Walk This Way

– Posted in: Garden Design

Front garden main path mid-Oct 06

When I started my current garden from scratch six years ago, I was determined to create the layout the “right” way. I’m pretty good at dealing with details but not great at seeing the big picture, so I decided to enlist the help of a local landscape designer. We had several discussions about how I wanted to use the space and what I wished to have (gently curving paths being high on the list), and he created a master plan that perfectly reflected what I’d asked for, and even exceeded what I’d hoped for.

Then, I managed to muck it all up. I wanted to enclose part of the space with a fence, and instead of going with the planned curving outline, I reverted to my usual straight-lines-and-right-angles approach with a post-and-rail fence. That one decision then created a strongly geometric enclosure, which ended up completely changing the way the space on both sides of the fence has developed. While I do sometimes regret not trying harder to follow the original plan, I can’t say I’m unhappy with how things look now. In fact, one of my favorite parts of my garden is the strongly geometric walkway I ended up with along the front and east side of the house.

After living with the space through a full growing season after building the house, I found a clear need for a direct route from the front to the back, starting at the gate I’d ended up with near the front entrance when the fence was installed. From that point, it made sense to create a straight path parallel with the front of the house, then continue it around the corner to parallel the side.

Front garden path-to-be early May 03Choosing the material for the path turned out to be much more of a challenge than choosing the layout. I really wanted to use flat fieldstones, which were available in abundance on my parents’ adjoining farm, but the logistics of hauling over enough stone for the project was simply too daunting. I also considered extending the gravel from the driveway into the garden to create the path, because I really liked the color, as well as the sound of it underfoot. Having to push a loaded wheelbarrow across the loose driveway gravel a few times was enough to dissuade me from the idea of an all-gravel main path, however.

Finally, I saw exactly what I was looking for during a slide lecture on cottage gardening: a path in a U.K. garden created from railway sleepers with gravel in between. I could envision that perfectly meeting my needs for a sturdy, wheelbarrow-friendly path that would still provide the color and “scrunch” of my favorite gravel. Including wood as a main element would also help to visually link to the path to the all-wood construction of the house.

Front garden path in progress early May 03 Front garden path in progress early May 03

Front-to-side path in progress early May 03As I’ve done with many of my garden-construction projects, I turned to my local garden engineer extraordinaire, also known as Mom. I described the path I’d seen and how I thought we could recreate it; then she came up with a plan for the actual construction. We ended up using pressure-treated 4x4s cut to 4-foot widths, staining each along one side and partway down the two adjoining sides to match the house. I bought some timber supplies, spread enough gravel to create a base that was basically level, then we set out the timbers, using scrap-wood spacers that Mom had cut to leave 8 inches between each timber.

Front garden path in progress early May 03After we set a half-dozen or so timbers, we started stapling a strip of plastic garden edging along each side of the path to help hold the timbers in place, then shoveled gravel into the spaces between them. The straight sections went quite quickly. The corners took a bit more time, but thanks to Mom’s planning, we managed to work out a nice radial turn without having to make any additional timber cuts. Finishing was simply a matter of topping off the gravel to make its surface level with the timbers, and the path was complete. Overall, we ended up laying about 50 feet of path, including two curves, in about two days.

Front garden path just finished early May 03

Front garden path just finished early May 03After living with this path through five years, I can say that there’s nothing I’d change about it. We re-stained the timbers this spring to match the re-stained porch wood, but apart from an occasional sweeping to push the gravel off of the timbers, it’s needed practically no maintenance. If I were going to make a new similar new path, I’d consider only one change: possibly using timbers made from recycled plastic rather than pressure-treated stuff. Using recycled products, like those by Kedel, really satisfies my eco-conscious concerns with the outdoor projects. But from practical-design standpoint, the existing path has worked just as I’d hoped it would—and I like the way it looks, too. Can’t ask for much more than that, can you?

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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Pam/Digging November 7, 2007, 11:56 am

Your path is a nice compromise between paved and gravel, Nancy. From the first photo, I assumed it was a curvy path, but now I see that the plants growing out into the path only make it seem so. I suppose in late winter, when your plants have been cut back, it appears straight again?

I also love that you constructed this path with your mom. It sounds like quality time well spent—with a beautiful result.

Linda Cody November 7, 2007, 11:58 am

Say, I just stumbled on Gardening Gone Wild! Wow, where have I been? Clearly not in the blogging world.
This is great. I’ll be back. I’m guessing you all are on the West Coast somewhere. We don’t grow gardens like this in the middle of the country.

Nancy J. Ondra November 7, 2007, 12:57 pm

Hi Pam–thanks for stopping by. When the path was just finished, I had that “oh, no; what have I done?” feeling, because it looked much more like a railroad track than a garden path. But the edging plants (many of which are evergreen perenials) really do help to soften that effect.

Welcome to GGW, Linda! Several of us here are on the East Coast (Fran and I are in PA); two are West Coast. Don’t be so modest; I know you folks in the middle can grow great-looking gardens, too!

Lisa at Greenbow November 7, 2007, 7:43 pm

I really like your path. The plants soften the edges and make it look perfect. That Mom of yours sounds perfect too.

Benjamin November 8, 2007, 1:40 am

Nan, lovely work–paths are so important, and I’m glad you mention–as you often do–another sense in the garden; in this case, the sound of the gravel.
Linda, I live in NEBRASKA, and I’ve started what will soon be a lovely garden (it will by golly). And a “plain” cornfield and hayfield are right around the corner.

Sylvia November 8, 2007, 6:20 am

I think you have ‘cracked it’, a straight path which looks curvy – practical and interesting at the same time. Just what I need for my side garden, running parallel to and open to the road, a compromise between getting from A to B and slowing the eye down to make the garden look wider and more interesting.

Love the blog, what a horrible name for some beautiful writing! Thank you.

Sylvia from Dorset, UK

Nancy J. Ondra November 8, 2007, 5:49 pm

Hi Benjamin! Thanks for the kind words. I like the winding stepping-stone path you created in your own garden, and I too believe it will be lovely, even if it *is* in Nebraska (just kidding).

Welcome to GGW, Sylvia. I’m thrilled that this pathway idea may have inspired you, too.

Kathy November 8, 2007, 8:28 pm

I remember seeing this path in your book, The Perennial Gardener’s Design Primer.

Nancy J. Ondra November 8, 2007, 10:48 pm

You have an excellent memory, Kathy. I’d forgotten that I’d briefly discussed the creation of this path in the case study of the narrow foundation border behind it.

Colleen November 9, 2007, 9:37 pm

I love this! What a great idea. And I’m in need of a path through my perennial border…..

I was considering a gravel path as well, because of the sound, of course, but I can’t imagine pushing a wheelbarrow across it. Oh, and the kids really have this “thing” for rocks of all kinds. Hmmm. Maybe I’ll have to wait on this a few more years 🙂

Great post! And thanks for your kind comment over at my blog the other day.

susan harris November 10, 2007, 10:48 am

Hi, everyone. I just tried to leave a comment on your About page and the comment function didn’t work. What I wanted to say was: Say more! Especially, where do the contributors live and garden???

Nancy J. Ondra November 10, 2007, 12:43 pm

Good to see you here again, Colleen!

And hey there, Susan. We’ll look into the issue with the “About” page; I think we overlooked that detail. But if you scroll down the links on the left-hand margin, you’ll find the list of contributors, and you can get some info about each one of us there.

susan harris November 11, 2007, 8:42 am

But there’s nothing there about you, and on Fran’s site I looked and looked and couldn’t find out WHERE she gardens. Ditto Saxon (okay, I just looked at the home page). I know where Ed is because I’ve visited him, and High Country is easy to locate. Otherwise, this all-important info remains a mystery.

Nancy J. Ondra November 11, 2007, 8:58 am

Ok, sorry about that. The link on my name under “Contributors” should work now. By the way, Fran, too, gardens in southeastern PA, but about a half-zone south of me. Thanks for letting us know about the bugs! Still so much to learn…

Angela (Cottage Magpie) November 24, 2007, 7:42 pm

I love this path idea! I am trying to decide on path materials in my new garden, and I’ve been struggling because I love the gravel, but I, too, want to have something that can handle a wheelbarrow (or a small child on a bike or trike). DO you think your path would be bike/trike-able?
~Angela 🙂

Nancy J. Ondra November 24, 2007, 9:41 pm

Hmmm. If it didn’t get daily bike traffic, I think it might work. It’d be pretty bouncy, I imagine, but that would probably make it even more fun to ride over. You would likely need to add more gravel at least once or twice a year to keep it as level as possible with the top of the timbers. Maybe some of our other readers have other suggestions for a bike-friendly garden path? I’ll be sure to bring it up in the wrap-up post.

Dave November 30, 2008, 10:22 pm

It really looks great! It’s a nice idea for using the pressure treated timber. Does the gravel stay in the pathway?

It does need occasional sweeping to brush the gravel off the timbers and back into the spaces. The edging strip and plants seem to keep it from migrating out of the sides. As a side note, if you didn’t want to use treated lumber, you could consider using 4 x 4 plastic resin timbers. They’re pricey, though!

Morgan May 18, 2010, 12:01 am

I’m considering putting in a small “recycled concrete chunk” and see I’ll have to dig it to about 8 or 9 inches deep to allow for enough gravel so it does not heave in the winter. Would that also be true for this, using timbers? I really like the look of this. I would place them a little closer together for my space, I think.

Hi Morgan. Yes, the timbers can heave too. I wish now that I had made the effort to prepare a proper base for my path.

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