Garden paths create order out of anarchy

There is a wise motto used by civil engineers: “Roads first.” Whatever the work is, you can’t begin it until you get there. It is no different for a garden. A path takes you into it and allows you to work there productively and happily.

The layout of paths and beds defines a gardener’s style. Most old-fashioned vegetable growers lay out their plots like the stripes on the flag — bed, path, bed, path. Intensive gardeners tread on narrow pinstripes, trying to maximize every inch of space. Others create checkerboards, patchwork, log-cabin quilts. Those who tend fancy parterres walk in perfect circles, triangles and squares. Free spirits create gardens like paisley, or Pucci prints. Their beds are freeform, their paths meander. My own vegetable garden looks like mid-town Manhattan in New York, the city of my birth. It has broad avenues intersected by narrow cross-streets. The beds are 30 inches wide — the distance a 5-foot-2-inch person can comfortably broad-jump without a running start.

A kitchen garden might express your personality, but it must suit you from an engineering standpoint as well. If your present layout seems inconvenient there’s still time to rearrange things before most crops are planted. Having paths the right width is often the difference between a garden you avoid and a garden you enter eagerly, trowel in hand. We all like to get the most we possibly can from a food garden, especially if it’s small. But too-narrow paths are soon obliterated by sprawling squash and bushy peas. If it’s unpleasant to fight your way through, beds go unweeded, beans unpicked.

And any garden path should fit the scale of your body as well. It’s your workspace. You need room to set a weed bucket, a harvest basket and your butt. If you use a wooden cart in the garden, you need space for that too. For a cart with wheels 42 inches apart, make the central path at least 48. A wheelbarrow takes up less room, but even it is awkward if navigating a lot of tight corners.

Deciding what materials to use for paths also is a balancing act between looks and practicality. Stone or brick paths can be strong decorative features that tie the garden together visually and set off the colors and textures of the plants. But they’re expensive and time-consuming to install. They lock you into a fixed layout that can’t be rearranged to accommodate, say, a sudden conversion to the paisley aesthetic.

Nor can they be counted on to keep down weeds. It’s easier to hoe weeds that crop up in dirt paths than to pry them out of cracks between pavers.

I’ve often thought of bisecting my own veggie plot with a cobblestone walkway. But dandelions consider the crevices between these their ideal habitat. If I do follow this tempting design urge, the cracks will be a good inch wide. Any tighter and weed removal is hopeless.

Once I tried gravel paths between beds edged with wood. Not a success. The gravel collected spilled soil and compost faster than a sweater collects burrs. Weeds adored this combination of excellent drainage and a fertile top-dressing. Grass and clover paths are out too. Even if mowed regularly to prevent seeding, they creep into the beds and require as much upkeep as the crops do.

I’ve come to believe that plain old dirt paths are hard to beat. They’re natural, they’re real. On a dry day it takes only minutes to march down them with a wheel hoe, slicing weeds just below the soil surface and leaving them to bake and shrivel in the sun. From time to time, I return the surface layer of spilled soil and compost back into the beds. Since I top-dress the garden annually with compost and manure, my beds tend to rise above the level of the paths. No big problem with that, but I’ll sometimes spread a layer of shredded bark in the paths to bring their level closer to that of the beds. I find that beds raised too high dry out more quickly. The bark also is great at suppressing weeds, at least until the point where it starts to mix with the soil and compost and breaks down. Then I add it to the beds as a soil conditioner and reapply fresh bark to the paths. It can’t be just any bark. I like the finely shredded stuff — no long, rough strands and certainly no big ugly nuggets. Try kneeling on those!

Garden paths are a bit like what art critics call the “negative space” in a painting. The growing beds are where the action happens, but paths are a road map that creates order out of anarchy. They say, “This is a garden. It starts here. Doesn’t it look fabulous?”

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Gardener’s Cookbook.”
Barbara Damrosch

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