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Garden Path Ideas to Lead the Way

You know that old joke about the farmer who tells the lost traveler “You can’t get there from here”? Do you ever feel that way about your own yard or garden? Does nothing seem to invite you in or show you where to go? If your yard has a bad case of the “do-not-enters”, take heart – this condition is easily remedied with a little thoughtful planning.

7 Tips for Guiding the Way

I’ve got 7 tips to share on getting from “here to there” in the garden, this month’s topic at the Garden Designers Roundtable. These ideas will have your visitors strolling through your outdoor oasis in no time, admiring the views and discovering hidden delights around every turn.

1. Invite Them In

Only kids and dogs really like to walk across the lawn. I know you barefooters love the feel of grass under your toes, but I believe it’s true of most people. Have you noticed how visitors will stop on your patio or deck and just look out at the rest of your garden, but not actually venture into it if the only access is the lawn? And have you ever visited or do you own a house that lacks a sidewalk from the street to the front door? Either you have to traipse all the way up the driveway, squeezing past the family sedan to reach a tiny L-shaped walk to the door, or you have to hike cross-country over the lawn. Not very welcoming, is it?

The solution? Invite people in with a clearly defined path. In front, this can be quite broad – a width of 5 or 6 feet allows two people to walk up side-by-side. In back, a narrower path may do, but make sure it’s visible and easily accessible from your back steps or patio, not hidden behind the outdoor dining set.

2. Guide Them Where You Want Them to Go

This advice may seem patently obvious, but you’d be surprised how often it’s overlooked. Consider the destination points in your yard or garden – the shady seating area, the swing set, the hammock – and run paths to them. You can make them curvy and leisurely or take the most direct line, but give people a way to get there. Trust me, they’ll come.

3. Don’t Neglect the Necessities

We’ve all got garbage and recycling bins to haul around, compost piles to tend, and storage places for pots, bags of soil, and the odd broken trellis we mean to mend. Usually, these are tucked away in side yards or some other neglected semi-hidden part of the garden. Maybe you have to drag your garbage bin, lurching and tilting across a shaggy lawn to get it to the curb. Maybe you have to scythe your way through an overgrown cosmos jungle to add your child’s uneaten vegetables to the compost bin.

Do yourself a favor and build a functional path to make the business end of the garden run smoothly. Run a packed gravel path from the side yard to the driveway to get those bins in and out. Dedicate a comfortable stepping-stone path from the kitchen door to the compost pile. Spread a broad mulched path in a tree-shaded work area and keep the mulch replenished as needed.

Creating a Cohesive Flow

4. Make a Closed Circuit

This is electrical talk for creating pathways that allow unimpeded flow through the garden – an endless loop, as it were. I like this in a house’s layout too, but that’s another story. A closed circuit garden is one in which you can walk guests out your front door, around to one side of the house, into and through the back yard, out the other side yard, and back to the front door by following a series of paths or other hardscaped paved areas, with no break where you have to travel cross-country across grass or mud or find your way blocked by a gate-less fence.

Visualize the natural paths around your home and install paths to get you from one point to the next. Maybe a decomposed-granite path would work out front, running perpendicular to the main walk over to the side-yard gate. A stepping-stone path might continue the loop through the side yard and lead to the concrete patio out back. Add a generous decomposed-granite apron all around the edge of your patio to make it more spacious (builder’s patios are inevitably too small), and run paths from here to the shed or the kids’ playscape. Just think about all the thirsty grass you can remove by laying generous paths through your yard! More stepping stones might lead from the patio to the other side yard and continue around to the front of the house and your front walk. VoilĂ  – a closed circuit that provides an endless loop and an open invitation to explore all parts of the garden.

5. Add Mystery with Secondary Paths

These are the sometimes secret little paths discovered in the process of exploring a garden. They are an enticement, beckoning you to take the road less traveled, a little grassy and wanting wear. Where other paths are meant to be visible and easily traversed, the secondary path is more frivolous. It may offer a narrow track through the daylilies, lead around a large shrub or bushy tree…to who knows what? There’s only one way to find out.

Once your main paths are in place, give some thought to smaller, more leisurely paths that lead to hidden or interesting points in the garden. Woodsy gardens especially lend themselves to this approach, because you can’t see everything all at once. But even in a sunny garden, you can create a sense of mystery and exploration by obscuring an open view with a strategically placed ornamental tree or clump of grasses and wind a little path beyond them. Give the traveler a pay-off with a pretty view that only becomes apparent along the way, or make your own view with a striking garden ornament – a large urn, bubbling fountain, statue, or focal-point plant.

Maintaining the Journey

6. Include Access Paths for Maintenance

Let’s say you’ve converted a large section of your yard into garden and you thoughtfully ran a gravel path through it for your visitors and yourself to admire the view. After one good rain, however, you notice a crop of weeds coming up in your new beds, and with 8 or 10 feet of garden on either side of the path, you find you can’t reach them. Not unless you clomp in, compacting your fluffy new soil and stepping on a few baby plants in the process.

The solution? Rather than tromping across your freshly planted beds to pull weeds or trim plants, simply include a few narrow access paths through your new garden for necessary maintenance. A handful of well-placed stepping stones will usually do the trick, and even if foliage eventually hides them from view, you’ll know where they are and can use your maintenance paths as needed to keep the garden in order.

7. Walk Your Paths Daily

Once your paths are in place, you will find an open invitation into your garden every time you step outside. Steal a moment or two in the garden with your cup of coffee before work, or stroll the paths by moonlight when you get home. Explore them with your family or friends on the weekend. Like neighborhood sidewalks, garden paths give you a reason to get out there and see what’s happening – what’s blooming or going to seed, what the butterflies or bees are enjoying, what needs a little attention, what’s doing great on its own. You may find you use your patio chairs a lot less, but enjoy the garden a lot more.

Paths are the secret to unlocking the full potential of your outdoor haven. With a little thoughtful planning, you can create a functional and visually captivating network of walkways that will have you and your guests eagerly exploring every nook and cranny. So what are you waiting for? Get out there and start laying the groundwork for your garden’s greatest journey yet!

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