Paths and steps form both practical and design elements in the landscape, linking the different parts of the garden as much by eye as they do physically and as a result, play an important role in providing a unified feel to the space.
They can also be features in themselves, with their materials, lines and relative size allowing a variety of effects to be created which can have a major bearing on the character of the garden and its planting.
Inevitably there are practical considerations to take into account; first and foremost, however eye-catching, paths and steps need to be functional and dependent on where they are, this can place its own constraints on their form and construction.
However, while main paths to greenhouses and garden buildings have to be built with safety and ease of access in mind to make them serviceable, there is nothing to stop you being a little more adventurous with smaller paths – and there is no shortage of materials and ideas to try out.
Planning Paths and Walkways
Gravel paths can be built at very little cost compared with using concrete or slabs and bring their own interest, seeming softer and more natural, while being better at accommodating sweeps and curves. Although they need less of a foundation than a solid pathway, it is still important to use a layer of well compacted hardcore to form the base, which will not only help the path keep its shape, but also help maintain even drainage.
”Stepping stone” paths can be very effective alternatives too, particularly if you need a path to cross a lawn, but don’t want to seem to cut it in half with a solid one. Either in stone itself, or made from log sections or wooden parquet decking, this style of path lends itself well to being a feature focus in its own right – but is not always the safest in wet or frosty weather, so it is not entirely appropriate for everywhere.
Very few gardens cope with a large number of paths and too many, especially if they duplicate routes can simply make the whole place look cluttered and the design indecisive. It is worth bearing in mind the old saying that “less is more” and if necessary be quite brutal in removing any walk-ways which obscure rather than enhance the lie of the land. By the same token, however, if a particular route is simply crying out for a new path to give it focus, you should never be afraid of putting one in.
It is sometimes easy to forget that as well as simply allowing access, steps can be used very constructively to emphasise the changes of level that they bridge and far from being simply a nuisance to negotiate with a wheel-barrow, they add an important dimension to the garden.
Few completely flat plots of land, however well maintained, manage the same feeling of life as those which enjoy a little natural undulation – and this is an effect which can be artificially created with even a modest run of steps built between constructed banks. Add to this some clever planting to enhance the feeling of height and even the flattest garden can begin to capture the flavour of a rolling landscape.
Whether simple, rustic affairs of wood and gravel or more formal and concrete, it is very important t make sure that any steps are comfortable to use – and safe. Treads need to be at least 12 inches (30cm) or more and the risers 4-6 inches (10-15cm) high and the whole thing should be regularly inspected to make sure it remains in good repair, particularly if the garden is used by young children, the elderly or infirm.
In many respects, paths and steps are the most utilitarian of all of the hard landscaping elements and yet their functional nature can sometimes hide the scope they have for making a more aesthetic contribution to the overall feel of the garden. With a little imagination and a willingness to try something a bit different, it is possible to create some very interesting effects without compromising their usefulness or safety.
Like so much of landscaping, it really comes down to a question of finding the right balance and nine times out of ten, if it looks right, it probably is – so trust your instincts!