Garden Bloggers Design Workshop—Paths and Walkways

The folks at Gardening Gone Wild have taken a page out of Carol’s book by issuing a community-building invitation to post about aspects of garden design—a different topic each month. The first topic, for November, is paths and walkways.

Limestone, decomposed-granite, stepping-stone, cypress mulch, and concrete paths all wind through my front and back gardens. Of all these, the walkway that has facilitated the most enjoyment of my garden—and given my cottage garden the structure it needs—is the mortared-limestone courtyard/path in the front garden. Here’s a recent bird’s-eye view through the screen of an upper window. (You can’t see them because of the lush grasses, but narrower paths to the right and left of the circle take you deeper into the garden—the better to explore and to reach plants for maintenance.)

My calling it a courtyard/path indicates the path’s dual purposes. Most important, it leads visitors from the street to the front door. In this older neighborhood, driveways are wide enough for only a single car, and visitors usually park on the street. When we bought this house, no path existed from street to door. I recall walking across the lumpy, crispy lawn with the realtor and wondering why the only path was a builder’s concrete special running from the middle of the driveway straight across the front of the house to the door. It wasn’t a friendly welcome, and I knew I’d have to fix it.

The springtime photo above shows the new, welcoming path for visitors from streetside to door. Notice the apron of limestone that crosses the city sidewalk directly to the street. Small planting beds on either side soften the sidewalk with Mexican feathergrass and damianita. Bookending these beds, a car’s length of mortared limestone to the right and left (not visible) provides visitors with dry, level footing while getting out of their cars. Fencing isn’t part of this workshop, but I’ll mention that the wood-and-wire fence contributes to the feeling of welcome (you know you’re entering a special place) and separateness from the street; moreover, it makes the space feel bigger than an unprotected, open lawn.

The opposite view, from the door to the street, shows how the divided path, anchored by a container planting of Nolina texana , provides a focal point and keeps one from staring right out at the street with its cars and trash cans. The path is laid out in a straight line from curb to door, but its division adds interest and slows visitors down so they can appreciate the garden. Still, each side is wide enough (5 feet) for people to walk easily.

I started from scratch with this garden, removing the lawn and a sapling red oak, which would have shaded the entire small yard as it matured. For convenience, I left the builder’s concrete sidewalk between drive and door, and I hired a stonemason to lay the new courtyard/path I envisioned. The idea was to create the feeling of a courtyard, an open space in the garden where one could talk to neighbors, where the kids could ride bikes or scooters.

So I took marking paint and a measuring tape and drew a path from sidewalk to door, outlining a 12-foot-diameter circle in the middle. I remember that it looked huge, as if the path would swallow the entire yard. However, once I started planting there seemed plenty of room left over, and the growing plants soon softened the edges.

The photo above shows how it looked right after construction, in the summer of 2001. Without the garden around it, doesn’t it look enormous?

I took this photo right after the first planting of mostly ornamental trees and shrubs, in October 2001. Many of the perennials went in the following spring. For those who’ve followed the vitex tree’s growth, check out the twig that I’d planted (to the front-left of the cedar bench); like the vitex, most of my plants were one-gallon sizes. While some of the plantings changed over time (the silver cenizos grew too large and are long gone), the foundation of the courtyard/path helped the garden look like a garden, even when it was newly planted or recently replanted.

Six years and many changes later, the path is the constant feature that holds the front garden together. It’s been a racing track for my children, bringing them into the front yard in a way that an exposed front lawn never would; a welcome area for guests; a place for the eye to rest in an exuberant cottage garden; and a focal point for the entire garden.

For anyone contemplating a similar project, here are a few things I’ve learned along the way:

1. Whether straight or curvy, make a front path wide and clear—inviting to visitors and easy to walk on. Too wide is better than too narrow, in my opinion.

2. Before laying your path, bury an open PVC pipe beneath it. You never know when you’re going to want to run wires under a mortared path. A last-minute decision to lay a pipe under the courtyard/path paid off six years later when my husband and I installed low-voltage landscape lighting and needed to run a wire under the path.

3. If you garden on clay, as I do, hire a stonemason who knows to pour a concrete base beneath the path to keep it from moving as the clay expands and contracts. To my dismay, the stonemason I hired for this project, despite his assurances about working with clay soil and several good references, neglected to lay a solid foundation, and I deal with cracked and dislodged mortar to this day.

4. In that vein, speak up if you see a job being done incorrectly by a contractor. I didn’t during the construction of this path, even though I suspected the masons weren’t excavating deeply enough to lay a solid base. I hesitated to say anything, thinking to myself that they were the professionals and surely knew what they were doing. Well, they didn’t. I’ve since gotten over the shy, Southern-girl politeness, and I’ll say something and demand a fix if I see a project being done incorrectly. After all, it’s your money, and you deserve to have a job done correctly, but you have to make sure that happens.

So much for the soapbox lecture about assertiveness. I look forward to seeing what kinds of paths other garden bloggers post about. If you don’t keep a blog but would like to participate, just leave a comment at Gardening Gone Wild and tell Nancy about your favorite path or path problem.

11 Responses

  1. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Your front garden path is wonderful. This is an issue that needs to be addressed in our garden too. I just don’t seem to make myself get out in the front gardnen much and it is the part of the garden that is seen the most. Your path is an inspiration to move in that direction. Maybe I will get it done this winter/spring.

    Lisa, I bet you’ll find yourself using your front garden more when you have a good path that leads you into it, or, even better, a little sitting area out there. Good luck with your path, and have fun! —Pam

  2. Nan Ondra says:

    Oh, Pam–the space you’ve created is lovely on so many levels. The proportions are perfect, and you obviously took great care choosing the colors of the path and fence to tie them in with your house. Your suggestion of running a pipe underneath the path to allow for possible future wiring is something I’d have never thought of. One question: Has your front garden inspired any of your neighbors to do something similar?

    Thanks, Nan. I worked hard to get the proportions right. Has my front garden inspired similar gardens in the neighborhood? Not that I can tell. There are many front-yard gardens in the ‘hood, some quite nice looking: extended foundation plantings and streetside beds filled with iris and native perennials. But let’s face it—most people are happy with an easy-care lawn and foundation shrubs. That’s OK. Not everyone has to love gardening, and gardens often require a good deal of work. Of course, if you love to garden, that “work” is really quite fun, isn’t it? —Pam

  3. Layanee says:

    Unique, inviting, and well proportioned! I love that suggesting about the PVC pipe for electrical wires. Great idea! Live and learn! Thanks Pam and the one feature that I really love is the mexican beach pebbles under your jar!

    Thanks, Layanee. The pebbles, as you probably know, are a recent addition I’ve been trying out, and I didn’t mention them in this post. But thanks for the compliment about them. —Pam

  4. Phillip says:

    I love that pathway and your entry garden. I’m getting ready to redo a stone pathway in my garden and I still have your previous post in mind for pointers.

    Winter is the time for these stone-moving projects, isn’t it, Phillip? Good luck with your new path. I look forward to pics. —Pam

  5. Just lovely! I recently moved and now have to start again with all of my pathways. But maybe I can post about some of the paths from the other house! A ha! ~Angela :-)

    I bet you had some beauties at the old house. I can’t wait to see a post about them. —Pam

  6. What a great article about the pathway, Pam, and it’s just as lovely in real life as in the photos. You not only were wise to plan ahead with the pipe underneath – now that you’ve pointed it out, using the large central jar of nolina to blur the street view was a wonderful idea.

    But it’s disappointing to know that even investigation and expense couldn’t save you from problems with the way the path was constructed.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    Thanks for the nice words, Annie. I do love this path, despite my disappointment with its foundation and subsequent mortar-crumbling problems. I shared the downside so that others can learn from my mistakes. —Pam

  7. Fran Sorin says:


    What a magnificent design!! Where did you come up with that idea? I also love the materials that you used and think using the stone work on the front curb area does add a welcoming site. It’s also incredibly helpful to see the garden
    immediately after you planted it up and today. To me, the entire feel of this garden is welcoming and divine.
    I love, love it!! Fran

    Thank you, Fran. The idea evolved on paper as a way to make the wide, shallow front yard live larger. I do hope it feels welcoming. That’s been my goal from day one. —Pam

  8. Fascinating seeing the photos of your gardens development. I think I’d find it very difficult to come up with an entire plan from scratch. My yard is so old that I’ve mostly settled for replacing what’s died and filling in among established growth.

    Also, I like your “lessons learned” list. I certainly suffered from issue number 4 with my last contractor. I wanted to believe that he was the expert, that he knew what he was doing, that he would somehow pull a solution out of his hat. Sadly, I discovered I was wrong on all counts.

    It’s harder to come with an entire plan when you’re working around existing features you want to keep. Mine was easier in that it was designed completely from scratch. —Pam

  9. Carol says:

    Pam… I enjoyed the story of your path and the tips. I’ve often thought that perhaps I should lay out some paths in my backyard and then add the gardens around those paths, rather than create the garden beds first.

    Carol at May Dreams Gardens

    I think most gardeners put in plants first because that’s the fun part, and it’s usually less expensive. Over time they see the need for paths and add them later. In making designs for others, which often involves a redesign of existing landscaping, I start with a sketch of necessary paths and patios. Then I draw in the planting areas. Afterward, I may tweak the hardscaping design, but I like having it there first to create structure and a sense of movement in the garden. —Pam

  10. Nice, looks like most of the plants require little water too. Even better. I just hope the use of Cypress Mulch has stopped.

    Jeffrey, I didn’t have any idea what you were talking about with the cypress mulch comment. I popped by your site and will read more later, but suffice it to say I wasn’t aware that cypress mulch is considered a bad thing. There are no issues with hardwood mulch, I hope. —Pam

  11. […] along the foundation. By the summer of 2001 I’d hired out the fence installation and the stonework, given away the little red oak, and set to work killing the grass and bringing in several inches of […]