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Design ideas for a garden path

There are lots of different types of garden paths. Here you'll find design inspiration and expert advice on what to consider when choosing materials for a pathway in your garden.

Unless you garden on a very small – very crowded – balcony, you will undoubtedly find yourself in possession of a garden path. From ambling routes mown into grass to ramrod-straight thoroughfares, paths can be either practical or divertingly scenic – or sometimes both. We all have them: they lead us to and from doors, washing lines and compost heaps. They give us hard surfaces in wet weather and grassy paths along which we can wander barefoot on hot June afternoons. Without them, we would be crashing through shrubberies and tripping over things.

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Paving interplanted with low growing perennials
Rectangular paving slabs have been interplanted with low-growing perennials and edged with sage and other herbs to add colour, texture and scent to the pathway.

In essence, garden paths fall into two categories: the practical and the diverting. The practical paths are the ones that take you where you want to go in the shortest time possible. For example, when you return home tired and laden down with children/shopping/the cares of the world, you really need the shortest distance between you and a gin and tonic: this is not the time for the scenic route. Equally, when it starts raining and you have washing outside, speed is essential, and a diversion via the shrubbery would quickly become annoying.

From ambling routes mown into grass to ramrod-straight thoroughfares, paths can be either practical or divertingly scenic - or sometimes both.
Garden designer, James Alexander-Sinclair

So before laying down a path in your garden, take a step back and consider why you’re putting the path there in the first place. Then, look a little outside the box and allow yourself to widen the possibility what roles that path could take, and how it could work in harmony with the rest of your design. Below are some examples of different types of garden path.

Types of garden pathways

Paths for a purpose

Ornamental main pathway through a garden
This path is wide and clearly directs you from A to B through the garden. The round window in the house creates a focal point.

You often see lines through borders at shopping centres or across lawns where the soil is compacted or the grass worn away. These are desire lines – the way that people want to walk to get to their destination rather than using the pretty pathways that have been designed for the purpose. Never fight against desire lines, or you will lose. Maybe you have a deep border with a hedge at the back – you need a path in order to access the hedge for cutting without trampling all over your precious plants. All this may seem a bit dull, but it is really important – without such byways your garden will not work properly.

The diverting path

Brick pathway through a vegetable garden
Reclaimed brick has been used to make a curved path that meanders through a herbs and other kitchen plants.

Conversely, the diverting paths are much more exciting. These are ones along which you wander hand in hand with your beloved, paths that entice you towards a shaded bench or summerhouse. These paths can also be used as a visual ‘come hither’ – a straight path that leads you directly to a focal point, be it a sculpture, a building, a view or a tree. This is usually quite a formal and straightforward arrangement – what you see is what you get. However, a curved path is much more seductive, especially one that disappears around a corner to arrive at… a shaded bench? A tree? A view? Who knows what? Remember, however, that it needs to lead somewhere good if disappointment is to be avoided.

The troublesome path

I have a troublesome path in my own garden: it guides you through emerging perennials, established trees and past a pond. So far, so delightful. But the problems arise when it gives you no choice but to wander into the composting and general storage-of-junk department at the end of the garden. We need a path to this area, but it cannot be part of the main pathway network as not every visitor will find my rubbish that captivating.

The selfish path

If I may digress for just a moment, while it is important to think of visitors to your garden, it is far more important to think of yourself, as you will walk these paths much more often than your mother or the vicar. They need to make you happy every time you wander off for a quick pootle round the garden.

Materials

Gravel pathway
Gravel goes well with lots of garden designs. It’s also cheap and easy to lay.

There are so many options: paving, gravel, bark, bricks, grass, timber, chamomile – pretty much anything. I made a wonderful path out of steel washers a few years ago: it clinked when you walked on it, as if you were wearing spurs.

The important thing is that you keep it simple and do not mix up your materials too much. If it is a path that will be used all year round, it needs to have a hard surface that drains efficiently – you don’t want to get muddy shoes ’twixt front door and car. More than anything, I tend to use gravel (especially in country gardens), as it goes well with most paving stones and is cheap and easy to lay. Make sure you have a good solid edge (steel is simple and unobtrusive) and a decent sub-base.

Further reading

  • Hardscape: Innovative Hard Landscaping Materials for Gardens by Ann-Marie Powell (David & Charles, 2001).
  • Driveways, Paths and Patios: A Complete Guide to Design Management and Construction by Tony McCormack (Crowood Press. 2005).
  • Alan Titchmarsh How to Garden: Lawns Paths and Patios by Alan Titchmarsh (BBC Books, 2009)
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Words James Alexander-Sinclair