Kathy Fitzgerald is a writer and gardener.
 

 
 

Finding Your Path
by Kathy Fitzgerald - posted 04/15/19

A path is just a way to get people and materials around the garden without damaging the plants, right? Well, yes and no.

As garden-organizing features, paths set the tone of the spaces they cross. Angular paths that lead directly to destinations imply formality and purpose. Think of the geometric layout of Versailles or the practical symmetries of kitchen gardens. Meandering paths take a more playful tone, hinting at surprises waiting around the next bend. Broad paths, 4 or more feet wide, impart an expansive, social feel, while narrow paths feel more intimate, inviting solitude. Paths can ease changes in elevation, help visitors negotiate boggy or rocky spots and announce different garden rooms. 

The material chosen makes as much difference to a path as its trajectory and width. Formed concrete and tightly spaced pavers provide a smooth surface, allowing brisk movement. With these paths, the idea is to get to a point in the garden as efficiently as possible, or to be able to trundle a wheelbarrow or cart along with ease. On the other hand, the purpose of uneven flagstones is to slow you down, providing an opportunity to appreciate the surrounding garden. 

 

Building Your Own Path
Making a path can be as simple as mowing a swath through the high grass of a meadow. Most of our gardens, however, have more definition and less space than that, calling for more structured ways to pass through them. 

 To build a path, first mark out where you want your path using a hose, masons’ twine and stakes or spray paint. Artfully curving lines can emphasize special vignettes and make small gardens seem larger. Measure the distance from beginning to end to get the number of linear feet, and then multiply that number by the desired width in feet. The result is how many square feet of pathway. 

Deciding on the type of surface comes next. In addition to aesthetics, factor in how much labor you’re willing to put into the project, and keep in mind your budget. Stepping-stone paths require the least amount of prep work, but the stones themselves may be pricey, while more affordable, gravel and mulch paths need more preparation. Dry-laying pavers require even more preparation to ensure a smooth surface.

For flagstone paths, arrange the stones where you think they ought to go, and then walk along them to see how they flow underfoot. Make adjustments until you’re satisfied. If the path travels through the lawn, let them sit in place overnight. The grass underneath will yellow, telling you exactly how much sod to dig out. Make each excavation deep enough to avoid interference with mower blades. Settle the stone in its bed, tapping it in firmly with a rubber mallet, then water it in. Correct any wobbles and gaps with sand.

For gravel and mulch paths, plan on some sort of edging along the sides and at either end. If your yard is sandy, put down an underlayment, such as weed-barrier fabric, to keep the gravel or mulch from disappearing into the soil over time. Dig down a few inches the length and width of the path and use sod staples to pin the underlayment to the ground. Then set your edging and add the gravel or mulch.

 

Laying Pavers
Dry-laid pavers (a path without mortar) take the most effort, time and expense, but they can’t be beat for enhancing a formal space. Here’s the process:

• Assemble your materials and tools.
• Stake out the site.
• Dig out the site. Excavate to the depth of your paver plus at least 3 inches to put the finished project at ground level. If you live in an area where the ground freezes, you must dig deeper for a thicker base to prevent frost heaving.
• Level the excavation. This is called “screeding.” A section of 2-by-4 or 4-by-4 lumber works well, ideally the width of the dug-out area. The success of the project depends on getting the area as level as possible at this point.
• Tamp the dirt, ensuring it remains level.
• Add paver base, tamp and level. Repeat until you have a firm and level base with just enough vertical space left so the top of the pavers rest at grade. Don’t scrimp on the paver base, it’s what keeps the finished surface from buckling or sinking.
• Now you’re ready to lay the bricks. Choose a pattern, and stick with it. Working across the width of the path, pound the pavers tight against the outside edges and one another using a rubber mallet. Fill cracks with fine sand after finishing each three- to four-row section. Work the sand in with a scrub brush or gloved hands.

Remember to continually check that the project is level, brick to brick and row to row. If you’re building on a slope, keep the angle of rise or descent constant. Lay your screeding board over the pavers and whack them securely into the base with the sledgehammer, then pour more sand into the joints. 

When the path is finished, spread polymeric sand over the entire project and water it in, following the directions on the package. When dry, the polymers act like bonding agents, but it’s easier to work with than mortar should replacement or realignment of individual pavers become necessary.

Now you’re ready to enjoy your path. Not only do paths protect plants and soils from traffic and provide access for additions and maintenance, they also define and beautify garden spaces. They needn’t be difficult or expensive to install, and the cool weather of fall is the perfect time to spiff up the paths traversing your garden or add some new ones.

 

 

This article appeared in a previous issue of a State-by-State Gardening publication.
Photos by Kathy Fitzgerald.

 

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