The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Designing Paths

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
Extension Educator, Horticulture
slmason@illinois.edu

Walkways and paths allow us to easily move through our landscapes and gardens. Paths are not just utilitarian. They also entice us to saunter, strut, stroll and stride. Whether they are paths or walkways, here are a few tips in developing the road less traveled.

Generally walkways and sidewalks are primary thoroughfares through the landscape usually in the front public area. If the walk is used frequently, it's best to keep it as short of distance as possible. People take the shortest distance by habit so be aware of natural traffic patterns or you will end up with a path made of dead grass. Walkways are generally built for two people walking together, so four feet wide is the minimum width. However, five feet wide provides more comfortable walking and is generally in better scale to houses. Existing walkways can be widened by using bricks or pavers.

When developing walks that will run next to the home, it's best to leave at least a 4 foot wide planting bed between the house and walkway. Six foot wide is even better and allows a more creative design in the planting bed. This area can then easily be planted and not have shrubs constantly overtaking the walkway. If the walkway must be right next to the home than keep in mind, people don't walk with their shoulder right next to a building. Make sure the walk is wide enough to allow for the 12-18 inches of unused space next to the home.

Paths are generally considered secondary and lack the refined look of walkways. They are generally associated with moving through gardens or woodland areas. Paths may be mostly utilitarian to access the back of a large flower bed or the compost pile. A typical path is 2 feet wide. The path may need to be wider if it must accommodate garden carts or lawnmowers. In my next column I will address different path materials.

Even in our flatlands, steps may be needed. Steps can be an attractive element as well as facilitating movement through the landscape. Outdoor steps can be curved unlike indoor steps that need to run in a straight flight. To remain in scale with the grand outdoors, outdoor steps should be low and broad with a wide tread and low riser. In the outdoors, steps should have maximum of 6 inch riser (the distance needed to raise your leg) and minimum of 12 inch tread (the stride length). The usual proportions are 5 inch riser to a 15 inch tread, a 4 inch riser to an 18 inch tread or 3 inch riser to a 24 inch tread. Always, always, always put in at least 2 steps and 3 is better. Our eyes do not pick up the depth difference of one step. So unless your goal is to collect the loose change and loose teeth from people tripping, never put in one step by itself.

Paths don't just provide a way to get to there from here. Curving paths encourage people to slow down in certain areas of high interest in the garden. The interest can be a special plant or water feature. When designing paths consider enticing people down the path by teasing them with the destination. Have the path curve around a tree or shrub with the path end hidden. People naturally want to know where a path goes. This is not in the "Little Red Riding Hood creepy way", but a great technique to make your garden more exciting.

Also dress up the path entry by using focal points of decorative pots or an arbor.

As the great philosopher Yogi Berra once said, "When you get to the fork in the road, take it."

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