it’s a byproduct of the paper industry, and it’s sustainable,” Pategas says. “If I use steppingstones in the shade, I leave cracks and crevices between them for dwarf mondo grass, which is beautiful.”
A common mistake is using small, smooth stones, Kooyenga says. “Rock, river gravel or pea gravel are the worst things you can use. They’re all little round stones and when you step onto them you sink in, and it’s uncomfortable. We'll use gravel for pathways, but it needs to be crushed and broken into pieces.”
A better choice is crushed or “decomposed” granite, he says. “You can walk on it, ride a bike or move a wheelchair, and there’s no runoff of water – it soaks right down to the ground.” To keep weeds from emerging, Kooyenga recommends using landscape fabric to separate the stone from the soil.
Stephanie Cohen, co-author of “Fallscaping: Extending Your Garden Season Into Autumn” (Storey Publishing), gardens in Valley Forge, Pa., where she tends expansive beds and borders of perennials.
“Since I have a stone patio, I use crushed stone in the back for the path,” Cohen says. “In the front garden, I use flagstone, which is more formal.”
Cohen’s 2-acre garden is crisscrossed with gravel paths that lead through several outdoor rooms. “The paths are narrow, and that allows you to slow down and look at the plants,” she says.
When using steppingstones, Kooyenga recommends placing them 27 inches apart from the center of each one, whether they are made from concrete or natural stone.
“It doesn’t matter how big the stone is, if you place them 27 inches apart from the centers of one to another, that’s the normal cadence or step or stride people will take and not have to look down,” he says. “If you make them too close or too far apart, it’s uncomfortable.”
When setting stones or other materials in the lawn to serve as a path, Kooyenga recommends placing everything at ground level. “You don’t want a tripping hazard, and you don’t want gravel, soil or other things to spill onto the path,” he says.
Don’t overlook lawn as a path.
“In small, narrow urban yards, homeowners sometimes want grass and garden space, so the lawn becomes the path,” Kooyenga says. He often varies the size of an informal path so it widens from 2 feet to 4 feet to make the journey more intriguing.
“Whenever possible, I like to use a curving path because it creates movement and interest,” Pategas says. “I like when the path disappears around the corner so you can’t see the surprise ahead – like a specimen plant or a bench.”