Paths. Yawn. On first consideration – boring. However a path can be a garden’s backbone – essential in giving definition, dividing or uniting elements as well as providing access. A path is one of the most prominent design features of a garden, and ideally it is decorative as well as durable.
A badly designed or poorly maintained path can “undo” the whole garden, dragging it down to look shabby. In addition paths can become hazardous if they are slippery or uneven.
When designing a path I avoid a dead straight line as this cuts the garden unless I am using it for dramatic effect. Soft curves are much better and more interesting. If you are using slabs then the angle of the path is dictated by the curved slabs available – never try and cut a curve yourself, it won’t work. A professional design trick is to vary the width of the path – for dramatic effect designers will widen the path slightly when coming to a focal point in the garden or when approaching steps or a patio. The narrowing of a path away from the house will also make the garden appear longer.
The width of the path is important – do you want it as a functional path to get between beds as with a vegetable plot? I advise a width where it is easy to kneel comfortably between beds – most gardeners advocate at least the width of a wheelbarrow or 2 ft/60cms. Although you may want as much space as possible for growing plants and want to keep paths to a minimum, you will regret it later if the path is too narrow. A rule of thumb used to be that the more a path is used, the wider it should be – and 4ft was a good width for two people. However with a range of materials available a narrow path can be as durable as a wide path.
Materials used for the path have to be right for the garden style – and should either complement or deliberately contrast with other hard landscape features. In addition the materials should be appropriate for the amount of traffic the path has to withstand.
Here are my pro’s and con’s with popular path materials:
Gravel – gravel will travel unless edged properly. It is relatively cheap, comes in a range of soft colours, and is ideal for light to medium traffic. It is not ideal for sloping paths (rain will wash it downhill), for coming up to the house (it will be walked in), and it can be used as a litter tray by cats, and small children cannot resist playing with it.
Sharp edged gravel will lock together and not move around as much as smooth gravel. Weeds eventually creep in. My favourite is 10mm or 20mm golden gravel because of the warmth of the colour. Gravel works well in either formal or informal gardens.
Concrete – this used to be unpopular as can look plain and because of its permanent nature – but those were the old days and concrete now can be fantastic in modern or highly stylized gardens and has become trendy again. It is ideal for heavy traffic, can accommodate interesting design shapes, curves and angles, and is the most low maintenance of paths.
A colouring agent can improve the colour and the surface can be roughened before setting to give texture and better grip. Concrete begins setting in two hours. As there is little room for error I would advise using a professional landscape gardener to lay it.
Bricks – an extremely ornamental but expensive material. This works best for narrower paths and is good for light to medium traffic. The use of red brick is very popular in pottagers, cottage gardens, country gardens and vegetable beds.
There are traditional design patterns such as running bond (see photo), which can be used for straight or curved paths and which draws the eye along it, or parquet and herringbone which are used for larger areas and are more ornamental, giving a formal look. Bricks work well when combined with slabs and concrete. A firm foundation is necessary and weather-proof bricks are needed to withstand frost. Again I would advise getting professional help.
Earth paths – these work very well in sheltered gardens with good drainage and a lot of sun. They give a rustic effect, are low maintenance if the soil is compact, and complement a naturalistic planting style. The path shown here was in “A Perfumer’s Garden” at RHS Chelsea this year.
Green paths – grass, thyme, chamomile or clover – either singularly or in combination, provide soft walkways through borders and work well for light traffic. These are cheap but are high maintenance as they need mowing, and regular aeration to avoid compaction. Also there is a danger that, even with edging, the plants can invade beds. Anti-slip grass mesh, or grass pavers, can provide a stronger pathway for medium traffic. This provides a more solid foundation allowing the grass to grow through.
Slabs – including pre-cast paving slabs, Porcelain, natural stone and pre-cast paving. In my previous blog, “The Crazy World of Paving”, I explain about the differences between natural and pre-cast slabs. Natural stone – such as sandstone – gives a very stylish, expensive look – but it is hard to cut cleanly, is heavy and needs a lot of foundation preparation. Pre-cast slabs come in a variety of styles and colours and are much cheaper and lighter. Slabs are ideal for medium to heavy traffic but must be laid correctly to avoid issues of puddles, drainage, cracks and sloping. A softer effect can be created by allowing plants such as thyme to grow up between cracks. Stones may need to be treated to avoid algae and greening.
Mulched paths – in the larger garden centres there is a growing choice of mulching materials made from wood. These can range from simple bark chips to wood shavings to bio-mulch. The more chippings, the better the drainage and the suppression of weeds. Bark chipping paths are usually good for 2 – 3 years, are cheap, and don’t need a lot of site preparation – they can be laid in a shallow trench over landscape membrane. The chippings can also be composted after use.
These paths work well in wildlife gardens, allotments or between raised beds, and in “wilderness” areas. They are good for producing pathways that softly blend in with the planting. However, as with gravel, the chippings may travel or attract cats.
Rounded stones or cobbles – these have become unfashionable in recent years but can look amazing when combined with other materials, such as rounded polished stones, modern slabs or bricks.
Set in cement the cobbles can give a soft informal path of muted colours, however they can be uncomfortable to walk on and slippery when wet or icy.
Setts – these are small paving blocks made of stone, or imitation stone. They are like small bricks and can create a lovely tapestry in either formal or random patterns. They are hard-wearing and highly decorative – but they are expensive, fiddly to lay and may become uneven over time.
At RHS Chelsea Flower Show this year I was very impressed with how paths had been made glamorous (but not very practical!!). Chris Bearshaw incorporated water jets in his path – which although highly slippery – made the polished stone shine and glisten.
Paths needn’t be boring. They can be fun, they can lure, they can be pretty. So look at your garden path with fresh eyes – you never know where it may lead you.
Bye for now – Brett