Scholars say that civilization started when nomadic tribes of people stopped roaming the earth and settled down in a fertile place to gather the “fruits” of the land. This was when the first garden paths were created. While the men were out hunting, the women were collecting natural edible treats from the fields and woods near their settlement. The paths were the routes they took as they went on their daily forages, wearing down the ground beneath their feet.
As societies progressed, so did their gardens. People learned how to cultivate the land and control what they grew. Throughout the history of civilization, paths have been important in determining the shapes and spaces of gardens. Garden paths were meant for both form and function. Besides being a creative line of communication throughout the garden, paths provide access for maintenance and help control surface drainage, mud and dust.
The nature of the path reflects the cultural attitudes of the society that designed it. The earliest Egyptian frescoes show formal, geometric walled gardens with straight paths that were often dictated by irrigation channels and protective walls. The idea of straight paths and symmetrical gardens is thought to be brought back from the Middle East and Northern Africa to Europe during the crusades. This style continued for centuries.
The raids of Alexander the Great introduced the Greeks to the elaborate Asian garden culture. The gardens of Asia attempt to recreate the natural world. The guiding principle of paths working with nature, meandering through gardens, streams, ponds and hills, dates back over 2,500 years. This style did not reach Europe until the eighteenth century.
Whether you want the feel of a formal old English garden or a meandering garden influenced by Taoist nature worship, the garden path is your opportunity to be creative. It may not lead anywhere specific, it may be more functional, but the way you lay out your path and the materials you use will determine how your visitors experience it.
Your garden path can be straight, meandering, narrow or wide. It can be made of cut stone, fieldstone, grass, brick, concrete, wood, gravel, trodden earth or the naturally occurring woodland floor like a trail of pine needles. Lighter colored, harder materials reflect sunlight and increase heat. Darker, softer materials will absorb heat and disperse it to the surrounding soil, making more comfortable surfaces and reducing temperature.
The “Greener” choice, as in environmentally friendly and in color, is to use a natural path whether it be sand, gravel or grass, depending on the natural climate where you live. Grass paths are the most comfortable and provide good drainage and natural air conditioning. An alternative to grass would be to create a natural carpet using plants that hug the ground closely. The only disadvantage to these is that they do not hold up well to heavy foot traffic.
The next best natural “green” choice would be decomposed granite. DG looks like dirt without the dust, is functional, drains well, and is inexpensive and easy to install. You can also use other loose gravels or oyster shells packed into soil or mulch, but be careful walking barefoot on these.
Bark or mulch can also be a simple natural way to create a path and it’s easy to maintain. You will need to lay down a new layer every couple of years. There is however, a new product on the market that mimics natural bark or mulch, comes in many colors and sizes, and does not need to be added to every few years. It is made from recycled rubber tires. It resists compaction, fading, rot, termites and won’t blow away. It will save time and money and is non-toxic and environmentally friendly. It is called Rubberific Mulch. You’ll find it on the web or ask your local garden center.
Whatever “path” you choose, you can’t go wrong…for the path you take will be path you create.
Lisa Alexander, LEED AP
Originally Published in Milford Magazine, April 2006
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