The enlightened path

llowing some plants to playfully flop will soften the edges of a path.
Allowing some plants to playfully flop will soften the edges of a path.

By L. A. Jackson

Paths are, of course, necessities when it comes to walking from Point A to Point B in a garden, but as utilitarian as they are, with proper planning, they can actually add to the beauty of the landscape. Below are some pointers that will help lead you down an enlightened path to a prettier garden.


What should your path be made of? The best answer lies in the effect you want such a trail to have on the landscape as well as the amount of work you prefer to devote to it. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Grass: Grass certainly has the natural beauty to accent any garden, but of all the materials that could make up a path, it is one of the highest in maintenance. Coring, liming, mowing, renovating, insect control, disease control, weed control—it can be a lot of work, which is time taken away from other garden chores.
  • Gravel: Pea-size gravel can visually blend in well with garden beds, but for those who enjoy their quiet time in the garden, keep in mind that each step down such a path will be accompanied by a loud “Crunch!” So, instead of smooth, rounded pebbles, opt for rough, jagged gravel, as it will lessen the noisy “slip-slide” factor. Also, to hold pebble shift down to a minimum, don’t layer this rocky path deeper than 3 inches. And to help prevent weeds, lay down sheets of plastic weed-block on the walkway before spreading gravel.
  • Bark and Wood Chips: These tree byproducts give a similar natural ambiance to a path as gravel but with much less noise. Bark, as well as wood chips, comes in many shades of brown, so you can fine-tune the visual appeal of a path. Unlike gravel, they will decompose, and replacement or refurbishment will usually be necessary every two to three years.
  • Stone: Large slabs of flat rocks for paths have much the same appeal as gravel, but without the crunch. Stones can be expensive, but they are also a rather permanent, low-maintenance addition to a garden.
  • Brick and Block Pavers: Like stone, they can be fairly permanent fixtures in a landscape, and also like stone, they can be expensive. But they do look elegant. The repeat patterns possible from bricks and pavers make them ideal candidates for gardens that have more formal layouts.

Path Width

There is no set width for a path—just let available space and common sense, along with the following observations, be your guide.

  • One Foot Wide: If you want to have flashbacks to your days on Marine Recon patrol, this is your kind of path.
  • Two Feet Wide: Still a little too close, but with tall plants, it could make for a suitable surprise setup leading to the entrance of a special spot or secret garden.
  • Three Feet Wide: A bit snug, especially for carts, lawn mowers and other such garden helpers, but if it is flanked by border beds that contain low-growing plants, it is adequate for strolling visitors.
  • Four to Six Feet Wide: Optimum width for a path in a private garden, providing enough room for exploring visitors as well as gardeners on all fours doing plant maintenance without wasting bed space that could otherwise be used to show off more plants.

Plant Suggestions

Finding flashy flowers is easy—and subject to personal preferences—but for extra character and interest, consider:

  • Floppers: Think about softening the borders of a path by adding plants that playfully spill over onto the garden lane in a controlled manner. Such candidates include ice plant, woodland phlox, vinca, lantana, Solomon’s seal, purple beautyberry, portulaca and dianthus.
  • Automatic Aromatics: Make your path a fragrant one and place plants that release their special scents when touched close to the walkway so they will be brushed against. Good choices are Russian sage, beebalm, scented geraniums, lemon verbena, thyme, rosemary, lemon grass and basil.