Pathways are an important part of any garden. They get you from here to there, and separate areas of the garden. But their value is not necessarily just in their physical function. Pathways play an important psychological role in the garden, and so it’s important to choose the right material and layout, and to really think about what the path is supposed to accomplish.
Let’s talk about a few examples.
Example #1: Paths that slow you down. This is part of my garden. It’s a terraced area on a very steep hillside, and when we had the terracing done, it took a long time to figure out how I wanted the layout to be. You enter the garden between the two round boxwoods on the right. From this top layer, there are two ways of getting to the bottom layer- by going down the hill in front of the stump-and-stone table in the center back, or down some steps that you can see the beginning of in the bottom left hand corner.
Without the garden beds, the impulse was to enter the garden and turn immediately towards the steps on the left, without paying attention to the rest of the garden. At the bottom of the steps was a second terrace, an eight foot strip that followed the upper contour, and another set of steps that lead into the woods. The flow of the space basically spit you out of the garden before you had even had a chance to look around.
I wanted to change that. I wanted there to be no direct way to get anywhere in the garden quickly, so that I (a rather impatient person by nature) or a visitor, would have to slow down and enjoy the garden which I was about to put a lot of effort into. So I created the semi-labyrinth that you see in the picture. There are now many ways to get from point a to point b, but none are direct, so you get to spend some time being present and enjoying the space.
The pea stone was also a deliberate choice. I will admit that part of the reason that I chose it was because the driveway in front of my grandparents’ house was covered in pea stone, and the crunching noise that a car or feet would make has a nostalgic aspect for me. But I also chose it because it is soft, and gives underfoot, and adds to the feeling of slowing down. Pea stone can be a pain and isn’t for everyone, but in this circumstance, given what I wanted to accomplish and my fondness for it, it was perfect. And it serves the purpose well.
Example #2: Paths that speed you up. This is a lovely path. It curves out of sight and adds interest and mystery to the garden. But it is not built for wanderers. The narrowness of it combines with the bricks running the long way psychologically hurry you up. While you are meant to enjoy what is on either side, you aren’t encouraged to linger. If I had to guess, it is a garden that is open to the public, and is designed to politely move people along. Imagine, for a moment, that the bricks went horizontally across the path. Would you walk more slowly?
Example #3: Natural, but formal pathways. I love this picture. The garden is made up of great swirling drifts of plants in organic sweeps, but is manicured and formal at the same time. Choosing a style of pathway to fit those somewhat conflicting criteria could be tricky, but in this case, the designer has done it perfectly. There are two paths here, and they need to be wide enough to fit the space but inconspicuous enough so as not to take over. These well shaped pieces of wood, arranged in pairs into graceful curves while allowing grass to grow in between accomplish all that.
Example #4: Natural but informal paths. This pathway is a great example of a side path that would belong in the woods, or be the “road less travelled”. Although its narrowness might suggest that it would make you go more quickly, the natural stepping stones do the reverse, as you would probably be keeping half an eye on the ground to make sure you had your footing. This pathway makes me think of a Japanese designer that I read about once but whose name I have unfortunately forgotten. But I have never forgotten the trick that he used to employ. He liked to design his gardens with stepping stones like these, and he liked curving paths with something special like a view or a specimen tree just out of sight around the corner. Then, he would make sure that the stepping stone that you would step on just before going around the corner and seeing that special something was a little wobbly. You would tread on it, wobble, and look down to check your footing. As you took your next step, and rounded the corner, your head would come up again and you would get a special surprise. Manipulative, yes, but magical all the same.
And it goes on and on. Think about it next time you walk on a path. How does it make you feel? Does it affect the way you walk on it? What would you change if you could?