Building Garden Paths For Beginners

Main paths and entrance drives are usually considered early, and in fact are often constructed by the builders. They make a great difference to the garden plan, and for this reason the owner who finds he has everything to do in this respect himself may smile at his good fortune. Builders have seldom much respect for garden design, and in laying down a path or drive their first consideration is to make it as direct and convenient as possible with the least possible outlay on material and labour. The result is that most of the house entrances they construct are monotonously uniform.

Of course, if a gardener has a house built to order, he is able from the first to choose a position on the plot that will allow for convenience and privacy where desirable. If the house is already built his choice is limited, but it may still be possible to give a measure of privacy to the house windows by curving a path to the door. A curved path is often very useful in creating a semi-formal garden style that is suited to certain house types.

Garden Paths Design

Most gardens have their own special problems, and it is idle to talk of “ best” types of entrance or other paths. These, however, are the items that should be kept in mind in this connection :—


1. No entrance path should wind so much that it becomes tortuous.

2. A path for pedestrians should be at least 4 ft. wide, and for a car 8 or 9 ft. wide.

3. All curves should be gradual—in the case of a long drive one or two very gradual curves allow for changes in the picture, but sudden curves are disconcerting.

4. The materials used in construction should be in keeping with the style of the house and that of the intended garden.

5. On entrance paths, particularly, no untidiness is permissible : the materials should be such as can be kept in perfect condition by the owner, according to the labour available.

6. In any type of garden, paths should be varied according to the amount of use they will receive. A path through the vegetable garden might be just a rolled soil track, while that from door to front gate should be finished with some clean, lasting surface material, such as tiles, paving stones or bricks.


The types of path, that is the materials employed in surfacing, can be selected from a very wide range. They include the well-known gravel path, which if properly constructed and finished with bitumen to divert rain, is quite satisfactory for walking or as a car drive; paving stones in variety, rectangular or crazy, real stone or artificial, plain or multi-coloured; cobbles laid to set patterns; tiles, bricks, grass and combinations of all these so arranged as to form decorative features in themselves.

Stepping stones let into the lawn surface take the place of the conventional path when convenient : they are ideal in the labour-saving garden, as they have no edgings to keep trim, and cannot become weedy. Coloured paths, which are popular in dull town gardens and can also find a place in certain types of formal garden, can be made of multicoloured artificial stone or of gravel. Tarred and then surfaced with various materials, grey, green, red, white, gravel-brown and so on.

garden path gravel and stepping stones

Path construction is really a simple matter, but the utmost care must be taken over it, otherwise the path will be faulty, that is it will sink in places and leave an uneven surface, so that water will collect in rainy weather, and this will gradually add to the uneven settling. All paths, whether small or large (except the simple stepping-stone type) are made on the same principle, and the early stages of the work are the same.

The first thing to do is to excavate where the path is to be, taking off the top 10 in. or so of soil, and moving it to some other part of the garden. It is not exactly wise, especially when the garden is on rather dry gravel or chalk subsoil, to make up the flower beds alongside the path with this soil. That is to say, the beds should not generally be at a higher surface level than the path, otherwise they dry out too rapidly in the summer. Soil taken from the path sites can generally be put to good use in the potting shed, or greenhouse and frames, or used to build up a rock garden. Naturally, if the garden site is very wet, and raised beds are desired for that reason, the soil from the paths would be thrown at once on to the borders.

When about 10 in. of soil has been taken away, the site of the path should be tested for its levelness. The gardener should also note whether rains collect and remain stationary on the site. If they do, extra care must be given to drainage. If not, the path can be made without further digging. A slight slope from one end to the other is permissible, but if there is a very steep slope the possibility of introducing one or two steps should be considered.


With regard to drainage, a simple agricultural drainpipe laid down the centre of the path or drive, and packed round with a hard core of open material—clinker for instance—so that it takes the surplus water, is sufficient even on a waterlogged site, but it must be remembered that if much water has to be carried away the pipe must have an outlet either to a sump or to a ditch or main drain. In laying this pipe a trench should be cut specially for it down the path centre, rather deeper than is needed to take the

pipe, so that after it is laid, and covered with clinker, the path can be constructed in the usual way.

The method of construction is to lay first the roughest hard core available. Old tins beaten flat so that there is no further subsidence, flints, broken bricks and rough breeze blocks are good materials for this layer. They should be distributed evenly, and then rolled well, preferably during showery weather. A slight camber of an inch or two should be aimed at, so that the centre of the path dries quickly after rain.

This foundation is desirable whatever the path surface. After a satisfactory under layer has been prepared a dressing of rather finer porous material is required. Where paving stone is to be laid, this layer can be of fine sifted ash, or sand, or very sandy soil. Paving, if of natural stone, is generally somewhat uneven in thickness, and a certain amount of packing below the thinner stones is required, so that the surface is dead level.


A good method with an ordinary 4-ft. Garden path is to fix, temporarily, some edging boards between the path and border soil. The top edge of the boards should be dead level for a level path, and sloping gently for a sloping path, but the two opposite boards should always be level with each other, i.e., the path should not slope from side to side. A spirit-level, which can be bought for a few pence, is desirable to test the levels.

By laying a strip of quartering across from side to side, and moving it gradually down as the paving is laid, an even surface can be secured without much trouble. Gaps between the stones should not be more than 1 in. wide. There is really no need for any camber on a crazy paved path where the cracks are filled with sandy soil, and plants are grown, but if cement is used in the cracks, a camber is important. There are arguments for and against the use of cement. A cement-filled area of crazy paving is durable, and keeps its even surface, but where sandy soil is packed between the stones instead, and plants are set in the cracks, a less severe picture is created, and the opportunity is given to the gardener to grow many plants which are particularly at home in this situation. Plants are, however, growing things, and when they are allowed to grow so rampantly that they become large mounds, they make a pathway that is neither clean nor safe. This is an easily avoidable trouble. The plants can be set mainly in the cracks to the sides of the path, not in the centre where most of the walking is done. Also with a little attention occasionally, the plants will never get to the rampant, nuisance stage.

Some gardeners solve the problem by the use of cement between cracks in the middle of the path and soil and plants at the edges. A better plan is to use only the most dwarf of paving plants, such as arenaria balearica, cotulas and mentha requieni, which are unlikely to become troublesome.

Any plants to be used in making a crazy paving path can be set in place as the stones are laid. Or, if this cannot well be done, seeds may be used instead of plants. The succulent leaved annual mesembryanthemum crineflorum, perennial rock pinks, cotulas and thymes are paving plants that can easily be introduced as seed. This should be mixed with some sandy soil, pressed well into the cracks, and left to its own devices.

Rectangular paving stones are laid like crazy paving. They take a little less time to lay than crazy paving, but it is perhaps even more important that rectangular paving should have a perfectly level surface. These larger paving stones are frequently associated with other materials. For instance, rectangular paving stones are often laid alternately lengthways and crossways down a long path, with grass or cobblestones to fill the remaining areas If grass is used, the paving should be laid over fine cinders or ash, and turf can be laid over the same material. Where turf is not available, and seed

must be used, prepared soil would be packed into position and levelled, and sown as for a lawn.

Cobblestones are laid into wet cement—not too wet, or it will be difficult to produce an even surface. The cobbles should be quite close to each other, and only enough cement used to fill the cracks between and come half-way up the sides of each cobblestone. Cement should not be smoothed off level with the tops of the cobbles, as is done by some amateur gardeners, as this spoils the beauty of this type of paving. Cobbles are decorative, rather than useful, being uncomfortable for walking.

Bricks used for paving should be rough surfaced. If they are not, the path becomes dangerous for walking. They are best laid on edge over a layer of sand, and the path maker should endeavour to pack the under layer very firm before laying the bricks. More sand should be used between the bricks if necessary, but the closer the bricks, the better the path. Cement can be used both under and between the bricks, but sand is better, as it allows for free drainage.

Bricks can be set in any sort of pattern, and if they are of a good quality, sand faced, and not inclined to crumble when weathering, the path will improve in appearance as the years pass. They can be combined with paving. Crumbling bricks should never be used for paths.

Tiles are extremely decorative and neat, and for formal paths near the house they are often chosen. They have the disadvantage of being slippery, especially in wet weather. They are also very difficult to lay, since the surface must be absolutely true. Tiles are, of course, set in cement.

Concrete paths at one time would have been dismissed unreservedly by the garden artist as unworthy of consideration. Today many delightful concrete paths exist to give the lie to this belief. A good way to use concrete for paths is to set up a shuttering of boards on each side of a path site, and to lay a smooth run of concrete about 2 in. thick between them. The site chosen need not be that of the actual path, and the concrete can be mixed and laid over and over again in the same odd corner of the garden, if large quantities of paving have to be done.

When the concrete is partly set, it will be cut across with a spade or other sharp tool, into slabs of even size, or broken into pieces for use as crazy paving. In either case it must be left to dry out completely before being moved. Then the slabs are laid as already described for paving stone. It is possible to use colouring materials in mixing the concrete, so that a very natural appearance can be given to a concrete path where desired. A point worth notice is that very smooth concrete is slippery, and the surface is best roughened in some way. Watering with a rose-can while the concrete is still wet is one way to make a non-slip surface.

The advantage of this way of making concrete paths over the old, unsatisfactory way of pouring the concrete direct on to the path site, is that planting can be done in the cracks, and this does much to soften the artificial appearance of concrete.


Gravel paths are not only simple and comparatively cheap to construct, they are definitely attractive. In some kinds of garden design they are even preferable to paving. Soundly constructed, of good quality gravel, and finished with a waterproof surface, they last for years in good weed-free condition.

Good gravel is a self-binding material. Watered and rolled alternately as it is laid, it makes a really serviceable path or drive. Six inches of rough clinker or bricks as already described for path foundation, with 4 in. of coarse gravel and a surface 2 in. of finer gravel, is the ideal. Just before the final surfacing is given, a dressing of hot tar, or one of the tar preparations now on the market which are applied cold, should be given to the gravel, and this can then be top dressed with pea gravel, to restore the colour of the path. If preferred, white or grey stone chippings, or any of the available coloured top dressings (sold by the makers of the cold tar preparations) can be used. Grass paths, sometimes edged with paving, are frequently found in gardens.

After you have decided what sort of paths you want and where you want them, you can begin pegging them out. Then start making them. If necessary, a path edging of non-living character will be set in position, but the use of such edgings is not nearly so common as once it was. In fact they are rarely used except in cases where gravel paths adjoin borders.

When grass meets border, either the turf is cut and trimmed regularly to keep a straight edge (in which case there must be a drop of 2 in. from turf to border surface) or small pieces of paving stone are used to outline the turf, laid flush with the grass, so that the mower passes over them and there is no need for constant edge trimming. If a non-living edging is desired, bricks laid end to end, 2 in. above the level of the path, are as good as anything. They should be bound together with cement, for greater security. Plants can, if desired, be allowed to creep a little over the bricks, and so soften their hard outline. Now you will be in a position to peg out lawn areas, and to mark the position of formal beds. Lawn areas are not necessarily subjected to such deep digging as are the sites for beds and borders, so that it is very useful to have them clearly marked out, if not prepared, at an early stage so that deep digging does not take place over their sites.

After this, procedure will vary. If terraces, sunk gardens, and other features entailing the removal of large quantities of soil are contemplated, these must be dealt with as soon as possible, but

of course, if levels are already roughly what they are required to be in the finished design, the question of precedence becomes unimportant. All such features as steps, terraces, pergolas, pools and fountains should, however, be carefully thought over, together with their effect on other parts of the plot, so that there need be no unnecessary labour.

What tools are necessary to begin with in the new, empty garden plot ? On any new plot the tools that an experienced worker would take with him would be these :—

A measuring tape, some pegs, a mallet, a garden line, a spade and a large digging fork. Other tools might be desirable, but one could get along pretty well for a time with just these.


Now for a few hints that may be of use to the beginner. One of the things you will certainly want to do almost at once will be to set out a right angle. It sounds quite simple to peg out a path at right angles to the house, but on an irregular plot it may not prove so easy as it sounds. Suppose you have a straight line, and at a given point (call it A) you want to erect another line at right angles. Measure an equal distance both ways, say a yard each way, and call these points on your original line B and c. Now drive in a wooden peg at B, and round this loop a piece of string just long enough to reach, double, to point c. Drive another peg in at point c. Use the string to describe an arc, first with c as the radius point and then with B. Where these two arcs meet will be a point on a line at right angles to A.

The second method is that known as the 3-4-5. If a path is to be made at right angles to the house, let us call the house the “ straight line.” At the point A on the straight line where the right angle is required, hammer in a thin peg. Place the metal loop that is at the beginning of the tape over this and measure 15 ft. along the straight line. Call this B. Hammer in another peg at this point and pass the tape round it. Taking the 60-ft. Mark on the tape hold it at A. Then get a second person to hold the 40-ft. Mark and pull the tape taut, so that it forms a triangle. Hammer in a peg c at this point. A-C is the required line at right angles to A-B. Any triangle whose sides are in the proportion 3: 4: 5 must be a right-angled triangle.

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