Neil Sperry

Great garden-path options to ponder

Brick pavers mark a path in the Sperrys’ back yard.
Brick pavers mark a path in the Sperrys’ back yard. Special to the Star-Telegram

As we head into months that are typically messier and muddier, it might be a good time to augment our walks. Our lives and our landscapes change over the years, and sometimes we need to amend or replace walks that came with the house.

If you’ve added a greenhouse, or if you’ve remodeled and have a new door or patio, perhaps you need a new walkway for access. Trees or shrubs may have grown and may now block your travels, so it might be time to reroute your pathways. Or maybe tree roots or repeated freezing and thawing have damaged the old walkway surfaces enough that they’re no longer safe. Those are all possible reasons for considering new walks.

To a degree, this can be a fairly easy do-it-yourself project. Old walks aren’t as permanent as one might expect. With boots, eye protection and a heavy, long-handled sledge, it’s comparatively easy to break out old concrete. The bigger challenge may be in getting it to a concrete recycling center or landfill, but if you’re determined you’ll figure a way.

Many of the surfaces we’ll discuss can be put in place by an amateur landscaper, or landscape contractors are readily available to do the work for you.

General suggestions to get the job started…

No matter what walkway surface you end up choosing, there are several things that won’t vary from one project to the next. Here are your overall guidelines.

▪ Direct routing is usually best. Avoid highly serpentine walks. Gentle sweeps are fine, but big curves invite people to take shortcuts. Use a supple garden hose on a sunny afternoon to get a rough layout of the path you might want the walk to follow.

▪ The walk’s surface should be a couple of inches above the surrounding grade so that water won’t wash across it. On the other hand, you don’t want it to act as a dam and back water up until it flows into your house or garage.

▪ Front walks should be wide enough for two people to walk abreast comfortably — probably 48 inches. Backyard walks can be narrower unless they lead to a high-traffic area such as a patio or pool.

▪ Avoid surfaces that are slippery when wet. That’s why concrete often has a broom-swept finish. Remember that moss often grows on moist surfaces, and that moss and algae will add to the slipperiness.

▪ Stay away from trees whose roots will be very near the walk surface. Roots get larger as the tree grows, and they will have enough power to lift and break the pavement with ease. Allow at least 4 or 5 feet of clearance, or make provision to cut and remove shallow roots as they develop.

▪ Underlay your walk with a couple of inches of packed brick sand to offer a cushion to the stone, brick or concrete. That’s especially critical when you’re developing a walk on the black clay gumbo soil we have over much of the Metroplex.

Consider your surfaces…

Concrete is the longtime favorite walkway surface for urban landscapes. It’s relatively easy, comparatively inexpensive and reasonably quick to install. But it’s rather plain, even boring. Specialists can stamp it with attractive stonelike patterns, then come back and stain it for a much more natural look.

Brick is handsome when used in walks, but you need to choose bricks that are hard-fired and able to withstand freezing and thawing of a wet North Texas winter. Lesser clay bricks that might be used for construction of walls often craze and crumble after several winters in contact with soil. If you can find antique street pavers, those are the gold standard. They are extremely heavy and dense, and they have perhaps 100 years of "experience" to prove their durability. They’ll probably seem expensive, but they’re glorious in the garden.

Stone walks are fabulous — perhaps my favorites, and we’re blessed with many outstanding options. Get to a really good stone yard and let them show you how diverse the choices can be. They’ll also be able to show you how to choose and lay the stones to interlock with minimal gaps in between. Expect them to recommend buying 15 or 20 percent overage to allow for waste in the cutting and fitting.

And all of that said, as much as I love putting stone in place in my landscape, this is the first place I’d be hiring a professional mason to do the job for me. They perform certifiable magic in seeing just the right stones for the spaces. My walks never look as good. Your stone vendor will be able to recommend two or three of the best.

Interlocking concrete pavers function like brick, but they’re extremely durable. They come in a variety of shapes and colors, all with the common trait of locking together tightly. They’re an easy DIY project for a weekend.

Concrete steppingstones at the Sperry house connect several of our gardens. We make them ourselves. They’re 2 inches tall, 10-by-10 and 10-by-14 inches in size. As the cement starts to puddle, I push ice cream salt into its surface to give it a distressed look. I find a few interesting leaves and press them into some of the stones to create a bit of a fossilized look.

Compound leaves like Boston fern or pecan work well, as do ginkgoes, Japanese maples and red oaks. I use only one leaf per stone, and I probably press leaves into only 15 or 20 percent of the stones. Finally, as I’m knocking the concrete out of the forms the next day or two after pouring, I use my rock hammer to chip off the corners, again for that aged look. We have about 250 of these stones in our landscape, and we’ve used them in a variety of places over the past 35 years.

Neil Sperry hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sundays on WBAP/820 AM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227. Online: