September 24, 2011
Even the smallest garden has some structure, likely a path that leads to or through the garden and separates one section from another. We need paths and walkways at our entryways and garden gates, to lead us to the compost pile, to the rose bed or around the vegetable garden.
Some garden paths create the circulation pattern in the garden, and form a key element in its structural design. The pathway design outlines and shapes garden beds and features, taking us into and out of the garden, around landscaped areas.
Typical suburban landscapes often include a lawn surrounded by landscaped borders. Gardeners are now encouraged to reduce the size of water-thirsty lawns. This is not difficult when you begin by creating paths, first by planning on paper and then on the ground. Here are some considerations I have found helpful when designing pathways.
• Entryways: The entry to your home need not be dramatic, but it should direct visitors to your front entrance in an inviting, attractive way. It should complement and enhance the home's architecture and be in scale with the surrounding structure and landscape. Generally, this calls for a wide path, five or more feet across. A curve or bend makes the journey to the entrance more interesting than a straight shot, and helps create a sense of enclosure or separation from the street.
• Garden paths: Paths intended to direct people through the garden should be wide enough for two persons to walk together, or at least 4 feet across. This is wide enough for a wheelbarrow and other garden equipment needed for maintenance. In designing paths, anticipate and plan for vista points, places where one can view the garden and surrounding borrowed scenery. Consider broadening the path for an occasional bench or garden ornament.
Our garden has several smaller paths. One, formed of 18-inch stepping stones, beckons the visitor to a garden corner and serves as a visual divide between low groundcover on one side and medium shrubs on the other. Its small scale actually makes this part of the garden seem larger. Although narrow, it works to provide access for maintenance, an essential consideration when designing pathways. Another narrow path leads from one patio to the parking area, curving up a gentle slope between large shrubs. The slope of this path requires three sets of two concrete steps. The area between the concrete steps is paved with decomposed granite, which fits with the informality of this part of the garden.
• Surfaces for paths and walkways: On a scale between formal and informal, I place stone and finished concrete at the formal end, and prefer these surfaces on entry walkways and patios. They are easy to maintain and can easily be "decorated" with potted plants. For these surfaces, careful consideration of drainage is critical. Throughout the garden (at the informal end of the scale), we should use permeable surfaces like gravel or decomposed granite. In between comes brick or flagstone that allows water to percolate through the surface. Place these on several inches of crushed stone or gravel to ensure they remain level and drain properly.
We use a lot of decomposed granite on our paths. I like the informality and natural quality of the surface. It's relatively easy to rake and repair, and allows excellent drainage. I've learned, however, to use several inches of decomposed granite over 2 inches of gravel. That's a lot of gravel! When properly compacted, gravel and decomposed granite will stay within their limits and produce few weeds. Gravel comes in different sizes and colors: lighter colors reflect light and are cooler under foot, but add to glare; darker colors absorb sunlight and add warmth.
• Weed control: I use several methods, and have learned about others. I judiciously spray, one small patch at a time, with an herbicide throughout the spring. Removing weeds mechanically works best with larger weeds but is tedious. I've also read about pouring boiling water on weeds — for example some grasses coming up between bricks — once a week with a tea kettle. Weeds can also be gently weed-whacked, though this can disturb the surface of the granite. Fortunately, we're not terribly fussy, and some tiny green stuff around the edges fits into the informality of our garden.
When carefully designed, paths and walkways beautify and enhance our enjoyment of our gardens.
The University of California Marin Master Gardeners are sponsored by UC Cooperative Extension. For questions about gardening, plant pests or diseases, call 499-4204 from 9 a.m. to noon, and 1 to 4 p.m. weekdays, or bring in samples or pictures to 1682 Novato Blvd., Suite 150B, Novato.