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From Scratch: Paths & Patios
by Janet Davis
by Janet Davis


Janet Davis is a freelance garden writer and horticultural photographer whose stories and images have been featured in numerous publications. Magazines featuring her work include Canadian Gardening, Canadian Living, Gardening Life, President’s Choice Magazine, Chatelaine Gardens and, in the United States, Fine Gardening and Country Living Gardener.


March 20, 2011

In a garden, a sidewalk or path can fulfill several roles, depending on where it's located and what's expected of it.

The front walkway is usually 100% functional. It’s a traffic-mover, delivering people and assorted objects and equipment safely to their destination. Alas, it’s also usually a fait accompli -- part of the package from the builder, and thus not often very imaginative. Further, given that the majority of new homes today are built in suburban areas where car travel is a fact of life, the "short-hop" walk from the driveway to the front door has largely replaced the old-fashioned sidewalk from the street. But with enough attention paid to aesthetics, even the walk from the car to the front hall can be interesting, And if you’d really like to evoke an old-fashioned feeling, you can always add a sidewalk that leads from the street to the door.

Ideally, the front walk should be wide enough to accommodate two people walking side by side. Five feet is generous, four is adequate, three is squeezing things. If possible, it should widen or flare slightly as it nears the front porch or door. It should also be direct enough to let people proceed quickly from Point A to B without a lot of unnecessary twists and turns. Finally, it should be level enough to allow high heels, baby strollers, skateboards and wheelbarrows to reach their destination safely.

That doesn’t mean it has to be plain-Jane, straight-as-an-arrow or lacking the softening effect that comes with a well-placed buffer of plants. It's a journey, yes, but it should be a pleasant one. Think about curving the walk ever so slightly (no sharp angles) to give it a pleasant sweep. Then add a border on one or both sides, filled with low shrubs and seasonal perennials – maybe a few plants with perfumed flowers, to make the mailman’s day. If desired, inexpensive 12-voltage lights can be placed at intervals to illuminate the sidewalk while creating little pools of light around favorite plants.

One of my all-time favorite front yards is owned by a fanatical gardener who maximized her planting space by erecting a white picket fence about four feet back from the street and installing a flagstone walk that passes under a charming arched gate. Now, when visitors arrive, they’re treated to a romantic perennial garden in the generous space between the fence and the road. Then they stroll alongside roses and lavender in the little garden that flanks the walk. Finally, they open the gate and meander under an arch wreathed in roses and clematis. And all this before getting into the part of the yard featuring the traditional lawn and foundation plantings!

Paths to Perfection

Paths within the garden, on the other hand, are usually less functional with fewer "rules" as to how they should look and operate. And width is less important, since these are seldom primary access routes. Nonetheless, there’s one thing on which most garden designers agree: a path should lead somewhere, even if it’s just to the gas meter or the compost pile.

From a design point of view, a path does more than move people around the garden; it draws the viewer’s eye from one element to another. Even a series of stepping stones in the lawn or sweeping through planted areas suddenly becomes a "connect-the-dots" line that integrates parts of the garden into a unified whole. And a path that curves mysteriously out of sight adds an element of intrigue and seems to invite us to move deeper into the garden to discover what’s around the corner.

The style of path depends on how much money you wish to spend and how much work you want to take on.

Flagstone walks have an aged look that suits old houses, but they’re about twice as expensive as interlock pavers. Regular-cut (as opposed to "random-cut" or "irregular") flagstone laid in a concrete bed is the deluxe model, since special machinery is required to cut the stone, compact the crushed stone base, and mix the cement. Drainage needs to be perfect, especially in low areas, and where winter temperatures are extreme, it’s important that the cement layer be thick enough to withstand frost so cracking and heaving doesn’t occur.

For the do-it-yourselfer who wants stone, an irregular flagstone walk laid "dry" over a thick base of crushed limestone base and sand is an easier project, but it’s still tricky to level the different thicknesses of flagstone.

Reclaimed bricks give a warm, informal look and can be laid in geometric patterns like "running bond" and "herringbone’, but you must ensure that the material you use is frostproof outdoor brick or it will disintegrate.

Precast, interlock concrete pavers come in many styles and colors, including some that mimic cobblestones. They are less expensive than stone, more resilient than brick (do not salt them in winter) and can be mixed for decorative effect. For example, it’s very effective to use a contrasting row of rectangular pavers in a slightly different color as a "soldier" course along the edge of a path. For do-it-yourself ideas (including the "quilting" look) and installation information on concrete pavers, click

Stepping stones are easily laid and require no special foundation. For a less expensive path, mass-produced square or rectangular concrete pavers can be laid like stepping stones; try laying them on the diagonal for an interesting look.

Pea gravel paths are simpler alternatives to stone and brick. Use a landscape cloth underneath them to keep weeds from growing through. At Monet’s garden at Giverny, paths made from mocha-colored pea gravel indigenous to France divide the gorgeous flower gardens in the Clos Normand.

A wooden boardwalk is a lovely idea, especially through a wildish area, but be careful using wood in dense shade. It can stay damp after rain and become dangerously slippery.

Sometimes, a path can be as simple as a broad swath of lawn left between facing perennial borders – or the rural version, a mown strip cut through a meadow. In fact, I can’t for the life of me understand why more country property-owners don’t give up on those huge lawns and do instead what the folks at Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Massachusetts have done so enchantingly below. Why try to improve on nature? Just put in the path!

Originally published Toronto Sun

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