The Perfect Path
Six tips to a great design
By: Marty Wingate
Paths and walkways are not just a functional way to get from here to there—they’re also part of the design that links your house to the garden and street. A walkway that’s integrated into the landscape will be interesting as well as useful.
Here’s how to design garden paths that are safe, beautiful, and complementary to your home:
Link your pathway to the style of your home
To make sure your walk looks and feels like it “belongs” to the house and grounds, first think about the style of your house. Traditional homes with symmetrical architecture, such as Cape Cod and Federal styles, usually have the front door in the middle and even numbers of windows on each side. A wiggly path that meanders its way to the front door would look out of place, but a path that follows those formal lines will match the home’s symmetrical look. Don’t worry that a straight path will look sterile—you can soften the lines with billowing plants such as low hedges of lavender or catmint.
Build a path that fits the space
Just as you wouldn’t plant a giant sequoia or stately pin oak in a tiny cottage garden because the scale is wrong, so walkways should not be out of scale with the house and garden. A 6-foot-wide walkway looks short and stubby if it’s only 10 feet long and ends at the small front porch of a comfy cottage. A long, narrow, curving path leading up to a large Southern estate becomes a strand of cooked spaghetti against the majesty of the house.
Make your path as wide as the steps up to the front porch. If you’re planning a straight path, you can play with perspective a little: Begin the path wider, narrowing it slightly as it approaches its goal. This technique, often used in the theater to make a stage look deeper than it really is, tricks our eye into making the walk (and, by extension, the garden around it) look longer than it really is.
Put curves in the right spot
If your house and garden are informal, curved paths will look right at home. A path that curves for no reason, however, can look silly. To show there’s a purpose to the curve, plant the inside of the curve with shrubs or a small tree, and plant grass or ground covers on the outside of the curve.
Winding paths are trickier. They create a relaxed, meandering feel, so they suit a woodland garden and casual architectural styles such as ranch houses, ramblers, and bungalows. If you want a winding path, first draw it out on paper. Make sure you put the house in the drawing, and add as many twists and turns to the path as you think would work. Then, take the piece of paper and hold it up to your nose, with the paper horizontal as if you were standing on the paper path and looking forward. Does your path turn into a squiggly line that zigzags back and forth, willy-nilly? Go back to your drawing and remove some of the turns.
Choose complementary materials
When you’ve settled on a design for the walkway, choose the material that best complements the house and design you’ve chosen. A colonial brick house pairs nicely with a brick walkway—or even with brick trim along a concrete path. Because ranch homes or ramblers often have a mix of clapboard and brick materials, a flagstone path (either straight-edged or irregular cut stone) works well. There’s a world of stone out there, and you can find one with a tint that suits the colors in the brick or paint of your house. You’ll also find ready-made concrete pavers formed to resemble cobblestones; some of these interlock to create a solid surface.
For a casual, woodsy path, use organic materials common to your region—for example, pine needles in the Northeast or hazelnut shells in the Northwest. Wood chips and shredded bark are available in all regions of the country.
Plan for safety
Consider both safety and comfort. You will avoid, not use, an unsafe or uncomfortable walkway. For two people to walk comfortably on a path, a width of 3 feet is the minimum, but 4 feet is better.
Use landscape bricks made for walkways instead of old masonry bricks. Those old bricks are still useful in the garden for edging or raised beds, but they don’t fare well underfoot.
If your walkway is on a slope, stay away from loose material. Not only does it gradually shift to lower ground, but it’s also dangerous underfoot. Consider installing steps on steep slopes. If you want an informal, woodsy feel, simply set wooden risers into the soil.
Your climate plays a role in the safety of your walk. In cold-weather regions, you’ll need to keep the path clear of snow and provide traction in the form of gritty sand or cat litter (not the clumping kind, as many of us have learned the hard way). During the rainy winters in the Pacific Northwest, solid surfaces such as bricks and concrete acquire a slimy, slippery, mossy layer. If your concrete or stone pavers become coated with moss and algae, consider an organic control (these contain a potassium-based fatty acid) that has a low impact on plants, animals, and children.
Add touches of whimsy
Let loose the artist within you, and create a reason for people to stop along the path and admire small details. Mosaics that are made of broken pottery, bits of polished glass, and discarded tiles add a splash of personality to your garden. You can either build these mosaics and other artistic flourishes directly into the path, or you can add a bit of art off to the side.
Light your way for safety, but don’t place lights in a straight, regular line so your path looks like a runway. When a shot of subtle light on a step is necessary, point the light down, not across or up.
Benches along the path offer you and visitors a place to pause for a moment to enjoy the garden. Place the bench next to the pathway, not on it—you don’t want to have to move your feet every time someone walks by.
Marty Wingate is co-author of The Big Book of Northwest Perennials (Sasquatch Books, 2005) and Big Ideas for Northwest Small Gardens (Sasquatch Books, 2003). She lives in Seattle, Washington.