The finished path banishes weeds and is soft underfoot; a joy, if not forever, at least for a season.
One of my goals as a gardener is to find long-term solutions to perennial problems. Most gardening involves continuous work. Take tomatoes. You have to set the plants out; cage, stake or otherwise support them; sucker them; protect them, if you can, from early and late blight. If you do all that successfully, you get to harvest them and put up the excess. Tomatoes, though, are worth the effort. As singer/songwriter Guy Clark observes, “Only two things that money can’t buy, and that’s true love and homegrown tomatoes.”
There are, however, garden chores that one can get out of the way once and for all – at least for a season. One of them is making garden paths. My garden, like many in the mountains, spills down a hillside, which long ago turned me into a raised bed gardener, in a series of terraces, with paths running along the upper side of each bed. Through the years, I have experimented with various kinds of mown and mulched paths, and have settled on a combination thereof. Because I like a strip of green here and there, the widest paths – the main thoroughfares, so to speak – are grass and clover. (I wish they were all clover, but they aren’t.) The narrower sub-paths I mulch at the beginning (or end) of every season.
I used to use bark mulch. No more. Why? Lots of reasons. Bark is heavy to fork and transport, even if your garden is downhill from where the load is dumped. And even if you buy partly decomposed “bottom of the pile” mulch, as I did, it takes several years for the material to break down. Why do you want it to break down? Because weed seeds see an old mulched path as an invitation to germinate, and the point of mulched paths is not to have to tend them.
My current method involves three easily obtainable – and inexpensive – materials: cardboard (or newspaper), leaves and straw. (To which I add a fourth: ashes from my wood stove.) Nothing could be lighter or easier to handle than these materials. Cardboard, newspaper or a combination thereof goes down first, then leaves, topped by just enough straw to hold the leaves in place. Voila! Paths for a season.
Don’t have enough leaves from your own yard? Drive around a residential neighborhood in October and avail yourself of the pre-bagged leaves non-gardeners leave curbside for the town truck to pick up. Or rake and bag leaves for a neighbor, as I do, in exchange for the leaves. And remember to get straw, not hay, for the top layer or you will be adding weed seeds to your garden. (Straw is supposed not to contain seeds although I have bought a few bales in the past that were full of them).
Mown or Mulched: Pros & Cons
• If you have plenty of space, you may want grass paths between your garden beds. They’re pretty, but they’re also more work. Not only will you have to mow them, you’ll need to prevent the grass and clover from invading garden beds, preferably by spading along the edge of the bed and composting your captors.
• Mulched paths are a means of killing two birds with one stone. No work, once they are laid down. At the end of the season (or beginning of the next one), when they’ve broken down, simply rake all that nice organic material onto the adjacent bed and lay down a new path. If the cardboard or newspaper hasn’t entirely broken down, leave it in place and add a new layer atop it.
• Mulched paths help conserve soil moisture. In a dry summer, that means all you’ll need to water is the plants in the beds, not the paths, to keep your garden pretty. (And if you keep the soil in the beds mulched, you have to do less of that too!)
Some Do’s and Don’ts
DO wait for a calm day to build your paths. Wind transforms an easy job with flyway materials onerous if not impossible.
DO use clean cardboard, not material from a recycling center. I learned this lesson the hard way. Cardboard from the recycling center - at least from our recycling center - can be contaminated by drippings from pizza boxes, which makes your paths magnets for critters. The morning after I laid down my last paths using such cardboard, I found them completely destroyed by dogs, raccoons or something else that had dug them up, looking for goodies. My grocery store lets me cart away as many brand new broken down cartons as I need. Yours probably will too.
DO use multiple layers of newspaper. The point of laying down cardboard or newspaper as a bottom layer is to block sunlight to kill weeds and prevent weed seeds from germinating. If your path is straight, either cardboard or newsprint will work equally well, but the latter works better if your path curves, as it is more easily folded and manipulated.
DO use lots of leaves. If they are primarily oak, the mulch they make will be acidic. Sprinkle with wood ashes or lime to neutralize. The leaves will cover the cardboard and newspaper with are unsightly, and will make path soft to walk and kneel on. If you have children or grandchildren, enlist their help in tamping down the leaves. It’s an enjoyable way to introduce the next generation to gardening.