Have you thought about creating a living path for your garden?
In organic, sustainable gardening one of the key goals is to maximise photosynthesis (and therefore carbon sequestration) as much as possible. This involves thinking about how we can create layered, productive, polyculture planting schemes. Planting areas should be as diverse as possible.
But maximising photosynthesis also means thinking differently about garden design. It means making the most of the sun’s energy by considering planting for edges and marginal spaces. Even in an abundant and productive garden, there may be further areas for planting which have not been fully considered. Pathways are one area whose potential is often overlooked.
A living path is an idea which can allow you to maximise photosynthesis yet further. So in this article, we will explore this idea, and look at options and living path ideas for your garden.
What is a Living Path?
A living path is simply a pathway which does not consist only of inert materials, but which is made up (at least in part) of living plants. This concept involves thinking about paths not as ways to travel between planted areas, but also as planted areas in their own right.
Why Create a Living Path?
As mentioned above, creating a living path is one way to maximise photosynthesis by cramming even more plant life into your garden. Placing plants to form a pathway, or placing plants within a pathway, can help you to maximise the amount of carbon which can be sequestered in your garden. But this is not the only way that a living path can come in handy in a sustainable, organic garden.
Sowing a pathway with living plants can also be a great way to protect the soil – which is crucial for organic gardening. The plants you place may also aid in maintaining the fertility in your garden. They may be helpful to plants placed on either side of the path. And benefit wildlife where you live.
Choosing to place living plants rather than an impermeable pathway material or pavers can also help with water management in your garden. It can help you catch and store the water that falls on your property in plants and soil. And can prevent run off and soil erosion in certain cases.
Living Paths Across a Lawn
First of all, let’s think about living paths across a lawn. Many people will create a pathway across a lawn with pavers of some kind. Others will create concrete or other impermeable and non-natural pathways. But plants can also be used to make paths across a lawn.
Mowed Living Pathways
One way to make a living path across a lawn is to create a mowed pathway between un-mowed or less frequently mowed areas. Remember, lawns certainly do not need to be mono-crop plantations of neat grass species. They can be far more beautiful, diverse and abundant. A neater mowed path between grasses and meadow wildflower species can be a great way to make a practical pathway across a space without adding to the built environment.
Paved Living Path With Planting in Between
In certain areas, especially where there is more foot traffic, mowed areas may become muddy or degraded when used as paths. You may wish to place some (reclaimed or natural) pavers through the space.
Remember, however, that the pavers do not necessarily need to be placed to form a constant surface. You may be able to leave gaps between the pavers. And can then fill those gaps with plenty of low growing plants which are tolerant (at least to a degree) of foot traffic.
A gravel pathway could also be enriched with the addition of some low-growing plants to create a gravel garden.
Many spreading alpine plants, for example, can be tolerant of some trampling and could be placed along paths – even when people may tread on them every now and then. Thymes, chamomiles, and other low growing herbs can be ideal for pathways, and can also smell wonderful when slightly crushed.
Mints and mosses are just a couple of options which can potentially spread well along pathways and between pavers in shadier spots.
Living Path Through a Vegetable Garden or Between Growing Areas
Living paths can also be interesting options to consider for between the rows/beds in a vegetable garden. Or between other growing areas in your garden. Choosing the right plants can enrich the space in numerous ways. And potentially even increase the yield from edible crops.
But sowing pathways with beneficial ground covers can be a good choice for home growers. It can make sure that no space is wasted. And that the pathways themselves in essence form additional companion planting.
The main issue that can arise with living pathways between garden beds, or the rows in a vegetable plot is encroachment of the ground cover into your growing areas. This is frequently a problem when vegetable gardeners have grass paths between the beds. Grass pathways between beds or rows will usually have to be mowed quite frequently, and weeding may be required to keep the grass from invading the crop rows or growing spaces. This is usually quite a high maintenance choice.
When choosing pathway plants for between vegetable beds and other growing areas, competition is a key consideration. It is important to think about the roots and growth habits of particular plants, and to choose plants which will not compete too excessively with crops grown to either side for water and nutrients.
Plants chosen for cover crops/ green manures can also potentially be great plants for pathways in a vegetable garden. Clovers, phacelia, vetches, even annual wildflowers and ‘weeds’ can all be interesting options to consider for living paths that also serve as companion planting.
Think about the edging around beds and along the edges of pathways. This can help stop pathway plants from encroaching into the beds. But edging can also be made from living plants – low lavender hedges, bulbs, or strawberries as bed edging ground cover, for example, may all work well in certain situations.
Living Paths for Forest Gardens or Perennial Planting Areas
Living paths can also work well for a forest garden, or perennial garden. They can also be made up of more shade-tolerant ground cover species which can tolerate some food traffic. White clover can be one good nitrogen fixing option, for example. Though there are plenty of other ground cover plants to consider. There are many plants for a forest garden system which can also tolerate your stepping on them. You can trample them lightly as you move through the space. You might have some paths of wood chip which are walked on more frequently. And some living paths for occasional use (for use when fruit trees are harvested, for example).
These are just some ideas to help you make the most of all the planting space in your garden – including the paths.
Do you have living paths in your garden? Which plant species do you find most useful for this purpose? We’d love to hear your experiences and suggestions in the comments below.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.
To get in touch, visit https://ewspconsultancy.com.