Every Path Tells a Story

Pursue some path, however narrow and crooked, in which you can walk
with love and reverence. — Henry David Thoreau

I read a very intriguing article recently that described the way one firm designs landscapes for large complexes. In this case, they were hired to redesign a college campus. The lead designers noticed that the students rarely used the existing sidewalks; instead, they cut across the lawns creating a secondary set of paths made up of trampled grass and worn dirt. People, like deer it seems, have a natural tendency to create the most convenient routes.

Most hikers can recognize a deer path in the woods. It’s interesting to note that many of the roads we drive on today started as humble paths for wildlife. Imagine Highway One as a simple path used by migrating deer, then by Native tribes on foot. With the introduction of horses and wagons, that path compacted and widened to become a road until it developed into the spectacular highway it is today.

Formal and Informal Paths
A well-planned garden generally begins with the primary feature of a path: where it leads, and it’s function. Most gardens can be classified as formal or informal. Obviously, a formal garden is designed around a gridded plan. Many formal European gardens, especially ones at palaces and monasteries, are designed around the shape of a cross. An informal garden is also planned, but it moves the viewers down winding trails, often with surprising horticultural gems tucked away here and there. Overall, the paths and their purposes are reflected in either of these two styles. A functional herb or kitchen garden is usually somewhat formal so the herbs can be easily harvested; while a garden for reflection and meditation is less rigid in its layout.



Sabu helps level and compact the dirt.

It took a friend and myself about 2 hours to get the right spacing. Sabu was no help.

Of course he shows up when we were nearly finished. Checking out the sand….. hmmm.


Done! The bricks were rescued from a discarded ceramic kiln. Loads of color and the occasional drip of glaze. I created a traditional medicine wheel with odd bricks placed in the four directions at the end.

Materials for Paths
Traditional English garden pathways are made from crushed rock or small pebbles. Closer to the shore, a path might be made of crushed shells. The layout is usually formal. Over time, the gravel layer becomes hard and requires little maintenance. Gravel is also very affordable, although can be annoying. Bits of stone tend to migrate elsewhere in both the garden and the house — even into the bedroom. Trust me, this observation comes from experience. The nice part of designing a gravel path is that it can be made into interesting twisting shapes and the scrinching sound underfoot is magical.

The use of conventional red bricks almost dictates a formal approach to path design. Planning the design can be clever and fun — with patterns called basket weave, half-basket, herringbone, and jack-on-jack. Scavenging local sources for used bricks can be fun! A path is more interesting with the various shades of red created by age and use. I hit the jackpot when I found yellow bricks that were once used in a ceramic kiln. These bricks are a rainbow of colors with yummy drips of glaze (called “turkey droppings”) on a few special ones that I call zingers. I used the bricks to create an informal, meandering path, that ends in a round medicine wheel. It was a challenge to maintain an informal feel with such a rigid material but it can be done.

Natural Stone
Ahhh, the beauty of Mother Nature. There is an abundance of different types of stone available that fall into this category.

The irregular shapes of flagstone can be derived from slate or shale, quartzite, limestone, sandstone, or other flat stone and is quarried both locally and from around the world. The use of this flagstone is not new. Lovely aged pathways can be seen in ancient gardens and building flooring throughout the world. Flagge is a Middle English term that means turf or ground.

Smooth river rock is occasionally used in pathways to create the illusion of a stream or creek. River rocks offer great flexibility for designing garden paths and always look amazing in any informal garden. Less rounded stones are generally used for the main, walking area; and smaller, round stones can be set at the border. I’ve seen several paths where flat river stones were set on edge in long, sweeping curves that resemble topographic maps. Colored river rocks — white, grey or green — can be laid out in whimsical swirls that mimic stylized ocean waves or more sedate rings and circles. The designs only limited to ones imagination!

“Paver” is a generic term that refers to any natural stone or man-made product — including concrete or even recycled plastic and rubber — which has been cut into squares, rectangles, or other reoccurring shapes. They tend to fit snuggly together leaving little room for plants to grow between the pieces. Pavers force a formal approach to planning a path or space but there is opportunity to create static images with the material. One of the most interesting I’ve ever seen is a handicap parking space that was a mixture of grey and blue rectangular pavers… the blue pavers used to artfully create the ”handicap” symbol designating the special place.

As mentioned, pavers and flagstone can fit tightly together but the path may also be designed so that low-growing plants can be inserted into large gaps between the materials, creating the opportunity for a very informal style. Single large (and deep) rocks that are deliberately placed well away from each other cause a person to take more measured strides than normal. For kids, and the young at heart, this creates an additional opportunity to boulder-hop from one stone to the next.

Floating path on water!

In some Asian garden designs, the paths are never straight but move forward in a jiggy-jag manner. Sections of the path are offset yet parallel to each other. Where the end of the section overlaps with the next, a person is forced to turn or step sideways to continue to the end. This type of design discourages spirits with malicious intent on traversing the path — forcing them to concoct other devious means to get to the other side. Imagine how confused a deer might be.

Soften the Edges
Many paths incorporate living greenery that enhance the overall look and feel of the garden. Low growing plants, which easily spread in the naked nooks and crannies of a stone path, not only have the usual consideration of water, soil, and light but the added “hardiness” factor. That is, how will the amount of foot traffic affect the livelihood of a particular plant. Note that all plants should be planted well below the surface of the path to insure longevity.

Ornamental thymes (Thymus spp.), blue star creeper (Isotoma fluviatilis), and miniature brass buttons (Leptinella gruveri) can take a pounding and are generally evergreen. Irish moss (Sagina subulata) and Corsican mint (Mentha requienii) are also tough but require more moisture. The mint has the added bonus of producing a lovely fragrance when trod upon.

Bringing it home is chamomile. There are actually two types of chamomile, German (Matricaria recutita) and Roman or English (Chamaemelum nobile or sometimes Anthemus nobilis). The low-growing Roman chamomile seems to be the most popular choice to include in stony paths… especially by the local deeries who love the flowers.

Some paths are just made for viewing.



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