Exploring a good garden is life’s candy for me. I look forward to arriving at each interesting and beautiful part of that garden, to see where I could rest, play or entertain. But if you concentrate too hard on the prize, you might forget about how you get there, which should be just as big a part of the garden experience.
Sometimes the shortest distance between two points is exactly right – direct, quick, obvious and business-like. In other parts of a garden, the way needs to be entirely different – meandering, teasing, dreamy or even difficult. Gardens can even be entirely designed around the idea of a journey, where the path takes centre stage as it twists and turns you through a series of sights, scents and sounds.
As the walled gardens of earlier times and civilisations grew in size, and the walls themselves melted away into a more open connection with the surrounding countryside, gardens became places for walking about. Rather than sitting placidly in one’s too-tight corsets in an orangerie while the troubadour sang, or sheltering from the blazing sun in a shaded portico, gardens became places for walking and discovery, for hiding and lovers’ trysts.
In Japan, stroll gardens developed to the point where it was all about the path, and its changing surfaces, widths and levels. The paths control not just general direction and pace, but also turn suddenly to reveal small individual vistas and create a sense of anticipation.
During the past century, mowers (and the men who pushed them) allowed gardens to have sweeping lawns, and then inexpensive pavers and decking encouraged us to have large areas of hard surfaces, as status symbols and an easy-out from time-consuming gardening. Gardens became much more about conjoined open spaces, than paths and planting. A garden path today has become just a way of getting from A to B without muddy shoes, or a hard surface track for the wheeled garbage/trash bin.
With many homeowners now looking for more environmentally responsible gardens, the acres of heat-load hard surface and lush lawns will begin to diminish. Even the status garden, where you cannot fail to be impressed by seeing everything in one blow, will also disappear as a sign of the ‘greed was good’ times. Gardens will once again be about connected, rather than joined spaces, so paths will naturally come back into garden design focus. We’re already seeing this change in show gardens, like Chelsea 2012, with ‘come hither’ paths through genteel wildflower meadows.
With many local governments bringing ever stricter landscape permeability requirements (which means how much rainwater can seep though your land and into the water table below), we will have to be more creative about path surfaces than standard paving, which might also encourage more interesting, enticing and beautiful paths. Let the journey begin!
If the objective is to get to a specific point, then the shortest distance path makes sense. However, following the ‘desire line’ goat-track of worn grass may not really fit comfortably within the overall design framework, such as a path at an odd angle in an otherwise formal or symmetrical design.
To push a path outwards from the desire line, add something to be walked around, such as a garden feature, planted bed, grassed mound or even a loose or unstable surface such as large pebbles.
Even a hard surface area can have its own ‘path’ that directs people to a particular point. Use a contrasting paver or concrete colour to cut across the main surface.
Style, surface and colour need to complement the plants and overall garden design. Coarse textures dominate, so if the path is not supposed to be the star in a predominantly fine-textured garden (such as many with many native plants from drier climates), a more even surface such as gravel, bark mulch, decomposed granite, sand, coloured asphalt or broomed concrete will stay in the background better than stone crazy-paving or busy, segmented pavers.
Conversely, if the planting in a formal garden is plain and clipped, turn your path into a decorative ‘runner’, with details like contrasting edging, banding, patterning or colourful mosaic tiling.
Straight paths are good for simple, direct access, such as from the front gate to the front door. Visitors arriving, bags being trundled, wheeling bins, deliveries and furniture removal are all much easier if the path is straight. To soften that look, make the path wider than it needs to be, say around 1800mm, to allow plants to spill in from either side. Although there is still a direct line for walking, the path no longer appears dead straight. Alternatively, make the straight path your focal point and use contrasting banding across its width to give it a stronger presence.
In many newer houses, the driveway does double duty as the path to the front door. Although I think a separate pedestrian path looks more welcoming, let’s not burden the world with more hard surface than necessary. Look at defining a pedestrian route down your drive by using a different surface treatment or colour.
Curved paths should always curve around something, otherwise nobody but you will conscientiously walk on it, instead of on the grass. If it’s an entry path, make sure that front door is still clearly visible to avoid visitors getting confused about where they’re headed, and try and keep the curve on a constant radius.
Paths that change direction are very useful for hiding and then revealing focal points. The Japanese use this trick very effectively, where a seemingly simple garden can have many sculptures, specimen plants and water features without feeling cluttered. Direction changes can be quite abrupt, forcing a sudden change of view which might reveal a surprising detail.
Paths in older gardens are often important heritage features that need to be respected and preserved. Look out for evidence in older gardens of soldier-course (that’s standing up on their ends) or saw-tooth brick edging, and crazy paving or more regular sandstone flagging. If the old paths don’t go exactly where you want them to, you could give them a new reason for being with a destination feature, like a seat.
For a two-person entry or access path, I’d recommend a 1200mm (4ft) width, and single person access paths should be about 750-900mm (2.5-3ft). Wide paths can feel grand, but too wide can downmarket it into looking like a driveway. Narrow paths feel as if you’ve ‘gotten off the beaten track’. You can use a narrow path to tempt visitors into a hidden corner, and when you combine it with a sudden turn and a lowering of head height (say from a low tree branch or archway), the effect is quite remarkable. Entering suddenly seems like fun, and perhaps even a bit forbidden. ‘Sneak’ tracks in larger gardens are an excellent example of how something as simple as a path can effect emotion. The wide open path is for the ‘grown ups’ and the unadventurous, while the narrow, twisting but parallel path is for the young at heart with a readiness to explore.
Making the grade
For elderly or wheelchair bound people, paths need to keep below a 1:14 grade but for the average pedestrian, 1:8 is quite acceptable and up to 1:4 is possible when using a very stable surface such as concrete. Crossfalls should be at least 1:100 but less than 1:50
Although paths usually take you somewhere, the destination can be illusionary. A narrow path winding out of sight toward a back fence can make a small backyard seem bigger, as our imagination supplies a much more distant end point, somewhere out beyond the real boundary.
Eye on the prize
If you want to put a strong focal point, like a big sculpture, at the end of a path, keep the path plain and simple. The eye needs to travel straight to the feature, not be confused with pattern and colour on the way.
Use paths to create illusions of depth or width. To make a long, narrow garden seem wider, you can gently curve the path from side to side around garden beds, even if there’s an overall straight line from start to finish. Or you could make a wider path and have loose-formed plants billowing in along its length on one side then the other, which will swing the eye from side to side. Widthwise banding in paving patterns will also visually foreshorten the path.
To make a short path seem longer, use lengthwise banding, or really turn on the optical illusion with larger plants near the beginning diminishing in size (and perhaps also leaf texture) along the path, or even narrow the path slightly along its length to give an illusion of distance.
On the surface
Surface choice for a path depends on utility (amount and type of traffic), appearance, safety (non-slip), heatload, grade, drainage, permeability requirement and cost. Changing the path’s surface along its length can be an interesting surprise, changing a garden’s mood from formal to informal or static to unpredictable.
Concrete – many colours, can be broomed for a more texturised finish, pattern stamped, stencilled or painted. Seed with coloured aggregates, pebbles and glass which can be left or polished back. Spruce up old concrete with coloured paving paint, glow-in-the-dark edging (or footprints!), embedded uplights or stencilled coatings. Experiment with saw cuts and expansion joints in less expected places.
Paving – all the usual suspects are useful; the type of bond used is an important design element, as is contrasting banding and edging. Path widths should be a multiple of your selected paver.
Stone paving – crazy paving, coursed flagging or cobbles, grouted or in a more open pattern or as stepping stones with gravel or planting between (although the gravel will always end up on the stones!). Can wheel bins across but surface still partly permeable.
Gravel and decomposed granite – great crunching sound but gets caught in shoes. Stabilise with light compaction and cement or lime fines. Contain with paving or timber edging or let it run off into the garden mulch for a naturalistic path. Useful as a semi-stable but permeable surface.
Sand – coarse sand makes a cheap path but really sticks to shoes when it’s wet!
Stepping stones – set stone flagging, large pavers, formed concrete pads, timber and even broken concrete in finer textures such as grass, gravel, sand, pebbles and groundcovers. Distance apart is critical for comfortable walking and what suits one pedestrian doesn’t another! Try spacing at 450-550mm centres.
Timber – boardwalks ideal across poor drainage or for minimal disturbance to natural vegetation or ground levels.
Metal walkway – look like they’re floating across the ground; use in fire prone areas, for completely permeable paths and to protect or display plants. Galvanised or coloured steel mesh.
Tiling and mosaics – decorative tiling, especially in the federation tessellated style, or mosaics give a path real ‘wow’. Very labour intensive and expensive. Pre-made mosaic-look paving inserts are a cheaper alternative.
Mown path – directs traffic through establishing grasslands, keeps feet drier, feels very naturalistic. Grass ‘pads’ can also be set into pebbled gardens for a soft, tactile walkway.
Mulch – muffles footfalls, cheap to install. Lay about 60-70mm thick (avoid mulch with lots of sticks which can kick up). Contain mulch with timber edging held by timber pegs or let it run off into the garden for a naturalistic look. Good choice for paths over tree root zones.