Hmm, where to start when landscaping the yard—the plants or the paths? Do you lay the groundwork first, mapping out the space with your network of walkways, or do you first think about where you want stunning stands of plants and then add a way into the space?
Whichever comes first, plants or path, no landscape is ever really complete without a soulful marriage between the two. Plants need paths for navigation and structure; Paths need plants for softness and impact. Whether you're all about a seamless transition from the look of your house or you want to explore more dramatic contrast in your design, knowing how to get the most bang from a planted pathway is mostly understanding how style meets function.
We asked several designers to show us how they go about creating spectacular paths and plant pairings. Here's what they told us....
This wide gravel path is one of a series of walkways that connects the various rooms in this hillside Southern California garden. The soft-grey color provides a soothing foil to the colorful and textured plants.
Adding Soft Texture to Walkways
Overview:This billowing, beautiful garden is on a property located in the canyons above Los Angeles where the need for low-water usage plants is central to any landscape design. Designer Judy Kameon created a series of paths that lead to linked patios throughout the landscape. The informal pea gravel path (seen above) leads to raised beds beyond; by adding a screen of dwarf olives to conceal those raised beds, she created visual and spatial separation while maintaining open sight lines.
This curvy stunner of a path (left) just above the road is on the same property, but a totally different mood. Concrete pavers wind through a slope-side setting edged in an informal arrangement of a fluffy cloud of grasses with colorful shrubs and purple-leafed agaves completing the picture. See more of this seductive gardenhere.
Kameon puts a premium on designing situation-appropriate sized paths that allow space for plants to overflow and soften the edges, maintaining their natural organic forms. When designing a path ,consider how it will be used; the gravel path (above) with its generous width is ideal for two people to walk side by side to the front door. The more narrow streetside path is perfect for one person out exploring.
Key Plants: This is a master class in combining easy-care, fuss-free plants that thrive in the low-water/high-heat environment. Here are the plants for the image at top:
Super tight foliage and lovely blue-green tint; ground-hugging mound spreading up to 6'. Full sun. Zone: 4 - 9
Planting a Romantic Woodland Path
Overview: A simple path of irregular flagstone pavers has an organic forest floor feel that works perfectly with the lush part-to-full shade plantings in Ellen Lathi's zone 6B garden. In what looks like a hundred shades of green, Lathi combined a variety of forms and textures such as ferns, large-leafed hostas, and strappy grasses, and then punctuated the soothing palette with that glorious red Japanese maple and plenty of seasonal flowering perennials and shrubs.
Design Advice: The trick to making a winning flagstone path is to first lay out all stones to ensure a comfortable stride from middle to middle of each stone and then dig out a few inches of soil below each stone to "seat" them securely.
(Love this garden? We do too, and will feature the entire space in an upcoming story.)
Perfectly content in shady woodland gardens, but equally happy in dappled light under moisture-loving shade trees. Partial to full shade. Zone: 4 - 9
Fuss-Free Plantings Between Pavers
This coastal zone 10A garden would be one for Instagram no matter what, but it's the thoughtful addition of a soft carpet of creeping thyme between pavers that adds that finishing touch. Natural flagstones make up the path which is surrounded by diverse and colorful drought-tolerant plantings and succulents. Mexican Snowball Echeveria (right) and Blue Glow Agave (middle left) are just a few of the plants that designer Joni L. Janecki & Associates chose for their bold textures, year-round interest, and dynamic movement.
This path functions as a more informal link between the nearby outdoor fireplace and pond. It allows visitors, including the client’s dog, to meander through the garden instead of ‘sticking’ to the main path. We love the addition of boulders that were sourced from a local quarry. See the entire garden here.
Design Advice: Planting between pavers is easy if you pay close attention to choosing a groundcover that grows well in your climate and with the site’s soil type, level of moisture and sunlight. We love the effect of a low, nearly solid mat, but consider popping a few taller plants near the edges for contrast.
A few more good choices for between pavers include mosses and groundcovers you can find at your local garden center. These three have color and texture:
Durable herb with aromatic leaves, perfect for filling between stepping stones. Creates lush mat of soft green foliage. Full sun. Zone: 5 - 8
Planting to Brighten-Up A Shady Footpath
Overview: The crunchy sound and mixed colors of small-sized gravel add to the tactile experience of strolling through this textured shade-loving garden. Here are two views of this coastal oasis set in a busy city.
(Left) This zone 7 West Vancouver BC garden designed by Barbara Longe is all about layers and layers from the tall viburnum in the back to the hardy begonias and hellebores toward the front. (That's Yellow Wax Bells in the foreground--we knew you'd ask!).
(Right) Cool and green and shady (with a pop of black in that hidden bench) mix of hardy ferns, hostas,coral bells and rhododendronsare repeated throughout this space. Located on the coast where fog is a way of life, these robust, rich greens are a smart choice, becoming even more beautiful in that grey-ish light.
Design Advice:Plants that thrive in shade can be exuberant growers quickly overtaking a walkway. Lining the path in stones and excavating about two inches of soil before spreading gravel help keep things tidy.
Neat, formal, upright mound of silver-green fronds with deep purple midribs. Perfect as a backdrop to hostas. Partial to full shade. Zone: 4 - 9
Planting for Wet, Soggy Spots
Overview: The front yard of this urban Northwest zone 8B residence was transformed from bricks and lawn to one that's more waterwise using stormwater management techniques including the landscape stone swale shown here that helps keep precious water on site. That attention to water conservation is already plenty cool, but the raised boardwalk above the swale created to get you from the street into the yard is just genius.
To attract pollinators, designer Lisa Port added shrubs and perennials that don't mind wet feet and that also provide a buffer from the street. Bees buzz over the bee balm (front right) and coneflowers, penstemmons and salviastucked into the space. The effect is one of happy plants that just naturally popped up in place.
Design Advice: Rather than fight conditions, use them to your advantage! Water was running off this site into the street; it is now captured in this swale and used to power the pollinator plants installed there. The boardwalk adds a modern contrast to this cottage garden. See more of this garden here.
Spikes of violet-blue flowers on striking purple-black stems rise above the contrasting gray-green leaves. Pollinator favorite. Full sun. Zone: 4 - 9
Shaping Up a Formal Setting
Overview: We are impressed with how much impact designer Linda Dallas delivered with this pairing of shaped and sheared plants that provide depth in a small space and the angled concrete paver and gravel path. Plants in this zone 8B garden were meticulously chosen for their adaptability to regular pruning. Sheared shrubs like boxwood, euonymus, and laurel along with narrow Tiny Tower cypress are ideal candidates.
Design Advice: Laying pavers at a 45 degree angle to the lines of your house has the effect of making the space feel more intimate. Pavers cut to mirror curves of the wall ups the cost, but add grace to the design.