A garden path can issue an enticing invitation to backyard visitors, or just provide a convenient route for plant maintenance. Whatever its use, a well-designed and well-built path will enhance the livability and functionality of any home garden, says Steve Rodie, landscape horticulture specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
The following slides will help you decide what path materials fit your budget and your gardening needs.
Pros Inexpensive; good drainage; low-maintenance; won't disrupt plants' roots; can stand up to fairly heavy traffic.
Cons Inorganic, so it doesn't improve soil; without the right border, gravel pieces can spill out into garden areas. May need to be weeded occasionally.
Tip Use small, angular stones instead of rounded pebbles. They lock together for a more stable walking surface.
Pros Looks great when tidy; the most comfortable walking surface.
Cons Needs constant maintenance and ample sun and space. With poor upkeep or heavy use, can easily be worn into mud.
Tip Make sure it's wide enough for your mower.
Pros Looks formal or natural; a good choice for heavy use.
Cons More expensive than some options; placing pavers on bare soil can cause problems such as poor drainage.
Tip Construct a solid, well-drained, level base from sand or gravel. Surround your pavers with a formal edge to keep them from shifting.
Pros Provides the cleanest, most formal look. If designed correctly, requires minimal maintenance.
Cons The most expensive path. Midwest weather extremes can make bricks/stones crack and split. Not a DIY project for most people.
Tip Consider materials that visually tie into existing stone or brick in your garden.
Pros Easy and inexpensive to lay down; looks natural; replenishes the soil. Three solid inches of mulch blocks most weeds.
Cons Requires yearly replenishing. Wood chips get kicked off the path easily, and the path wears down quickly. Best for low-traffic areas.
Tip Instead of bark or wood chips, use shredded mulch, which stays in place better.
Pros A good solution for a path that gets moderate use.
Cons Mulch needs to be replenished each year; pavers may shift over time.
Tip Use stones that are large, and set them at a distance that is comfortable to walk along.
Soften stones' edges Ground-hugging plants such as thyme and fescue (left) add visual interest between stones. Lavender next to the path also softens the edge of the walkway.
Curve it Curving paths are more pleasing to the eye more than straight ones. They can also help narrow areas feel larger.
Add personal touches Handmade stepping-stones add beauty and color to your garden path. Mosaic patterns may be more slippery than rough stone, though, especially when wet.
(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® April/May 2009.)