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How to Design Garden Paths
A great garden path leads you on a journey past beautiful plants and interesting garden art. With style it leads you to your destination. But not all garden paths are great. Most just do their job and nothing more. But I will impart some wisdom in this article so that you too can design a garden path you will want to follow again and again.
To begin, walk your garden. Get a feel for where you want the path to go. Maybe you already have an idea where it needs to be. Either Way it is best to start sketching out ideas on paper. Get creative. It is just an idea on paper after all so dream big.
Are the pathways in your design straight lines? Do they only go directly to where they need to be? Is their purpose just to keep your feet out of the mud and off the plants? While functionality is great you can also add in some design elements to make the path interesting and beautiful.
Here are a few key design areas to consider when designing your path.
Usage - What is the purpose of the path? Do you need to get to the far side of the garden to water the flowers? Or do you just want a comfortable walkway to view all the beautiful plants? Deciding what purpose of the path will help you decide on your design. But remember, paths can have multiple uses so don’t forget to take that into consideration as well.
Curves - Straight lines are functional but curves are beautiful. If you can, incorporate a curve or two into your design. Insead of a straight line with a 90 degree turn, think about a gentle turn. These curves can become focal points for plants, sculpture or lighting.
Texture - A smooth concrete slab might do the trick but using materials with more texture also add interest. You could also use multiple types of materials to denote different sections of the garden. Perhaps a paver walkway leads to an arch which signifies a transition into the vegetable garden. Then all the paths in the vegetable garden are bark chips or gravel.
Plants - When designing your walkway give a thought to what plants might go near it. Or in it. Moss or other ground cover growing between flagstones creates whimsical charm. But even if you don’t put plants between the stones consider what will go beside it. Will the plants spill onto the path or be well kept away from it?
Steps - Unless you have perfectly level land you will probably have to put in a step or two somewhere. Maybe even a whole set of stairs. When considering materials, think about how the stairs will look and function. My parent’s have a beautiful set of rustic rock steps in their garden but they hate them. The surface is uneven and with no handrail they can be unsafe.
Bridges - Whether you actually have a stream to go over or not, bridges can be a fun addition to a path. Even faux dry creek beds need to be crossed somehow so why not make a quaint little bridge. But unlike steps you don’t have to use the same materials for a bridge as you do for the path. A wooden bridge connected to a stone path is totally acceptable.
A garden path can be anything from a rut in the grass where feet have tread over time to an expertly laid paver path. Here are just some of the options for what you can use.
Grass - We often think of paths as something to keep us off the grass but it doesn’t have to be that way. If the rest of your landscaping is filled with plants then a strip of grass can be the perfect walkway. Although it does require maintenance and won’t protect your feet when it rains.
Gravel - When you need a lot of paths or just need them to be cheap and functional then gravel is a great choice. It will keep the mud at bay and indicate where you want people to walk. But if you need to roll yard waste bins or other equipment along the path the wheels may get stuck in the gravel.
Pavers - Maybe you are already planning a paver patio. Then a paver pathway is an obvious choice. They come in a wide variety of styles and colors so you can get really creative. They also make good, solid steps and can even be curved to add interest.
Wood - Perhaps you would like your path to be slightly raised off the ground. In that case you are basically making a thin, low deck. This is not a common option but it can be very visually striking and useful in some damper areas.
Stone - If you want whimsy or that storybook cottage feel then you have to go for a stone pathway. Preferably with moss growing in the cracks. Of course, there are fitted stone options. These still offer the beauty of real stone with a cleaner, more finished look.
Bark chips - Simple but effective. Bark chips are similar to gravel in that they are inexpensive and often chosen if a lot of paths are needed. I have found that my yard waste bin rolls better on bark chips than gravel but they do get mushy in the rain and eventually break down.
Cost of Material and Labor
It is all well and good to really want a certain type of material for your path but if it isn’t in the budget it can be a let down. Here is a generalized price guide for the materials listed above.
Gravel, bark chips and grass fall into the low cost category. Not only because they are reasonably cheap per square foot but because they also don’t require a lot of site prep. All you have to do is remove any plants in the desired pathway, try to make the ground as level as possible and then spread out the materials.
There is more work necessary to grow grass but not a whole lot more. Buying sod is more expensive than just throwing grass seed on the ground but it might result in a more finished product. As for gravel and bark chips, they are very forgiving materials and can easily be spread out to make a path.
For gravel the square foot cost could be anywhere from $1 to $3 depending on the type and amount needed. Bark is much cheaper with the price ranging from $0.20 to $0.60 per square foot.
Another reason these materials are considered low cost is that they can often be done as DIY projects. You don’t need to be an experienced landscaper to throw down bark chips. I have even lain sod as a new DIYer and it turned out ok. So if you are on a tight budget then gravel, bark chips or grass are your cheapest options.
In the medium cost category we have pavers. Now this may seem like not a lot of choices but when you actually look at pavers there are lots of options. The title of pavers covers everything from basic bricks to interlocking fish scale shaped cast concrete. Even porcelain tile can be put in the paver category.
But with so many options come so many different prices. A simple brick walkway is going to be more expensive than gravel but far cheaper than fancy interlocking specialized pavers. In general you are looking at between $3 and $10 per square foot for pavers.
Then there is the labor cost. While you can DIY a paver pathway it might also be a good idea to pay someone to do this work. If you read my How Much Does a Paver Patio Cost article then you know all the setup that is required to properly lay down pavers.
Labor for a project like a paver path can double the price but it can be well worth it.
If you gravitate towards the finer things in life then you are probably already planning your gorgeous flagstone path. While you may be able to find a deal on real stone slabs, most of the time they are the most expensive option.
At anywhere from $8 to $20 a square foot, the price really does change depending on the type of stone you choose. Then add in the labor costs. Just like pavers, having a professional set a flagstone walk is going to roughly double the cost. But if you are shelling out for an expensive stone you should probably have an experienced person install it.
Also in the high cost category is wood. Sure, you could just throw down my plywood sheets but that’s not what i’m talking about. Since wood needs to be raised above the ground to prevent rot this basically means a wood pathway is a long, thin deck. And decks need secure footing, level construction and usually staining or protective coatings. All these aspects increase the cost.
Final Design Consideration
Once you know where your path is going and what materials it will be made out of you can decide on finishing elements. These might include handrails for steps or transitions from one material to another. Plan out every detail possible before work begins so you don’t get surprised halfway through.
I also recommend you do a final walkthrough before work begins. Take your sketch and try to follow it in the actual garden. Stop every so often to look around. What do you notice? Is there a beautiful spot where you should widen the path and put a bench? Maybe a piece of art?
Now is also a good time to consider lighting. If you already have to dig to install pavers or stone why not install lighting as well to save time and money? Once you have considered all your options you are then ready to get to work on your stunning new garden path.