Down the garden path
This morning's column is for readers on low budgets or in mature gardens. Path surfaces. If you are on a new property which has been landscaped, or what passes for landscaping, odds are your paths are in place and are concrete. We just love the utility and endurance of concrete in this country.
New concrete dries to a somewhat startling white, which is usually appropriate to a new build, but can look garish and out of place on an older property. It also leaches lime for the first few years, so you are likely to have trouble growing plants such as rhododendrons and camellias alongside it. The foliage will go yellow on acid-loving plants.
Because we have a fair amount of old concrete here, where we have chosen to go with extending concreted areas or new paths, we take the trouble to mask the new look. Adding colouring (black oxide) counteracts the whiteness. Once it is all smooth and starting to dry, we spray a sugar and water solution over the top. That strips the smooth top layer and exposes the aggregate. Voila. The concrete looks aged from the start.
Were we English, we would have a tradition of flagstones and stone pavers. We are not, so they are a very expensive option. You can get a similar effect in concrete pavers which come already roughed up and coloured to give the overall impression of stone. It's a good product. We have used it to pave a small courtyard and the same style of pavers were used in a modern outdoor dining area I featured on this page a fortnight ago. The larger-sized pavers look better if you want the flagstone look. Ours are 600mm square.
I don't recommend brick unless you live in a dry climate. Old bricks are porous, which means they soak up moisture and retain it, enabling moss to grow very nicely, thank you. Brick paths tend to be extremely slippery for much of the year and therefore hazardous. It is also difficult to get a relatively even surface and, if you don't construct a solid edging, the side bricks roll out.
Gravel paths are usually best retained with a solid edging to reduce spilling. We have used concrete sidings on ours. We like gravel paths. There is something satisfying about the scrunch as you walk along them and they are softer on the eye than unforgiving concrete. They are not as simple to install as they first look, however. You can't just pile gravel on the ground, because the mud will rise from below. You need to excavate down to lay a compacted base course first before you top with your choice of gravel. For foot traffic, a 5cm base should be fine. Don't lay the top gravel so thickly that it makes walking difficult. You also need to choose your gravel with care. Rounded stones can be like walking on marbles, but you want a grade that is reasonably consistent (in other words, it has passed through a screen) to look attractive.
Gravel can be quite difficult to keep looking smart without a leaf blower. We did it for years with a leaf rake to remove the build-up of litter, but it is labour intensive and doesn't do a particularly thorough job. The leaf blower removes humus in a trice and we wondered why it took us so long to discover its merits. However, it is a noisy and intrusive machine and your neighbours will come to dread it as much as your lawnmower. A certain amount of gravel will get blown into the surrounds, too.
If you have a larger area to cover, placing pavers at regular intervals throughout a gravel area can add interest and style cheaply. To look good, measure the placement of the pavers to keep them regular and put them down before you lay the top layer of gravel.
We have not gone with wooden walkways at all. In our garden, they would make us look too much like an institutional or public garden (the DOC look, we call it). Having seen them elsewhere, I would comment that even corrugated decking timber can get slippery if it is wet for protracted periods or in shady areas and it can be particularly hazardous on slopes. There are nonslip products you can buy to secure to your wooden paths or steps, but they will add to the cost. If you are not a public garden, then I think wooden walkways tend to be a better aesthetic fit to a modern house with acres of timber decking.
In woodland areas, we keep a thick layer of natural mulch on paths and we shun hard edgings because we want a natural look. In the past few years, when we groom up for our annual spring garden festival, we have gone a step further and raked up all the litter and fed it through the mulcher. What comes out is a consistent grade of anonymous brown mulch which we then rake back over the paths. It gives the softest and springiest surface to walk on. While it doesn't compact down, it is remarkably durable as long as it doesn't get washed away and it can be maintained with a leaf rake. It looks really good until autumn, when we get both wind and fresh leaf drop, so it is not a long-term solution, but it gives an attractive option for wooded areas without expenditure.
Some level of consistency is desirable. No matter what size your garden is, you probably don't want to be using a range of different path surfaces. They don't all have to be the same and paths can differentiate between high use, formal and informal areas. But the overall effect will usually be more cohesive if you can keep some level of uniformity.