A path should be a beautiful design element in your garden. A visit to Japan opened my eyes to the beauty that thoughtfully designed paths add to a garden. Paths in Japanese gardens are formed using slabs of local granite and river stones which are laid in beautiful, often asymmetric, patterns.
Sometimes they curve so the destination is not visible, drawing you on to explore the garden. Stepping-stone paths are used to control the viewer’s experience of a garden. To safely negotiate a stone path you must look down to place your feet. Looking up, when you reach your destination, a carefully composed garden view opens up to you. Zigzag paths feature in Japanese temple gardens because, according to traditional beliefs, evil spirits can travel only in straight lines. (See photo 2).
We can borrow ideas from Japan to add style and beauty to our garden paths. When you have the opportunity to build a new path or re-design an old one, first consider whether you want it to be straight, zigzag or curved.
Straight paths are most appropriate to lead directly to the front door of a home. Bordering planting of a single species or a low hedge is often used to emphasise the direction. In large gardens straight paths are used to lead the eye to focal points in the garden e.g. statues, water features or sculptural pieces. (See photo 4).
A zigzag path is more visually interesting, but make sure there are blocks of vegetation or trees placed to justify the change in direction, otherwise it will feel frustrating to be unable to walk to the destination in a straight line.
A wide, curved path, in a densely-planted large garden, draws the viewer on to find out what is around the next corner.
In a small garden a narrow wandering path, which disappears behind vegetation, encourages investigation and creates the illusion of a larger garden. A stepping stone path, on the shaded side of a house, which meanders through densely-planted ferns and clivias or hostas, will turn a neglected area into an attractive feature.
It seems obvious, but there should always be a destination for a path – a seat, a piece of sculpture, a planted urn, a garden shed or a view to admire. A path which just stops is so frustrating for anyone exploring a garden.
There are many different options of paving materials. Limit the number of materials you choose to two, or the result can look confused. Make sure the colour of your paving material harmonises with the colours of the building materials of your home. When laying a stepping stone path, carefully place the stones or pavers so that you can comfortably step from the centre of one paver to the centre of the next.
Natural stone pavers are the most expensive and beautiful material to use. (See photo 5). Lay them edge to edge, or space individual pavers to make an informal path, with gravel or creeping plants in between. Concrete pavers are a less expensive option. Mixing pavers of different sizes gives an interesting visual effect. (See photo 6). Use your creativity. You can also construct an informal path, at a much cheaper price, by using large pieces of an environmentally friendly option – recycled broken concrete! Once these broken pieces are set into the ground and surrounded by fine gravel or bark mulch, they can look very attractive. (See photo 7). In fact, an ugly, old, straight concrete path can be broken up and re-laid as a curving, crazy paved path to great effect. Sourcing recycled pavers is another option worth considering as is new or recycled brick.
Slab concrete paths do not need to be boring. Pigments can be added to new concrete to create a vast range of colours or you have the option of exposed aggregate. Stones which glow in the dark are now available to be added to concrete so the profile of a path is clearly visible in evening light (Google ‘glow stones’). Very attractive concrete paths can be made by framing each slab with the same brick or stone used to construct a house.
A simple idea, to add visual appeal, is to press a narrow, wedgeshaped cluster of large stones into the setting concrete at intervals. (See photo 8). Artistically inclined people can create unique mosaic patterns using coloured stones, glass or broken crockery in their new concrete paths, but use restraint to avoid a cluttered affect.
Gravel paths should consist of small stones – large stones, especially rounded ones, are very uncomfortable to walk on – like walking on marbles! Loose gravel paths require a solid edge of stone, brick or wood or a flexible metal strip to stop the gravel migrating. An effective system is now available which keeps gravel in place and provides a very stable surface to walk on. It consists of a moulded plastic honeycomb frame, sections of which are laid on a level, prepared base and filled with gravel until it overtops the divisions in the frame.
An attractive path can be formed by setting wooden railway sleepers across the width of the path and laying concrete or gravel between. (See photo 9). A path built of decking timber can be a good option, especially if your ground is very uneven or damp and prone to flooding. If the path is elevated above ground level, to form a ramp, it is less likely to rot and being suspended above the vegetation has a very different feel to a path at ground level. For low-usage paths, fine bark mulch, ideally with weed mat under it to suppress invading weeds, has an attractive rustic look. (See photo 10).
Cross sectional slices of hard wood, cut directly from a large tree trunk, can be set into the ground to act as stepping ‘stones’ for a path through dense planting.
Consider the width of path you require. A path leading to a front door should be wide enough for two people to walk side-by-side comfortably – 1.2-1.5m. Secondary paths need to be no more than 900mm wide, while rarely used access paths need to be only 500mm wide.
Explore your own creativity or involve a professional designer but make sure your paths are beautiful as well as functional. Well designed paths will add much to the experience of your garden, encouraging exploration and enhancing the value of your home.