On the Right Path(s) – Part 2

– Posted in: Garden Design

Front garden middle path Sept 9 07In Part 1 of this post, I talked about some of the paths in my old garden. It’s been seven years since I left there, and six years since I started gardening here, and during those years, I’ve put a good bit of thought and work into the paths through this space. I’ve already written about the genesis of the timber-and-gravel path here, so I won’t bore you with that again, except to explain that it’s the main route from the front of the house to the back. As I thought about the space between that path and the outlying post-and-rail fence, it seemed natural to divide the center into a four-square pattern (or in this case, two squares and two sort-of-rectangles), with straight borders along the fencing.

Front garden beds and paths staked out early May 03I worked out the proportions with stakes and string, allowing a full 6 feet of width for the main (middle) path, and 5 feet for other sections. This brings me to the most important thing I’ve learned about paths: It’s pretty much impossible to make them too wide. They looked appalling wide at first (and a big waste of potential gardening space, as well), but plants inevitably expand into that “free” space, and it doesn’t take long for them to take over even an extra-wide path if you let them.

Breaking with tradition, I decided to build these paths before the beds. Putting a lot of money into permanent paving wasn’t an option at the time, so I decided to use wood chips, dumped for free by a tree-trimming crew working nearby. Mom and I covered the mostly bare soil with layers of newspaper or cardboard–or both, in some areas–and then covered that with a few inches of wood chips. Over the last few years, we’ve had to add more papers and more mulch (in the form of bulk-delivered double-shredded bark) a few times to smother the weeds and spruce things up.

Front garden path layout early May 03 Front garden overview early June 06

I suppose that if I added up the time and money I’ve spent on the mulch, I’d regret not investing in more-permanent pathways at the very beginning. Another drawback is that the mulch layer is ideal for the germination of many seeds, so the paths require weeding several times during the growing season. But on the plus side, the mulch has a soft, springy feel underfoot, and the natural color makes a pleasing setting for the plants growing next to it. So on the whole, I’m happy with it.

Front garden path layout early May 03 Front garden overview early June 06

Now that the areas inside the post-and-rail fence are pretty much established, I’m starting to develop spaces further out. Right now, most of them are single borders with the fence on one side and mown grass on the other, so paths there aren’t an issue yet. In what I call the Arc Borders, though, the planting area is wide enough to require some sort of access path, and I ended up leaving the path in grass for lack of time and budget for anything else. It’s functional, I guess, and it looks pretty, but oh, what a headache from a maintenance standpoint. Besides all the mowing, it requires tedious edging, too—not to make it look tidy so much as to keep the grass from creeping into the beds and mingling with the perennials. As soon as may be, this grass path will be history. But for now, I have to admit that I like looking at it, in pictures at least. Below are a few shots of the grass access path at different times this summer and fall.

Arc border access path July 22 07

Arc border access path Aug 15 07 Arc border access path Sept 21 07

Too close for comfort? Side path early Aug 05And now, I promise I’m almost done rambling on about garden paths. Before I finish, though, I’d appreciate your input on something: Does it really bother you when plants sprawl into paths? I enjoy having them close enough to see, smell, and touch, so I tend to plant close to the edges of my paths, and I have no problem stepping over trailing shoots or lifting aside leaning stems. I’ve noticed, though, that many visitors don’t take kindly to getting up close and personal with bee-laden blossoms and scratchy grasses. Generally, I figure it’s their problem—if they’d wear proper footwear, long pants, and long sleeves instead of sandals, shorts, and t-shirts, they wouldn’t have to worry so much about getting stung, scratched, or stained. But maybe I’m being unreasonable? I suspect I am, and that I should make more of an effort to trim things back when I know visitors are coming. Or, perhaps I could just post an “Enter at Your Own Risk” sign at the gate?

Nancy J. Ondra
Nan gardens on 4 acres in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In the firm belief that every garden ought to have a pretentious-sounding (or at least pretentious-looking) name, she refers to her home grounds as "Hayefield." There, she experiments with a wide variety of plants and planting styles, from cottage gardens and color-based borders to managed meadows, naturalistic plantings, and veggies--all under the watchful eyes of her two pet alpacas, Daniel and Duncan.
Nancy J. Ondra

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Kathy November 24, 2007, 4:41 pm

People don’t like nature anymore, have you noticed that? Parks are almost like nature museums, and a lot of people feel there’s something wrong if the natural world isn’t tamed outside of those museums.

Still, while I would always wear long pants and proper footwear while working in the garden, it’s precisely when I’m “goin’ visitin’” that I allow myself the luxury of shorts and sandals–unless I’ve been told ahead of time that a hike was part of the day’s activities. So I have a bit of sympathy for your visitors.

Isn’t there room for compromise? I hate the thought of trimming back plants for the sake of a brief visit.

Nancy J. Ondra November 24, 2007, 4:59 pm

You’re right, of course, Kathy–compromise is certainly an option. One of my more recent strategies is sticking mostly with foliage plants right next to the paths (though more to keep the visitors from bothering the insects than the other way around). I’m terrible at remembering to stake taller stuff, but I do cut things back to try to minimize leaning. And if all else fails, I’ll prop them up with Y-stakes or ornaments. Most importantly, an attitude adjustment for me is in order: If others are kind enough to visit, I should be welcoming enough to make the garden a pleasant experience, rather than handing out machetes and wishing them luck.

mss @ Zanthan Gardens November 24, 2007, 6:10 pm

I think I have more of a “love me, love my garden” approach. Or maybe the kind of people who visit my garden are the kind of people who love bees and butterflies and texture and scent. I can’t imagine having friends who don’t get dirt.

Nancy J. Ondra November 24, 2007, 6:42 pm

Good point, mss, it does depend on the visitors. Gardening friends aren’t likely to be bothered by the leaners. It’s the ones who profess to “like flowers” but don’t really want to touch them that you have to watch out for!

Benjamin November 24, 2007, 8:18 pm

Plants spilling over into paths are IDEAL; they smooth the edges of our linear paths (all paths are linear, even ones with stone steppers because they are man-made artificial). I enjoy touching my plants, and bees don’t scare me as much as they used to, but that’s because I did some research on them for an essay and because I know how important they are to me and my world, AND honeybees in particular are mightily sick right now.

But really, the people you want in the garden will be the ones who don’t mind the stings and scratches. The others are the ones you want to deter anyway, so I say plant as much monarda and rosa as you can along the paths to piss those people off. Boy, they are getting me so angry right now. THOSE people.

Hey, what’s that shrub to the right in pic #7? Is it that that yellow ninebark?

Nancy J. Ondra November 24, 2007, 9:29 pm

Okaaay, Benjamin–maybe we’ll talk about “Just Go Away” gardens in a future GBDW. I can see it now: really uneven, difficult-to-traverse paths, lots of spiny and foul-smelling plants, and barbed-wire fencing. It’ll send just the right message to THOSE people.

On a more benign note, the yellow-leaved shrub is golden elderberry (Sambucus nigra ‘Aurea’). A lovely, easy-to-grow shrub.

Lisa at Greenbow November 24, 2007, 9:48 pm

I say let ‘em sprawl if you like it. As long as you can get through let em grow. I don’t mind brushing against plants with my legs I just don’t like to get poked in the head especially around the face. If you have sprawlers they can be “trimmed” with foot traffic. I am definitely in the live and let grow group.

jodi November 24, 2007, 10:27 pm

I’m with the sprawling set. My garden is a place that celebrates life, including wildlife–in some cases, that means ‘weeds’–and doesn’t have too many manicured aspirations. For just that reason I declined to let one garden club come here because I know they’re of the perfectly pruned and primped set…and would be scandalized by the freerange feeling of my garden.
Your plantings and your paths are an inspiration to me, though–giving me ideas on what I could do here that would add some cohesion but still be exuberant.

Kim November 25, 2007, 1:03 am

I like both–sprawlers to spoil/highlight the neatness of the edge, and vice-versa! My feelings are especially strong when hardscaping is involved… I admit that I LOVE to obliterate a long, harde edge of cement driveway with some plants spilling into it.

There’s an abundance to spillers. Something that thumbs its nose at everyone and says, “This is a garden, and it cannot be fully contained. So THERE!”

Karen Arms November 25, 2007, 8:40 am

You are so right that a path can never be too wide. I have just finished tearing out a path I built some years ago out of landscape fabric and wood chips.

Near it I planted Helianthus angustifolius, which I rescued from a roadside near Okefenokee Swamp. In a SE Georgia garden, that is the world’s most invasive plant. The sprawling 8′ sunflowers are gorgeous in October, but the path got narrower and narrower, and finally the Helianthus were coming up in the middle of the path and then the other side of it.

I transplanted some of the Helianthus to the wild area, where it can do its thing–and where I am having a tough time getting it established! But it’s going to take years to finally eradicate it from where the path used to be!

Pam/Digging November 25, 2007, 9:42 am

I enjoyed learning about the genesis of your current garden’s paths. Like you, it took a second garden for me to create paths *before* the garden, and it worked out wonderfully. Your new grass paths are romantic and charming. It’s too bad that they require endless trimming.

I tend to hold with the spillers. However, I do keep my main path, which is wider anyway, free and clear. But the side paths are dominated by leaners and spillers, requiring visitors to brush through them. Even my kids don’t like these very much, I’m afraid, and they dart through at high speed to avoid the “bees” that they fear are lurking in the flowers.

Nancy J. Ondra November 25, 2007, 10:31 am

Yep, it was a loaded question to ask this bunch, and you didn’t fail me: As far as gardeners are concerned, the plants mostly take precedence over the people. Lisa, your comments offered an interesting insight for possible compromise, though: letting the plants sprawl at ground level but keeping taller blooms away from face level, at least along main paths, as Pam suggests. Kim, your comments about the exuberance of “spillers” (a much nicer word than “sprawlers”), made me laugh. I’d say they are a perfect reflection of your gardening style!

Jodi: You touched on the exact source of my dilemma about this issue. I get asked to open the garden a couple of times a year, and I love having certifiable plant nerds visit. But then there are groups where some of the members are real gardeners and some aren’t, and one can’t very well screen them before letting them in, though I wish that were possible. My “favorite” memory of one of my first tours was the very first visitor of the day, who took barely three minutes to walk through, then asked if I deliberately left weeds in my garden. And yeah, I do, actually, but that was not the kind of response I was hoping for. I’ve come up with all kinds of snappy retorts since then, but sadly, I was too stunned at the time to respond.

And Karen, thanks for stopping by and adding your comments. I love walking through paths where the plants are taller than I am, so your garden sounds just fine to me. But I do understand there’s a point where some control may be necessary!

Layanee November 26, 2007, 10:01 am

Here I am late to the table but I love your sprawling paths! As long as there is still a bit of area for walking and the path is somewhat defined, I think it is a very pleasant stroll indeed! After all, it is about the journey not the destination! Who said that? I have one plant that I do trim, Molinia as it bends over the path at eye height! Even I don’t like that! Great pictures and when can we come and see your garden? LOL :)

Nancy J. Ondra November 26, 2007, 10:11 am

Hey, Layanee. I too have a Molinia right next to a path, and I’m thinking of moving it for the same reason. I enjoyed the leaning stems for the first year or two, but it really needs a bigger space now. As far as seeing my garden, you’ve already seen the best parts here, I think!