3 elements of a great path

See our favorite new ideas for creating a little journey in your own backyard

Pale flagstone path
Photo: Steven Gunther

Every garden path comes with a question: Where does it lead? But it's the journey as well as the destination that makes it so alluring. Along the way, the garden slowly reveals surprises - choice plants appear, scents envelop you, vistas open up, and flowers present themselves for cutting.

Paths may be designed to slow people down. "Traveling through is as important as the point of arrival," says its creator, landscape architect Michael Buccino. So it is with most well-thought-out paths. They set the pace - at one moment leading you to a tree with beautifully flaking bark, and at another presenting you with a striking vista or a piece of evocative garden art.

Such pauses are planned: a widening here, a cluster of tiny sculptural succulents there, or a bench that beckons from across the garden. The splash of a fountain may draw you down a small side path, just as the action around a feeder might invite you to watch the birds for a moment.

Thoughtful design

A good path leads with authority through the garden. That's why designers route them in ways that direct your gaze toward beautiful things and away from unlovely necessities like compost piles and trash cans. Broad, well-marked entries pull you in, while trails that wander off behind the shrubbery are often intentionally hiding something. There's also much to be said for putting paths where they want to be - wherever family members have worn trails into the turf, for instance.

Use solid materials such as brick and flagstone for paths you're likely to travel on barefoot, and bark or gravel for natural-looking satellite paths (edge loose surfaces with rocks or benderboard). To soften a path's look, plant low groundcovers between pavers. Allow at least 2 inches of soil between pavers, then amend the soil well - it should be light so it won't pack down with foot traffic - before planting.

Once your paths are in place, accessorize the areas around them with art, a bench, or an arbor. That way, each area becomes a mini destination, and all combine to make the journey a delight.


  • Flagstone path in Pasadena

    A flagstone path in Pasadena leads through a garden underplanted with New Zealand flax shrubs and grasses. Blue-leafed groundcovers create a delicate tracery between pavers.

  • Path in Alamo CA

    Fractured shale fills gaps between concrete pavers in Dennis and Susan Hourany’s Alamo CA yard; yarrow and grasses soften path’s edges.
    Design: Mathew Henning and Heather Anderson [XLINK "http://www.henning-anderson.com" "Henning-Anderson" "" "_new"] Oakland (510/531-3095)

  • Grass circle path

    Grass circles appear to float on a river of black pebbles that winds through a grove of bamboo in Malibu CA.
    Design: Mia Lehrer Los Angeles (213/384-3844) for Lee and Carmen Ritenour.

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