Garden Paths and Walkways

From the house or from the street, a path draws you into a garden and colors your experience of it. Paths can be reassuring or mysterious, but they should always be thoughtfully laid out and defined.

All paths are not equal, says Gordon Hayward, a garden designer and author in Vermont . In the hierarchy of paths, the front walk is the most important. It should be wide and welcoming, he says, with room for two people to walk side by side. The path to the front door is a good place for fragrant plants — roses and lavender, for example — or for long-blooming perennials, small-scale evergreens, and flowering shrubs. Spring bulbs, summer annuals, and pots full of flowers all look great along a front walk.

“The path should broaden right by the door, so there is room for a chair, a bench, a pot, or a piece of sculpture,” Hayward says. “It’s all part of that welcome.”

Other paths – leading through a side yard, to the vegetable garden, or from the kitchen door to the compost heap – usually do not have to be as wide.

The plants growing along a path can emphasize its function. A path can be as straight as an arrow, bordered by nothing but lawn, and hurry you along to your destination, but curves and exuberant plantings tend to slow you down, which is really part of what a garden is all about.

In a formal garden, clipped boxwoods or ribbons of bright yellow marigolds elegantly emphasize the edges of a path. In a less tailored garden, the lines can be softer: nasturtiums may stretch lazily across the path, silvery artemisia brightens the way along a path of stepping stones, or perhaps a few columbines come up in the pathway itself. Daylilies and dahlias brighten the walk; tall cosmos and cleomes seem to dance along beside you.

Paths of all kinds are irresistible invitations to explore. Children, in particular, are drawn to them: they skip along brick paths, hop-scotch their way over stepping stones, and take a certain gleeful delight in the crunch of gravel underfoot. Without realizing it, adults do the same things. You may not actually skip, but when you follow a path into a garden, you’re leaving your busy life behind. “A path should be an experience,” Hayward says. “It’s about walking through a garden, not past it.”