On the Right Path(s) – Part 1

– Posted in: Garden Design

Ondra Garden Emmaus PA April 1997 B.D. (Before Dog)I think we can all agree that planning and installing permanent paths before plunking any plants in the ground is generally the ideal way to get a new garden off to a great start, design-wise. The reality, though, is that most of us are lured into gardening by plants rather than by paving. Have you ever heard anyone say: “Gee, I’d really love to add some color to my yard. I think I’ll go buy some bricks”? I think not. We decide where we want a garden, dig up the turf or pile stuff on top of it, and plant. If we’d stop with that one area, paths would be a non-issue. But when we add another bed or border close by, we also create an “in between” space: a path created by default, rather than by careful planning. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because default paths can be quite practical. They end up being where they are because you (hopefully) placed your plants in spots where you thought they’d look good without interfering with access to your yard.

Gwennie in the Garden Emmaus PA Spring 2000 A.D. (After Dog)After a few years of creating new gardens, you look around and realize that you’ve created a network of garden paths, too. Chances are, some of them you really like, and others just aren’t quite right. Then it’s decision time: Do you just live with them, do you try to fix up the problem paths yourself, or do you call in a professional designer for some major upgrades? Or, do you solve the problem by moving away from that garden altogether and starting fresh on a new site, taking advantage of what you’ve learned in your previous garden to create paths that are both practical and pleasing? It’s not a solution that I’d recommend to everyone, but it worked for me.

Gwennie on the Run Emmaus PA June 2000My previous garden was quite small, and in seven years, I’d managed to fill pretty much every available space. The pathways were necessarily narrow, to allow as much space as possible for my ever-expanding plant collection, and they didn’t have to be wide anyway. Wheelbarrow access wasn’t an issue, because I could easily carry any debris the few steps to the compost bins. For the most part, the path routes were planned by Gwennie, my incessantly active (and now terribly missed) Sheltie, who worked off a good bit of her happy-puppy exuberance by running endless laps around the yard. In spots where I needed to extend a bed into her established orbit, I incorporated a piece of agility equipment, such as a hoop for her to jump through or a ramp or bridge for her to scramble over, to protect the plants without spoiling her fun. It was also necessary to add a stepping-stone arc through the tiny strip of lawn to replace her nail-worn dirt track, and some additional flat stones on the turns, along with some Mom-crafted, mini-picket-fence edgings to keep the bark mulch from scattering onto the plants. It was all a little eccentric, perhaps, but it worked for us.

Gwennie Path Emmaus PA Spring 2001Eventually, though, the lack of space for new plants (among other issues), made moving an option worth pursuing. Gwennie ended up with daily access to dozens of acres of woods and fields to run through, and I ended up with a blank slate to start a garden on. Over the last six years, I’ve once again ended up with a variety of paths—this time, more by planning than by default, and mostly I’m pleased with them. In my follow-up post, I’ll show you what I’ve ended up with. But to finish for now, a reminder of the temporary nature of our beloved gardens. A few weeks ago, a friend and I needed to visit the town I used to live in, so we took a few minutes to walk along the alley that fronts my old house. The picture below was taken from the same spot as the second picture from the top of this post, but at a slightly different angle. It didn’t turn out very well, but maybe you’ll get the general idea: pretty much everything but the perimeter fence and the greenhouse is gone, and the garden is mostly lawn grass once again. Sigh.

Old garden Emmaus PA late Oct 07

Nancy J. Ondra
Nan gardens on 4 acres in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In the firm belief that every garden ought to have a pretentious-sounding (or at least pretentious-looking) name, she refers to her home grounds as "Hayefield." There, she experiments with a wide variety of plants and planting styles, from cottage gardens and color-based borders to managed meadows, naturalistic plantings, and veggies--all under the watchful eyes of her two pet alpacas, Daniel and Duncan.
Nancy J. Ondra

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Angela (Cottage Magpie) November 19, 2007, 1:04 am

Isn’t that sad? I’ve told my husband that I can’t ever go back to look a our old garden once the house sells because I know either the garden will be totally overgrown or it’ll all be lawn again. I don’t know, though, if I’ll be able to withstand the temptation to see.
~Angela 🙂

Layanee November 19, 2007, 7:22 am

I wonder what happened to all those plants? I’ll bet they didn’t even make it to the compost pile…what compost pile? To your credit, their grass looks fabulous and is probably a result of all the soil prep you did!

Lisa at Greenbow November 19, 2007, 7:28 am

I know that feeling. I have moved a couple of times. My favorite garden is well tended though, by my sister. She and her husband bought my previous house. I hate to admit it but her flower beds are better tended than when I lived there. Of course there have been changes mainly with the types of flowers in the beds. She loves roses and has good luck with them. Sigh…

jodi November 19, 2007, 7:59 am

One place where I fall flat on my noggin is with regards to the elements that can tie a garden together, such as paths. I’m pretty good with plants, and this place IS a work in progress, but there are so many more things I could do with more time, more money, and probably a bit of professional help. But the problem is that I live on seven acres, some of it in pastures and paddocks for the horse, and a large sprawling part of it planted in assorted beds. The cat children who go outdoors are creating paths around the place that could be developed…one of these days.
That’s so very sad about your former abode. I think it’s probably every passionate gardener’s fear–what will happen to this place when I’m gone from it (or planted out in the back as ashes?)
In the early 1990s, my father planted some 5000 pine trees around his acreage in another part of Nova Scotia, with some help from my mother. In 2000, he was diagnosed with Alzheimers and they sold the place, including the house with my mother’s beloved gardens. Of the gardens, the only remaining trace is a couple of still young trees, but the pines are now tall and marvelous. I keep hoping that the day won’t come when the people who own the place decide to timber them all–or if it does happen, I’m worm food already….;-)

Nancy J. Ondra November 19, 2007, 9:17 am

Thanks for stopping by, everyone, and for sharing your own experiences. I realize that I kind of lost the original intention of my post by reminiscing about my old garden. I’d told myself that I didn’t care what happened to it, and a few months ago, I threw away stacks of photos I’d taken of it (major regets there). Friends who still live in that area had told me it was gone, but it didn’t really sink in until I saw it for myself, and it’s been haunting me since then. But there was one bright spot: seeing that several clumps of hellebores still remained in one corner. It’s been nearly seven years since I left there, and the property has changed hands twice since then, but the hellebores still thrive. That helps to makes up for the loss of the rest, somehow. I really do miss that greenhouse, though….

Benjamin November 19, 2007, 2:21 pm

I’m writing a memoir about growing up gardening with my mother, I mean forced gardening, but it stuck and here I am gardening. My parents moved out of my childhood home a year ago, and even though I have lots of pics and memories, I want to go back and see what the new people have done to the garden. But I don’t. If it’s not there anymore that might destroy my memories, or, supercede them at least since the negative image will be the most recent and fresh. I think your post went exactly where it should have: designing garden paths, paths to our past, paths to our future. Makes sense to me!

Pam/Digging November 19, 2007, 8:48 pm

Gardens can be an art form, but like sand mandalas, they are more temporary than paintings or books. If the hardscaping is good, at least that may endure, leaving the garden spaces to be rediscovered by a future gardener. Yet another good reason to make those paths well-planned, beautiful, and useful.

Nancy J. Ondra November 20, 2007, 7:45 am

Benjamin–based on my own experience, I think it would be best if you didn’t go back to see it, for exactly the reasons you expressed. And I thank you for the elegant interpretation of the pathway metaphor. I only wish I could take credit for having that as my intention. But perhaps it shows that even the most painfully literal writers can have their deeper moments, even if they don’t mean to?

And Pam–you raise a great point. I did notice that the brick walkways that were there when I moved in are still there; it’s only the mulch and stepping-stone paths that I’d added that are now gone. After seeing the current state of my old garden, I been thinking of how easy it would be for the next owners of this property to turn this garden back to turf, if they wish. Hopefully, though, that won’t be for a while yet!

Carol November 20, 2007, 9:26 am

Nancy, great post. My backyard is still quite open but paths are forming naturally. My plan is to build paths that force visitors to turn toward the center of the yard to go toward the patio when they come in either side gate, rather than go straight back into the garden. I hope to post about it to join in your garden bloggers design workshop, and maybe get some more ideas.

My first garden, where I only lived for four years, actually improved after I left. Someone spent some big bucks to add a pond, fence, plantings, etc. It was sold again recently and based on a note in the real estate listing, they invested nearly 3/4 of the home’s original price into landscaping. Perhaps they went overboard, but it is nice to see that happen, anyway.

Carol, May Dreams Gardens

Mr. McGregor's Daughter November 20, 2007, 8:44 pm

I wish I had been as creative when I had dogs running through the garden as you were with Gwennie (such a sweet face!). I wish I could remember who it was who recommended following the “little doggie paths” when laying out a garden. I’ve always thought that it was a great bit of advice to follow the “natural path” that dogs (or kids or meter readers) want to take. As for your old garden, sometimes it’s best not to give in to the curiousity. How sad.

Annie in Austin November 20, 2007, 11:11 pm

It’s funny Nan – as soon as I read the line about moving and getting a blank slate, the question “I wonder how hard it was to sell that house with no lawn?” popped into my head – because it would be a deal breaker in a lot of situations. I guess the new owners liked the house enough to buy it and reinstall a lawn. Heartbreaking for you, but interesting for your readers!

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

Nancy J. Ondra November 21, 2007, 6:06 pm

Mr. McGregor’s Daughter–I think it made a big difference having Gwennie and the garden grow up together, rather than starting with one or the other and asking them to co-exist peacefully. It also helped that Shelties tend to be pretty small. I suspect that a big dog would have been very unhappy there!

And Annie, your point is a good one. It did take a very long time to sell the house, and it could be that the garden was part of the problem. Eventually, though, the house sold *because* of the garden, That owner moved on a few years later, however, and I guess that’s when it was returned to turf.

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