Artfully designed garden paths mimic a sensation similar to what we feel when walking in nature. You’ve probably had this experience walking a woodland path in one of our Northern Virginia regional parks: You pause at an overlook to take in the feeling of space rolling out before you. You sit for a moment and listen to the sounds of a rocky creek where it cuts across the path. You look ahead to where the trail takes an intriguing turn and see a forest floor carpeted with shades of green and shadow. We are drawn deeper into the landscape by a natural curiosity and the desire to see what’s next.
When landscape architects design garden paths, they draw upon the same psychological and sensory framework to create that feeling of intrigue. Garden pathways are a means of getting from point A to point B, obviously. In the art of landscape design, the added purpose is to enhance the pleasure of the journey.
The Role Garden Paths Play in the Landscape
Surrounds landscape architect Elizabeth Fontaine says that the design for a garden path or walkway is derived from its functional purpose. It may be intended simply to permit service access to the garden or to provide an experience as it guides you through the landscape.
Paths can give a lot of character to a landscape. You don’t always have to have a destination for it to be exciting. Elizabeth Fontaine, Landscape Architect
Garden paths and walkways function aesthetically and logistically in the landscape by mapping out connections to destination spaces. These pathways create a framework for movement throughout the landscape by connecting different spaces, defining boundaries between different use areas and helping to organize the landscape as a whole.
Paths and walkways also provide a transition from one type of garden space to another. They guide us through the landscape and frame the most attractive views as we proceed along the way. They help define space, create logical relationships between different areas and bring order and balance into the whole landscape.
Interaction Between Hardscape and Plantings
The height and textures of plantings bordering the walkway have a profound effect on your experience of the journey. The landscaping may give the feeling of seclusion with overhanging foliage or a sense of spontaneity with ground covers that creep naturally over the edges of the path or walkway.
Another effect is created by the width of the path. Is it a narrow stepping stone path intended for a party of one? Or does it invite a leisurely stroll for two people or more across?
If you want to create a dramatic entrance to a big garden, you might design a narrow winding path that would be covered and secluded and then open up for a grand entrance and unveiling of the first view.
The sound and feel of the pathway material underfoot also influence the experience. You can use flagstone, grass, pea gravel, rough slab steppers, brick or cobblestone—to name a few. For example, walking barefoot on grass, flagstone or pea gravel will be entirely different experiences.
Five Garden Walkway Designs
1 Grass & Cobblestone Staircase
This wide shallow stepped walkway transitions from a patio above to a lawn below. The risers are cobblestone and the treads are grass. The use of grass indicates that this is a lightly trafficked area.
The design trick employed here is that the steps combine stone and grass to bridge the space between all stone (the patio) and all grass (the lawn). It works because the elevation change is modest—24 inches or so overall. The moderate descent makes a smooth transition and creates a sense of reveal once you arrive at the open lawn area.
2 A Meandering Garden Walkway
This meandering walkway reflects the landscape that borders it. On the garden side of that path, low growing ground cover flows over the flagstone and softens the edges of the walkway—creating a natural feeling, organic relationship between plantings and hardscaping. The way the lawn and walkway fit together suggests a green wave that washed up onto the walkway and is receding back into the yard.
Stone veneer added to the lower level wall of the house contributes to the natural, organic effect. Compared with the BEFORE image, you can see that the plantings and hardscaping have taken a one-dimensional space and given it depth and richness.
3 A Meandering Staircase
When navigating a steep grade change, we like to shift the pathway side to side to soften the descent. These slight turns in the path allow us to direct the eye to different focal points and plant groupings along the way.
In this example, you’d start down the steps facing a tree just to the right. As you continue, there would be a turn in the path bringing the patio space below into view. Rather than seeing directly from point A to point B, the pathway turns to reveal the destination as you proceed. Directional focus changes along the grade making it more interesting to follow the path.
What comes into focus on the final stretch (the destination) is completely different from what you see at the top of the elevation. Flowing downhill like a stream, the path makes you curious to see where it will lead.
Something I think Surrounds does really well is avoiding a straight, sterile direction in any of our hardscaping. We blend paths and walkways into the landscape.
4 The Straight and Narrow Path
This straight, narrow pea gravel path points directly to a distant fountain. Multi-level plantings frame a view of the destination. Low sedges drifting into the walkway soften the straight edges. The taller flowering shrubs and crape myrtles guide you to the fountain in the distance. The pea gravel is softer underfoot than a sidewalk would be. It plays with texture and blends with the informality of the grass-like blades of the sedges.
There is a formality in the repetition of the grasses-flowering shrubs-small trees theme bordering the walkway that resonates with the classic formality of the distant fountain. The loose, slightly overgrown effect of the sedges offsets the predictability of a straight walkway.
5 A Walkway for Traversing Wide Open Spaces
This stepping stone style walkway traverses a broad, open lawn space. A standard width walkway would not be able to make any sort of statement in the expanse of lawn with the massive structure of the pool house in the background. The dramatic size and scale of this walkway complement the formality and symmetry of the building in the background.
The 6×12 step units of travertine with a blue flagstone border make a connection between two large patios at each end of the path constructed of the same materials.
Carefully planned garden paths and walkways bring unexpected depth and texture to landscapes large and small. The best-designed paths feel natural because they are based on the way we would naturally move through a landscape, by taking the path of least resistance. The curves and turns built into an artfully designed garden pathway imitate the turns and detours we would naturally take in nature, to avoid obstacles or to gain perspective as we navigate a landscape.
If you would like to explore ideas for adding visual interest and intrigue to your landscape, schedule a consultation with one of our landscape architects.
If you’ve been thinking about investing in a landscape design project, our eBook: Expert Guide to Planning the Landscape Design of Your Dreams, is full of valuable information to help you get started.