A temptation comes to all of us at times to lead someone "down the garden path," which is generally thought to be a bad thing. For gardeners, however, this is not an occasional whim, but rather an obsession -- though a benign one in our case.

The importance of laying out garden paths is often overlooked. This is unfortunate, for in the planning of a garden or its improvement, paths are tools that can help to invigorate and show off your garden and property to its best advantage. They perform the part of a silent host, but they speak volumes.

Now, there are plenty of books and people to tell you how to lay out paths on the ground with garden hoses for curves and two sticks and a piece of string for the straight parts. This article is not about that. This is, instead, to talk about the what and the why.

What a path does

In addition to merely providing convenient, firm places to walk, paths are major determining factors in how your garden will be perceived. A path is, literally, the guide that steers movement and vision through the heart of the garden. It sets the mood, unfolds the story, beckons and welcomes -- or not -- quite as much as the plants you choose.

Imagine three paths. One is made of pine or cedar chips. Another of randomly shaped flagstones set in a crazy-quilt pattern without formal edges. The third is of bricks laid in a basket weave, with upright bricks as edgers.

How do you think these paths would proceed? Which in a geometric design? Which winding and gently meandering? Which would most likely lead to a cottage terrace? Ah, you begin to see what I mean. Paths have a personality, which they pass on to the garden.

Now imagine gardens for these paths. Which sort of material is most at home with masses of shrub roses and daisies, or with bleeding heart, hosta and trillium? What kind of paths do topiary and boxwood parterres cry out for? How would you feel following a concrete path straight through a wildflower meadow, like a highway? Wouldn't do at all, would it?

The path sets a tone for the garden and vice versa. One must be in keeping with the other if the garden is going to look like a coordinated whole. So it is important if you are thinking of adding a path to an existing landscape, to inquire what sort of materials and style are most in harmony with it.

Then, too, the garden path is the natural "tourmaster" for anyone walking in the garden. It shows people where to look, introduces them to views and directs them where to go next. It can even tell them how quickly to proceed, as well as provide mystery and suspense. Very clever these paths -- how do they do it?

Well, people naturally tend to go toward the broadest walkway or area, and toward the light. If there are two paths, the inclination is to try the widest one first, especially if it seems to be leading to an opening or brighter area.

Therefore, if you want people to move toward a view or specific sequence of garden sights, make the entrance to that particular site wider and more inviting than other paths they could choose.

At certain points, you may wish to show off a particular view or garden vignette, such as a handsome clump of ferns with a Chinese lantern or a romantic glimpse of a distant church steeple. For this, combine a wide place in the path with an obstacle, such as a bend or corner. A small bench to sit on is a nice touch, too, which will encourage people to stop and look around. However, make sure the view is best from this point.

When your guests have had a good look at whatever there is to see, they can be brought along the next phase of the path by the same method.

Straight paths encourage people to walk quickly, as do hard, unbroken surfaces. Curving paths and softer or more irregular materials call for slower movement. For example, while in a disproportionally long garden you may want people to walk through parts of it quickly, to minimize the distance visually and psychologically, in a small garden the reverse would be true, to intensify the experience of the garden and enhance the perception of space.

Paths in city gardens

Sometimes, especially in a small, city garden, it is desirable to slow people down at intervals. By doing this you achieve two objectives: the garden is perceived as being larger, and you create complexity and indecision, which make the garden seem more interesting, even mysterious.

This can be accomplished by using one or more simple techniques:

The path may be abruptly narrowed or widened dramatically. The path's material may be changed, for example, from wood chips to stone, or turf to brick. A barrier may be introduced, real or merely visual. This may be an archway, an arbor, a short flight of steps, a pair of large evergreens acting as sentinels on either side, or a sharp change in direction.

The thing to remember is not to put too many of these "halts" in any one space or garden, for you will merely cause frustration in the person following the path. It takes only one or two.

Pub Date: 4/20/97

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