In spite of their humble function, paths conjure up romantic images of leisurely strolls across flower-filled meadows, warm welcomes, or mysterious adventures on walks through shadowy forests.
The word path is often a metaphor for life. No wonder successful gardeners and landscape designers make frequent use of this important feature to direct both the eye and the feet toward a particular focal point, and stress the use of paths as design elements.
Paths do not have to be complicated or hard to build. The simplest are of stepping stones or mulches such as gravel and bark. Pavings, such as stone, brick, and concrete, are also fairly easy to install. Designing a path and choosing appropriate materials may be more of a challenge than constructing it.
Most paths serve a practical purpose; place them wherever you need access. Paths can be more than domestic highways, however, if you consider their visual and emotional impact.
They lend a strong visual element that creates patterns, defines spaces, and adds texture and color. Emotionally, they add an invitation to visit, to stroll, to explore. Professional landscape designers favor a path that leads nowhere — it travels out of sight around a corner or behind a grove of trees.
An unknown destination heightens the sense of mystery in the garden.
What makes a path appealing? First, it most be safe and comfortable. Most garden paths are too narrow, especially for two people to stroll together. Important paths, such as front entries and main garden paths, should be at least 48 inches wide; 60 inches is an ideal width.
Second paths for single-file use should be 30 to 36 inches wide.
Paths in small gardens intended as borders or to meander through the garden with no apparent destination, may be narrower. A comfortable slope of paths on an incline is between 5 percent and 8 percent (5 to 8 inches of rise for every 100 inches of horizontal distance).
Provide steps if the slope is greater. Avoid single steps in the middle of a path; it is always better to have at least two steps together so they are easy to see. If a single step is unavoidable, locate it at a corner or other prominent point.
Let aesthetics take the upper hand in determining whether a path should be straight or curved, unless some compelling reason exists for a beeline between two points. Straight paths tend to be dull unless they parallel some other feature such as a house or fence, or unless they serve as borders or axes for a formal landscape.
When a path is in the open, it is better to curve it gracefully or break it into intersecting segments that resemble large stepping stones.
Color and texture are important elements that contribute to the appeal of a path. Red brick is successful in gardens with rich greenery because red and green are complimentary colors.
Paving materials with earth tones or neutral colors also work well because they are suitable backgrounds for most color schemes. Paths that repeat colors or use identical materials in the exterior of the house are also effective.
Use only one or two materials in a given path. When mixing materials, it is better to have one color or texture dominate and to use the others as accent.
When it comes to combining materials, small paving units and finely textured materials are more versatile. Edge a path with a curb or border of contrasting material. A border keeps plants in place, defines the path more crisply, and contains loose materials, such as gravel and bark. Install lights if you will use the path at night.
A bench adds a final touch that will make a path even more appealing and inviting.