Paths to Garden Success

One of my projects during this past week was to install a maintenance path through a deep garden bed, to provide access for weeding, deadheading, organic spraying, irrigation maintenance, and whatever else.

(By the way, my recent call for alternatives to the term “deadheading” yielded an intriguing suggestion: “bloom boosting.” That term is more descriptive than my relatively technical term of “rejuvenation,” and the best one I’ve received. It could catch on!)

A very deep bed should have a maintenance path every four feet, which effectively divides the larger area into beds that are four feet wide and accessible from both sides. That maximum width enables the gardener to reach all parts of the bed without stepping into the bed and compressing the soil.

To avoid fragmenting the appearance of a deep bed, the gardener could form maintenance paths with twelve-inch (round or square) concrete pavers. These are available for as little as ninety-nine cents each, and, when placed behind taller plants, can be unobtrusive.

Maintenance paths could be simply unplanted areas, to be sure, but unpaved pathways could become overgrown and difficult to find. The use of pavers or natural flagstones avoids such problems.

The creative gardener could cast unique (or semi-unique) pavers using purchased or homemade molds. That might satisfy a creative urge, but seems like overkill for something intended to be invisible to visitors.

Pavers also could be used for a walkway for gardeners and their visitors. Such walkways should be at least four feet wide, so the casual visitor could stroll through the garden without watching every step. In larger gardens, wider paths might be well proportioned and would accommodate side-by-side strollers.

There are many possibilities for the surface of a garden path, too many to review here. My paths are not constructed with paver, but with three or four inches of decomposed granite (“DG”) on landscape fabric, with Sonoma fieldstone rocks as edging. This design can be achieved at low cost per foot, but weed seeds, delivered by the wind and the birds, will germinate in the DG. Regular applications of corn gluten, an organic pre-emergent herbicide, can reduce the continuing need to weed the walk.

This use of DG (a coarse sand) resembles a path material called hoggin, which is a mix of gravel, sand and clay that binds firmly when compacted, yet allows water to drain through it. A hoggin pathway (more popular in the United Kingdom than in America) looks attractive and is easy to maintain, just requiring occasional weeding.

Well-designed and well-constructed pathways support both the maintenance and enjoyment of the garden. Planning and building a good path will add greatly to the long-term success of the garden.


For a good selection of garden path designs, see “35 Lovely Pathways for a Well-Organized Home and Garden.”

The Web has lots of technical information and video clips on building a garden path, including the selection of materials and the actual construction. Search the web for “design a garden path” or “build a garden path.”

We focus here on the route for a garden path.

When planning the route of a new path, consider both its function and its aesthetics.

The path’s basic function is to support comfortable, efficient and safe movement around the garden, by both the gardener and visitors. The path should connect the garden’s entrance and its exit, and provide good access to the principal features of the garden, e.g., patio, seating area, tool shed, garden art, greenhouse, pond, compost bin, nursery, irrigation controls, etc.

Safety considerations include the following

  • running grade no greater than 4%, i.e., elevation changes no more than one foot for each twenty-five feet, or about one-half inch per foot. (Use steps for greater slopes);
  • cross-slope no greater than 2%, for pedestrian comfort and safe use of wheelchairs;
  • ramps should not exceed 15% (8% for wheelchair use); and
  • surfaces should provide good traction under wet, snow or frost conditions, and should be kept reasonably clean of organic materials, e.g., leaves.

Aesthetic considerations are more subjective.

The appearance of the pathway, determined by the materials used, should relate well to the style of the garden. For example, a pathway of concrete, clay or natural stone pavers will be best in a formal garden environment, while a pathway of sand, gravel or hoggin will look “right” in an informal garden. A pathway of poured concrete would be most appropriate in a public botanical garden or arboretum, where high levels of use by pedestrians, shuttles and maintenance vehicles would be anticipated.

The aesthetics of pathway design also includes subtle issues. Generally, avoid straight-line pathways and right angles, both of which suggest formality and seem incompatible with the experience of strolling through a garden.

Then, ensure that each part of the pathway leads to a destination, e.g., a seating area, an exit, or one of the garden’s features, as listed above. A looping segment of the pathway should be intended clearly to support viewing of all sides of a larger bed. The pathway should neither meander aimlessly or lead to a dead end that requires the visitor to retrace his or her steps.

Finally, the pathway should not expose the entire garden to the visitor’s view, but should be designed to “conceal and reveal” in a managed process. Use the curves of the pathway, in combination with larger plants, to create a series of small mysteries that entice the visitor to discover what lies just out of sight. Then, as the visitor advances along the pathway, reveal the “prize,” which could be one of the garden’s features, listed above, or a specimen plant, nicely presented.

The layout of a garden pathway that addresses both functional and aesthetic concepts successfully can be a challenging exercise, but also can add greatly to the overall success of the garden. Just about all pathway designs can be revised on the basis of experience, so the gardener should feel free to experiment.

2 thoughts on “Paths to Garden Success

  1. Good advice about paths – I like that hoggin path idea. I’ve been afraid that DG would become gouged by our winter downpours in my garden, but maybe that hoggin mixture would last. I like to put left over flat stones from a field stone path I laid in the deep beds, not so much in a path, just randomly where my footsteps can go – they’re in a fairly low bed of succulents. Maybe if I had more of the stones, I’d arrange them more artistically in little paths, though.

    • I have had good experience with DG. It packs down well, and is not disturbed by heavy rains. It does allow weed growth, however. I expect that hoggin would be better that regard.
      Your use of field stones for maintenance paths seems great. I prefer natural stone to concrete pavers (but pavers can be close to invisible in a maintenance pathway).

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