You can be led down the garden path, get off the beaten path, take the path less traveled. Everywhere are references to paths in literature and philosophy.
Paths make a garden more interesting, too. Simply changing the shape or materials of your path or adding a focal point at a bend can change the look of your whole garden.
On my recent excursions to Strybing Arboretum in Golden Gate Park, Filoli Garden in Woodside and our own Hidden Gardens of Bonny Doon, I fell in love with some of the wonderful paths that I found underfoot.
Every garden path begs you to wonder: Where does it lead? It's the journey as well as the destination that makes it so alluring. As you walk, the garden should slowly reveal surprises; maybe architectural accent plants appear, a wonderful scent greets you, a distant view opens up or drifts of colorful flowers at the edge beckon you to stop and enjoy the scene.
Consider some of these ideas to update your path.
Front yard paths
In the front yard, you want a solid path directing visitors from a parking area to the front door. It should be wide enough to accommodate two people walking side by side, with interesting views along the way, like low walls or plant materials to create a sense of enclosure. You want people to feel they are walking through a defined space. Although you may alter the direction of the entry walk to make it more interesting, the purpose of the path is to find the front entry area.
But what about all those other paths that wind around the house and in the back garden? That’s where you can get creative.
A path in back
Paths can be designed to slow people down. Plan for pauses along the way — a widening here, a sitting bench nestled beside a bird feeder there, a beautiful piece of garden art next to a tree with interesting bark or a view of distant mountains.
You can route paths in ways that direct your sight toward beautiful things and away from compost piles and trash cans. Good paths have entries that are easy to see and that pull you in.
When I design a path in a garden, I think about how it will fit into the rest of the landscape and the look of the house.
Flagstone, brick and pavers are great for paths you're likely to travel barefoot. You can soften the look by planting low groundcover between pavers. Allow at least 2 inches of soil between flagstones or pavers, and amend the soil before planting so it won't pack down with foot traffic.
Bark and gravel look great for natural-looking paths, and a gently curving path invites you to stroll among the plants. If it leads you to a small, circular patio, all the better.
How wide should you make an informal path? If you want to soften the edge with low plants, allow 3.5 to 4 feet. Small grasses, aromatic herbs, fragrant flowers and colorful foliage plants look natural beside a path.
I've seen articles about creating a garden path in a weekend, if you're starting from scratch. You can update one of your existing paths easily, too, in about the same time.
An interesting path I encountered once was created from materials found onsite. Old, untreated redwood timbers were cut and installed at an angle every 6 feet or so along a packed decomposed granite path. In between were small pieces of flagstone connected with bands of 2-inch Mexican black pebbles. The look was interesting and inexpensive to achieve.
Look around your own yard for found items that would give your path that personal touch. Broken concrete and old bricks will find new life, and you'll save the expense of having to haul them away.
- Jan Nelson, a landscape designer and California certified nursery professional, will answer questions about gardening in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.jannelsonlandscapedesign.com to view past columns and pictures.