There is so much more to paths than just perfunctory straight lines. With long-distance travel out, it’s a great opportunity to go on a journey without leaving your garden
Useful as they are for getting from A to B, from the back door to the washing line or the front door to the gate, paths need not be purely practical. As they say, it is as much about the journey as the destination and few patches are too small for a path. Even simple stepping stones allow access to another world. It is time to get a lot more trails into your life.
A wide berth
Conventionally, main paths are broader than lesser ones. One 120cm wide allows two adults to comfortably walk along it, side by side. Those with space can be more generous with their main path; one to two metres or so wide enable groups of people converse and dally. Those who cannot afford the space could let a narrower path open out into a bigger circle before narrowing again – to a similar convivial effect. Single width paths are not as unsocial as they first might seem. Once the person in front stops, those behind have no choice but to follow. However, there is something philosophically satisfying walking alone down one, for that is how we all essentially experience our own journeys through life.
Paths along boundary hedges makes trimming easier. It is rather like how not having all the furniture of a room lined around the walls makes the rooms seem bigger. Having a gap (aka alley) of up to 50cm between the garden and the boundary hedges or fences gives the heightened illusion of space, and offers another perspective on the garden.
Through a lawn
Lawns, both petite and expansive, are underrated places for paths and offer possibilities limited pretty much only by the imagination. First, map out in your mind’s eye what sort of route or look you want. If you have children, you might want a grid with crossing paths to run and play in. Or one long path to run down. You might like a spiral to meander or a sunburst – another joy of lawn paths is they can look lovely when viewed from beyond, rather like a knot garden. Next, let the grass get a little longer than usual, then get out the mower and carve out your path. The paths needn’t stay the same all summer, they may get wider as the season progresses, or smaller as flowers, grasses and garden escapees emerge.
A sensory route
Paths through a shrubbery or flower bed let the wanderer in amongst it all. No longer just a bystander or observer, they become immersed – seeing, smelling, hearing, feeling and sometimes tasting all the garden has to offer up close. Better access to tend the garden is a spin-off benefit. Wind the path between, behind, around under trees and smaller plants and don’t be afraid of letting it go back on itself. No one is in any hurry on this track.
When the paths through shrubberies or woodlands are defined with distinct materials and clear edges, the essential differences between the path and the garden are emphasised. The wanderer may feel more secure on this obvious path and by comparison the woodland or shrubbery may seem wilder, any frisson of anticipation or danger intensified.
Make it interesting
Should your paths be immutably in place, clever planting at the least can help make them more interesting. Consider an arbour or arch over them – a tunnel, of some sort to add to the sense of adventure and journey. Having plants spill over onto the path will blur any hard lines. One effective ploy is to have a border, or hedge, of one species, then leave a gap. Behind the gap, plant another type of plant and let it grow through – to give a slightly unsettling hint that all is not as under control as one might first think. A nifty trick used by garden designers is to taper a straight path making its end appear further way and thus the garden longer.
A vague, ill-defined path through, one that tapers off here and there, maybe even with the odd dead-end makes the journey a little saltier, lost in the wilderness. Or it may make the traveller feel even more embraced by the environment. If there is room, pop in a simple bench seat to encourage visitors to linger.
Sinuous paths give depth to a garden, especially when they lead out of sight (and even back in and out again). Seemingly, more organic and natural, a winding path tends to be most tranquil and usually slows the walker – as does rough or uneven surfaces – giving more time to appreciate all. Having curves also increases the anticipation (what is around the next bend?) and offers a sense of adventure as a new scene at each turn is uncovered. Strolling the path should be replete with pleasurable experiences, be they dramatic or infinitesimal.
The destination path
Offering a reward at the end of the path is like dangling a carrot at the end of the stick for the nature lover. Maybe the path can climax with something special – be it a piece of sculpture, a bird path, a particularly captivating horticultural vignette, a seating area, or fine view.
Zigzag paths are commonly used in traditional Japanese gardens. Apparently, evil spirits cannot negotiate right angles so these types of darting paths were seen to be safer. The geometry of a zigzag suits many modern gardens, especially if steps can be incorporated. Never let a flat section deter you from ups and downs. Artificial alterations to path heights are easy and inexpensive enough to achieve and hugely effective in adding interest. Small bridges are sometimes used, but seldom with as much integrity as digging out an area and using the fill to create a small hill or mound somewhere else.
Words by: Mary Lovell-Smith