I’ve recently been planning a path from my house to my tool shed, and that made think about the mistakes I’ve seen people make when building paths. The most common mistake is making paths too narrow; two people should be able to pass without bumping into each other or having to jump off the path into the grass. Four feet is the minimum width for a path that is used daily, but six feet is better. A garden path that sees only occasional use should be at least three feet wide to easily accommodate a wheelbarrow or garden cart.
A simple row of stepping stones is fine for very infrequent use. This type of path has been used for centuries to keep feet from getting muddy, but today is used more for its simple rustic appeal than utility.
Another common mistake is a curving a path with no obvious reason for the curves. Our natural inclination is to walk in a straight line from point A to B, so the reason for walking the extra distance on a winding path should always be apparent. A flower bed, a decorative boulder or bird bath, a bench, a tree or specimen shrub; any of these placed on an inside arc of a path will define the reason for the curve. Large shrubs or dwarf trees can also be used along a curving path to hide what is beyond them, which compels travelers forward to see what lies up ahead.
Uneven field or flag stones are very hard to completely clear of snow so only smooth, level materials such as brick, concrete pavers, or poured concrete should be used on paths that see winter use. Large pieces of granite or bluestone also work well when pieces with non slip surfaces are used. A six to ten foot wide strip of lawn with garden beds on either side makes a dramatic, more formal garden path that can also be cleared of snow if required. If a path is shoveled or snow blown loose materials shouldn’t be used or they will end up all over the surrounding landscape. For paths that aren’t shoveled, mulch, gravel, or any other loose material will work well provided it isn’t so soft that a loaded wheelbarrow or cart sinks, rather than rolls.
Finally, a garden path should always lead somewhere. This might seem obvious but I’ve walked garden paths that ended in space, with no apparent reason for me to have followed them. Travelers should always be rewarded at the end of a path or they will feel cheated. A hidden view, a place to sit, a wildflower garden, a meadow, a pond or stream, a patio; there has to be a reason for traveling to the end. Even if a path simply circles the garden and ends where it began there is a reason for walking it.