Pathways In My Backyard

– Posted in: Garden Design

Thanks to Nan’s November Design Workshop on pathways, I am compelled to get this final post up before the end of November. Earlier in the month, I did a post on my front garden pathway: this one will focus on a significant walkway that was created in the backyard of my garden, which literally transformed the way that I was able to garden.

Upon moving into my new home, I realized that my backyard consisted of a very steep hill with about 8 feet between the back door and where the hill sat. The only good news about the property was that a mature maple tree was perched on the hill with another one situated on the rear right side edge of the lot (where the land was flat). Mind you, we paid a premium of a few thousand dollars to even get a property that had some trees on it (can you believe it?). It quickly became apparent that retaining walls were desperately needed: otherwise our house would be hit with a mud slide if there was torrential rainstorm.

On a rather limited budget, a pressure-treated retaining wall was built. From the beginning, I knew that this wall, although a decent retaining wall, did not solve my pathway conundrum. I was still left with a narrow passageway straight across the backyard. The only difference was that a set of steps was built that led up to a carved-out second level which we used as an entertaining, eating and b-b-q area. But beyond that one respite, no pathways existed.

I gardened on that steep hill for several years and was able to learn some rudiments about perennials and shrubs and dare I say, hill gardening (which to this day I would hardly call my favorite type of gardening). I also was inspired to create my own limited interpretation of Monticello’s vegetable garden on the other side of the eating area. Access to this area was limited and awkward, which for a vegetable garden is a real detriment.

After several years of frustration (which I mentioned in an earlier post and will not bore you with it again), I came to the realization that I had to make some drastic changes in the backyard, and that these changes had to include “common sense” pathways that linked one area of the garden to the next. After close to a year of interviewing landscape architects and not being pleased with any of their ideas or solutions, I spent the better part of the winter sitting at my kitchen table with a cup of tea, contemplating, dreaming and imagining. For months, I fiddled around with sketching out several different plans, always with the notion that the pathways needed to be the initial element done correctly in order for the garden to have a sense of flow.

Finally, I had an ‘a-ha’ moment when I realized that there was a very simple solution to my pathway conundrum. It was an expensive solution but I was determined to see it through. The plan was to build two stone retaining walls that would divide the garden into three different levels. The upper retaining wall would be an extremely tall one, up to 9 feet in certain areas. The construction of these walls actually dictated the layout of the pathways. The lower level, consisted of a large flagstone patio which led to a cutting/vegetable garden (with a path of only 3 feet wide) with a natural path that brought one up to the second level (if one chose not to use the two sets of stairs constructed at different intervals along the length of the lower wall).

Because I was having some renovations done on the interior of my home at the same time, I had my architect do the drawings, got them approved by the township, and hired an excellent mason. In spite of my trepidation, I moved forward with the building of the walls. I loved going to the quarries and picking out the mix of stones to be used in order to give the wall an aged feeling, similar to what I had seen numerous times in England and Ireland. Once the construction started, bulldozers and all, and I saw how much dirt was removed, I experienced a sense of relief and excitement! Finally, I was going to have the property shaped as it was meant to be in order to do some serious, efficient, and esthetically-pleasing gardening.

There was never any doubt that the garden sandwiched between the two walls needed to be designed geometrically, with a long perspective and rows of trees flanking one end of the walkway. Although the width of the garden beds was limited, I still chose to go with a wider path (6 feet). I am of the firm belief that wider pathways add an element of openness and “largeness” to a garden. Initially I considered using gravel for the paths but then decided against it, opting for grass.

Once the path and garden beds were laid out and 8 Tilia cordata ‘Greenspire’ planted on either side of the path at one end of the garden, I knew that I had made some good decisions. I selected 6 Cotinus coggyria ‘Purpureus’ towards the otherside of the garden along with 4 square-shaped trellises, to add some more structure and vertical elements to the garden beds.

The types of perennials, semi-hardy plants, and annuals that I use in this garden change from year to year. Outside of a few favorites, such as Heuchera ‘Palace Purple’, a smattering of euphorbias, some Asiatic lilies, spring-blooming bulbs, and climbing roses, I rarely know in advance what I will be planting in the coming year. The great “bones” of this section of my garden allow me the freedom to be whimsical, playful and a bit frivolous with seasonal plantings.

Now that I’ve shared my story of how the pathways led the brigade in designing my garden, I’d love to hear from all of you. I’ve been reading all of the wonderful posts of those of you who have responded to Nan’s stories on the pathways in her two gardens. But let’s see if we can explore this subject a bit more for the next few days.

Can some of you offer different perspectives on how creating the paths in your garden affected the outcome of your garden design and even the plants that you select for your garden? If someone waved a wand and told you that you could re-create your garden paths regardless of the price, what would you do? What materials have you found to be most effective, economical and/or beautiful for garden paths? Do you feel that the paths should blend in and take a second seat to the garden beds so that they can be the stars of the garden? Or do you think that garden paths can be outstanding in their own right and still not detract from the rest of the garden design? Do share with us all of your dreams, ideas and mistakes (of which I’ve made plenty) before we leave this subject at the end of the month and Nan bestows upon us another garden conundrum for the upcoming month.

Fran Sorin
The 10th Anniversary Edition of Fran's classic book, Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening, has recently been published. Updated with a new foreword by the renowned author, Larry Dossey, M.D., it has dozens of endorsements from renowned spiritual, gardening, and personal development authors and experts in their fields. A graduate of the University of Chicago with Honors in Psychology and One Spirit Interfaith Seminary, Fran is a renowned gardening expert, passionate gardener, deep ecologist, inspirational speaker, ordained interfaith minister, soul tending coach, and CBS Radio news contributor. See less Google+ | LinkedIn | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest

[nrelate-related]

Comments on this entry are closed.

Angela (Cottage Magpie) November 26, 2007, 5:02 pm

I have just moved and am in the position of making these decisions at the outset. I think if money were no object, I would have my entry pathway and a couple of the other significant pathways in flagstone, with the remainder of the paths with the sleeper & gravel method that Nancy has described. NOT having that budget, however, I’ll probably go with a mix of plain gravel in some areas and shredded bark in others. But I’m still thinking about it!
~Angela :-)

Lisa at Greenbow November 26, 2007, 5:49 pm

Wow what an undertaking. The results of the paths and different levels in your garden are marvelous. I would love to have paths made of brick. Not your everyday herringbone pattern but a pattern using different colors and sizes of brick in an intricate pattern. Different patterns for various parts of the garden. I call this a ‘lottery item’ . Dream, dream…..

Carol in the Northwest November 26, 2007, 7:41 pm

I love the paths and open space that you have created in your yard. I like the idea of natural materials for creating walkways, like gravel, grass and bricks, but have problems with the weeds and moss popping up. It seems like constant supervision of pulling or spraying with vinegar to keep them clear. Perhaps I need to use flagstone or bricks with cement between. What do you think?

Pam/Digging November 26, 2007, 8:48 pm

What a fantastic solution for your narrow, sloping garden, Fran. Your wall looks beautiful and must be the prize of your garden.

If money were no object in my garden, I’d replace the economical and serviceable decomposed-granite paths in my back garden with mortared limestone flagstone. I’d also love to have a swirling mosaic stone path or patio design somewhere.

meems November 26, 2007, 11:24 pm

i enjoyed this post and your photos. your 3 level solution is gorgeous and impressive. the stones are beautiful and one of my favorite ways to enhance a garden area… especially if cost were not an issue. i have some natural pathways as well as flagstone & brick pathways to encourage meandering throughout my garden. i prefer any path to blend in with whatever is planted. in florida all rocks and stones are premium dollar since they are all shipped to us. although if money were not an issue i would choose to design some walls and create some levels into my ordinarily flat little piece of earth.

Sylvia, Dorset UK November 27, 2007, 5:03 am

I do like grass paths but find cutting the edge a chore. My dream would be to have brick mowing strips each side of a grass path. Though this would reduce the work I think the brick-grass edge would need re-cutting occasionally but better than edging every week.

carolyngail November 27, 2007, 12:24 pm

Love what you did with the stone walls and terracing. I know that bluestone is all the rage now and I do a lot of it as a garden designer but I’m just not crazy about it. I tend to like the natural earthy browns and creams.

I, too, admire the stone walls and terraces of England and Ireland and your walls look like they’d be a part of that landscape.

Mr. McGregor's Daughter November 27, 2007, 4:15 pm

If money were no object, I’d love to have built a retaining wall like yours. It is lovely! While grass paths look nice, I don’t think I could ever have them, as they’d be worn down and churned to mud in no time. If I could take out the whole garden & start again, I think I might like a labrynth with vignettes at every turn. For paving material in the labrynth, I’d like brick pavers, which would get a mossy effect going in there. Ah, to dream…

Benjamin November 27, 2007, 5:06 pm

If money were no object… so true. I wanted to put at least one terrace in my little space along the back fence (yours is stunning!), and also have a dry creek bed that would fill during the few heavy rains we get per year, and also I think at least one sitting area with some artistically-designed slate pavers would be great. That said, it’s interesting you see a wider path makes the garden feel larger. Really? I’m trying to create as narrow a space as possible in my long entrance way–butting shrubs up right against the stone steppers–then have the field of vision expand open once the viewer gets to the arbor. I suppose here low plants are a priority, and to have creeping sedum and snow in summer and the like wind around beneath my feet, with more distant and architectural plants pulling you through the paths. I already spent too much on the steppers, and the 20 cubic yards of mulch I’ve discovered zaps nitrogen from the soil.

mss @ Zanthan Gardens November 27, 2007, 5:52 pm

I’m glad you included the photo of the excavation. That’s what would stop me. I couldn’t bear bulldozers in my back yard scraping away all the dirt I’ve spent years cultivating.

I would like terraces as I live on a slope, but…

fsorin November 28, 2007, 12:30 pm

Angela-

How lucky for you that you get to start ‘fresh’ in creating your garden. If you can navigate your way through creating a great ‘flow’ via the pathways, the materials you end up using will seem much less critical. Nan has shown you some good examples of moderately priced pathways that are stunning. Good luck and keep us posted! Fran

fsorin November 28, 2007, 12:33 pm

Lisa-

Thanks for your kind words. I can totally understand why you would like to use brick for pathways. I would love to find some antique or older bricks to add an ‘aged’ look to some of my pathways. You might want to check out the book ‘Gardening At Sissinghurst’ by Tony Lord. There are great examples of a variety of pathways done with hard materials and some on a very limited budget! Fran

fsorin November 28, 2007, 12:38 pm

Carol,

I do understand your dilemma with some of the ‘natural’ pathways and weeds. One way to circumvent the problem is to lay down landscaping cloth or plastic (I forgot exactly what it’s called) prior to laying down the gravel or mulch. That should help abate the weeds.

My fountain area is done in flagstone set in sand as is my front walkway (both for budgetary reasons). I happen to love the look of plants ‘self seeding’ in paths, etc. It feels very romantic and gives an air of ‘abundance’ and softness to pathways. But you are correct in saying that the maintenance that goes with them can be a bit trying. If your like me, you just get down on all 4s and weed in between the flagstone. I am not a super tidy gardener so having some weeds sprout up doesn’t bother me until it really gets out of hand. I think it’s a personal decision. Let me know what you decide! Fran

fsorin November 28, 2007, 12:41 pm

Sylvia-
Agreed that the brick edged paths would be less maintenance and I think that the brick ‘edging’ could add prove to be beautiful as well. Fran

fsorin November 28, 2007, 12:46 pm

Pam,

Having seen photos of your garden, I know that you don’t lack in creativity and design ability. I do love the mortared limestone flagstone: it is elegant. As far as a mosaic walkway, I have seen ‘how to’ stories on gardeners who have actually designed and built their own. I have dreams of doing a mosaic designed patio under the pergola off the side of my house. I tell myself that one day I will finally get the courage and time to take this undertaking on. Perhaps we can cheer each other on!! Fran

fsorin November 28, 2007, 12:50 pm

Meems,

Good to receive your post!

It sounds like you have an interesting garden that allows the space for a variety of materials. Mine is such an intense jam packed area that I have been careful not to add more ‘hard’ materials than what I already have with the stonewalls and flagstone patio.

What you said about having pathways blend in with the garden is an important issue. Or said another way, if you decide on certain materials for your pathway, they could dictate what type of plantings you might choose to do.

And as far as costs of hard materials, I know that I wouldn’t be able to afford today what I did several years. Any type of stones is extraordinarily expensive today!! Thanks for your thoughts! Fran

fsorin November 29, 2007, 6:49 am

Mr. McGregor’s Daughter,

Hmmmm…labyrinths…..what a dreamy idea….and with vignettes at every corner.
I wonder if other people would be as curious as I to learn more about labyrinths. I love them but they feel somewhat mysterious to me. Would you consider doing a post on them? Great thoughts…thank you! Fran

fsorin November 29, 2007, 7:11 am

Benjamin-
I love the idea of the dry stone bed…not only for the design of it but because you’re implementing sustainability concepts. Would also be curious to hear more about the artistically designed slate pavers.

As far as my belief that wider paths makes a garden appear larger, let me clarify. To my eye, when I walk into a garden with wider paths and I can see beyond in the expanse, I feel like the garden could go on and on forever, metaphorically like being in New Mexico or Arizona. Check out some of Christopher Lloyd’s photos from his garden at Great Dixter. It’s a good example of wide paths or Hidcote’s Red Garden (which in fact leads to an expansive view beyond….great design principles used here).

ON THE OTHER HAND, I think that narrow pathways that lead the visitor to an open expanse beyond offer a different perspective. If the plantings are done well, for me it is one of mystery and can compell the visitor to want to see what’s beyond. Once the visitor does reach a vignette, a respite or an open expanse, it is the ‘aha’ moment where one’s emotions are overtaken by the beauty of the design and a feeling of ‘aha’….so that’s what this design is all about. Does that make sense to you?? Fran

fsorin November 29, 2007, 7:15 am

mss@ZanthanGardens-

Am glad that the photo of the excavation in my backyard helped to verify that doing this type of radical landscaping is not for you. Sometimes when we see photos of others gardens, it makes us appreciate what we have cultivated in our own backyard. Thanks for your comments! Fran

Robin (Bumblebee) November 29, 2007, 7:43 am

Your pathways are fabulous. It must have taken considerable work to manage all of that. As for me, I am still pondering the overall plan. I have pockets of what I think are very beautiful garden areas–including the Colonial kitchen garden–but I need some of these types of paths!

–Robin (Bumblebee)

carolyngail November 29, 2007, 9:13 pm

Me, again. I did a post today on how a path led me down the path to a career in garden design.

I think it’s great that you are conducting workshops on various subjects. This is sure to be helpful.

Rose November 30, 2007, 1:58 am

I read your article in USA Weekend recently, and just wanted to express thanks to you for being up the subject of garden blogs. I know I have certainly enjoyed discovering garden blogs, and I’m sure other people will too. Please keep up the good work! :)

fsorin November 30, 2007, 5:29 am

Carolyngail,

I went over to your blog to see what you wrote about. Thanks for sharing about how you began designing your garden. Adding the pergola first was a good move. We’re glad that you ‘re enjoying the workshops. Fran

fsorin November 30, 2007, 8:58 am

Rose-

Thanks for your post. We at GGW are really excited about having become involved in the world of garden blogging.
We are enjoying the interaction with other keen gardeners throughout the world.
Please come back and visit again
Fran

margaret June 5, 2010, 4:09 pm

Its good to see all the information but I’m wanting to make just a straight pathway up to back door out of dirt and gravel what can be added to the dirt to create a hard surface and to keep weeds out of a long pathway.