Want to give your garden some style? Follow these tips to a practical, yet awe-inspiring, pathway.

Too often in American gardens pathways are left bare or else surrounded by lawn or other horizontal elements, providing no visual variety in the landscape. Instead of a naked walkway, consider clothing it with plants. Use plants to add structure and pattern to a formal setting, to enhance the curves and add color to an informal garden. Use pathways to create an English style garden, to break up an expanse of paving, and to bring the added dimension of delightful scents to your journey down the garden path. Your options are as varied as the plant kingdom. Here are a few ideas for incorporating plants into your garden pathway design.

Straight lines, geometric forms and symmetry characterize formal gardens. Pathway plantings in a formal garden will be well-behaved by nature, or clipped to keep them in bounds and in shape. Low-growing, boxwood hedges are typical path edgings, as well as other plants that take well to clipping or have naturally tidy forms. Lavender, which is often pruned into a low hedge after it has finished flowering, santolina and germander are three excellent plants for formal path edgings.

Another option to enhance a formal pathway is to edge it with a border of tidy, self-contained plants. Possible choices include annuals, such as marigolds and impatiens, dianthus and even curly parsley, which is very decorative, adding a ruffled trim of fluffy green along the border.

Curving paths and undefined edges are two classic hallmarks of an informal design. The idea is to mimic nature rather than to force it into unnatural forms and shapes. An informal pathway may meander through the garden, enticing visitors to follow it around corners to discover new wonders just around the bend. A woodland path may be paved with wood chips rather than brick or stone. The chips are a friendly environment in which plants can grow. Creepers can migrate into the pathway without causing offense, and the occasional “volunteer” seedling from a nearby plant or flower is welcomed in the walkway.

In an informal setting, plants are encouraged to billow over path edges, blurring the lines between garden beds and walkways. In addition to low-growing edging plants, you might chose to plant a large shrub or group of tall plants at a bend or curve in the path to screen the view around the corner. This adds a delicious sense of mystery to the design.

English Style
A mixture of formal and informal elements characterizes the English style pathway. It is the horticultural equivalent of sweet and sour—the blending of opposites. Often referred to as “controlled chaos,” the English style is exemplified by a clearly defined structure within which plants are allowed to grow freely. Vita Sackville-West summarized the style well when she described her famous garden at Sissinghurst Castle, saying it had “the strictest formality of design combined with a strict informality in planting.”

An English-style garden path may run straight and true, giving a formal structure, but the plants that border it may be inclined to spill onto the paving, softening the lines and adding a charming touch of disarray.

Planting Between Paving Stones
Pathway plantings don’t have to be confined to the edges. One of the many highlights of Prince Charles’ innovative garden at Highgrove is his Thyme Walk. The path is made of random stone sets and paving that have been loose laid with soil-filled gaps. The Prince planted different varieties of thyme cuttings along both edges. The plants have now reached maturity. Billowy cushions of thyme cover the ground on either side, and have crept into all the crevices and cracks between the paving. When the thyme is in flower, the path is alive with butterflies and bees, and when walked upon, the crushed leaves release their aromatic scent.

Rosemary Verey, another renowned English gardener, planted rock roses in the spaces between the paving stones, transforming a long, straight path into an informal flower garden.

Allow creepers or ground-hugging plants to spread between stepping stones, or leave intentional planting gaps in a wide walkway. In addition to the many varieties of low-growing thyme, other good plants for growing between paving stones include Mazus reptans, members of the mint family including Corsican, pennyroyal and apple mint and chamomile. All these plants are ones that don’t mind being crushed underfoot occasionally, although they cannot take heavy foot traffic.

A path is a conduit from one point to another, but it also represents a journey. That journey can be uninteresting and dull, or a special experience full of visual and olfactory pleasures and surprises. Use plants along your garden paths and walkways to enhance the pleasure of strolling through your garden.

Story by Catriona Tudor Erler