Why build a boulevard when a little side street will do?
Sometimes you just need a small pathway to get from one part of your landscape to another, and you're not really sure that it calls for another ribbon of concrete. What are your other pathway alternatives, particularly those you can build on your own? Here are some that can be done in a weekend.
Pine bark mulch
We know it, and we love it. Pine bark mulch conserves water, and it cuts down on weed growth. It moderates the rates at which our soil temperatures change. We even use it to loosen tight clays. But, as a pathway surface? Indeed. You simply pour it out and start walking. One to two inches spread over bare ground. Ten bags and 10 minutes, and your path is installed. Sure, it floats, but it's also very affordable, should a heavy rain wash it away. All the while, it's improving the soil. And, best of all, no other pathway smells half as good as you're installing it!
Just about everyone enjoys building walks out of rock. Flagstones are fun, and they are durable. However, compared to bark mulch, they are a bit harder to lay. It begins with the purchase. Tell the stone yard what you are wanting to accomplish, and have accurate measurements of the length and width of your path. They will show you the best and flattest types that they sell, and they will help you determine how much stone you will need delivered. You will always have waste, and unless you are just looking for large stepping-stones for occasional traffic, you will need to chip and fit the pieces of your puzzle together. Figure on buying 15 percent more than the minimum. You will end up needing it.
If you are lucky enough to find antique paving bricks, grab them quickly. They're hard to come by, and they are virtually indestructible. Or, you can buy new hard-fired pavers. Where conventional bricks used in construction of homes will deteriorate from repeated freezing and thawing, paving bricks will endure. All bricks will be safer and more secure if you will place them on-edge rather than on their larger flat surfaces. Increase the outer spacings between the bricks slightly as you move around corners.
You can buy prefab concrete squares and rounds at any home center. However, you can pour and finish your own pavers.
As example, build a dozen or so boxes 2 inches deep, 12 inches wide and 12 to 16 inches long. Use double-headed nails to allow you to remove the forms, so that you can put them back together for successive pours. Mix concrete, then shovel it into each form. Trowel it smooth, and as it begins to "puddle," sprinkle and press rock salt across it. The chunks of salt will leave pits as the concrete cures. They will re-form as salt pellets as the concrete dries, at which point you can sweep the salt back up again. Use a rock hammer to knock off the square edges, adding an aged patina.
You can press interesting leaves into the setting concrete. They'll brown and turn crisp as the steps cure. They'll leave a sort of fossilized memory of what they once looked like. You can even press a child's hand into the curing concrete, for that added personal touch. Scratch in the child's name and the date for added pride in their work.
Prepare a good base for your hard-surface path. If you're using brick, concrete pavers or flagstone, provide stability by placing the pavers on a 2-inch layer of packed brick sand. Dig out the course of the path, and move the unneeded couple of inches of native soil to another part of your garden. Put the sand in place, then rake it out smooth. Use the edge of a 1-by-4 board to establish the final grade. Carefully tamp the pavers in place, keeping a carpenter's level and also an inexpensive line level in place at all times.
If you have been using bricks, concrete pavers or other snug-fitting surface, sweep dry brick sand into the joints. It will anchor them tightly in place. Use a fine mist to settle it in place, then sweep more sand in the next day. Repeat until the cracks are all filled.
Finish your new walk with attractive landscaping. Your pathway will look the most natural if you will use plants that can sprawl or creep over the edge of the walk, to conceal the manmade edge to the surface.
Neil Sperry publishes Gardens magazine and hosts Texas Gardening 8-11 a.m. Sundays on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227 or 214-787-1820.