How To Design a Garden Step III: Pathways

So you’ve set your goals and have a scale drawing of the land you plan to garden. What’s next? Paths! Paths keep you from compacting soil and lend visual interest to your garden. Some tips:

Establish a path hierarchy
Create wide paths with smaller branching paths. Think of the human circulatory system:

Or fractal patterns found in nature, like tree branches:

Now our property is so small that, when I’m done re-doing the backyard it will only have two main paths and one or two branching paths, but the path hierarchy concept is scalable to any piece of land large or small.

Put paths where people walk
Avoid what’s called in the landscape architecture biz “vanity paths,” i.e. paths that look good but aren’t actually used. If people are taking a shortcut, make that a path!

Path size
A comfortable path is probably no smaller than 18 inches. If you’re designing a public garden where wheelchair accessibility is an issue make the path no smaller than 3 feet. For two people to pass each other you need 5 to 6 feet, though a path that big would be for a larger piece of land than we own. Consider the size of any tools or wheelbarrows you might need to accommodate.

I’m fond of mulch. It’s free, easy to maintain and breaks down into soil. I’ve used gravel in the past–it looks nice but it can be hard to keep clean over time. Stepping stones also work nicely. As for edging, I’ve been using river rock as it’s easy to find in my area.

Create gathering areas
Paths should open up in to larger seating areas. We have a deck area for entertaining visitors and a smaller spot that I use as an outdoor office in the summer months. A school garden might have an outdoor classroom off of a main path.

I can’t emphasize how important paths are, both aesthetically and for preventing soil compaction. Years ago Kelly suggested the path we just put in and it’s a real improvement to the garden. Perhaps listening to your wife is a design lesson for another post!

Special thanks to Darren Butler and Scott Kleinrock for inspiring this post.

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  1. The width of the path is very important! It’s very easy to try to cram in as much stuff as possible and scrimp on path width. I’ve done it my self…

    I find two feet minimum is best… More is better. The article mentioned a wheel chair, but around our house it’s the wheelbarrow that needs to fit in.

  2. To see some photo examples of garden paths please go to;

    Also recently I saw a path made of bottles, beer or wine would work, turned upside down and set into the path. Lots of digging but it looked great. Wine bottles turned up side down also make a great path edging. Leave them sticking up 6″ or to desired height. Paths can be a fun project.

  3. @Seeds: We get our mulch from a pile in a not very obvious place in Griffith Park. If you’re interested, send us an email [email protected] and we can give you directions.

    For people who aren’t in LA, be aware that many cities have free mulch made from city tree trimmings, you just have to poke around and find out which agency distributes it and where. Also, tree trimming services will also give you free mulch. If you see a tree trimmer in your neighborhood go talk to them.

  4. Seeds–You can also track down a tree trimmer and ask them to dump a load. Just make sure they have a good shredder. As Mrs. Homegrown mentioned the Griffith Park mulch is good–just don’t use the city’s other “mulch” as some of it is nasty.

  5. Practical–gravel gets dirty when you spill a load of compost into it or have a dog (as we did) who, when he ran, sent it flying in every direction. It can work nicely, but not in every situation.

  6. @Diane: We got this rock off of Craigslist. Someone had demo’d an old wall and the rock was free for the taking. The rock has some bits of cement on it, but it doesn’t bother us for path purpose. Recently, Erik heard about a place out of town where you can “harvest” river rock for a fee, but he’s gone all day so I can’t ask him where, but will later.

  7. @Practical: I’ll also add that falling leaves were a problem. Unless you’re like a zen gardener out there with the rake all the time, leaves and other debris get in the gravel and over time the path loses that nice pristine look and starts to resemble rocky mulch.

    Weeds love gravel, too, but they don’t like mulch.

  8. I’m back again to get on my high horse about mulch. We’ve had both DG and gravel in our yard and both are gone now and everything is mulched. If you want a truly low maintenance landscape (and an inexpensive one, too!) mulch is the way to go. Definitely. I’d never do DG or gravel again. Both started out lovely land turned into major pains.

  9. Love this site! My problem is two-fold: I have lots of area and 10 old oak trees. The leaves fall on hard/dry sandy soil where nothing will grow and on the lava rocks which were laid down by previous owners. I want to lay gravel, but oh the leaves! I can’t put down sod or seed..too much area for that, plus, it won’t grow. What can I do to enhance my backyard when a million leaves fall every single season? I rake and rake, and it takes about a month to bag it all…whew!

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