When you see past the pretty flowers and profuse plantings, you’ll discover that every garden has bones and secrets buried beneath. A garden’s design and its underlying infrastructure dictate how well it works and how much work it takes to maintain that garden.
The Beaten Path
For example, when I visit a garden that has large pathways that have been mowed practically to the ground, I see more work than I would ever want to do.
I see a lawnmower that has to be maintained with regular oil changes, blade sharpening, spark plug replacements, and cans of gas stinking up my car when I haul them. I see the necessity of a large storage area to hide and protect that unsightly and overly loud machine.
Those wide, shorn walkways also tell me weeds must be rampant because the soil is compacted from constant mowing. The operator of the machine must mow often to maintain the illusion of uniformity with weeds erupting at erratic rates. Either that, or they are spraying weed killers that poison the soil.
Paths like that also imply precarious health for the plants that grow along the edges. Those poor path-bound plants can only expand their root system away from the paths and not into them. That means, the garden beds themselves are the only source of moisture and fertility to support plant growth. That inevitably leads to more work caring for the plants.
Yes, I also see an orderliness that does seem attractive at first glance. But the deeper you look, the more you realize those paths aren’t just well-maintained. They are tamed and tortured. They are beaten into submission for an aesthetic ideal that undermines the health of the rest of the garden.
Paths like that, and the kind of thinking that underlies them, are the crux of our current climate crisis and our poor preparation for ever-increasing extreme weather events. Those paths aim to subdue nature, not cooperate with it.
The Simple Path
If you want to grow a simple garden, that produces abundant, nourishing food and beauty, you need to leave those beaten paths out of your design. Instead, you want paths that nourish your soil, connect spaces, discourage soil compaction, and invite life into the garden.
Now, this is your garden and you can have whatever kinds of paths you want. So, if you have your heart set on low cut grass and broad aisles, that is entirely your prerogative. The point of this website, though, is to offer you solutions that help you create a simple homestead that will get better with each simple step you take.
If you want to take the simple approach and use your paths to improve the natural health of your garden over time, I suggest these options.
Option 1: Nutrient Swales
A swale is basically an indention in the soil that causes water to flow into it. Most of the time, you make these “on contour”. On contour simply means that you create them in such a way as to catch and keep water in place, rather than directing downward like a water slide. The opposite of on contour swales are gullies that cause water to rush downhill.
On contour swales are kind of like long thin ponds. However, unlike a pond the goal of this kind of swale is to help water percolate into the ground. You don’t want to actually have standing water in your swales for more than a short period of time.
In the garden, we can use this idea of an on contour swale to make our paths. In dry areas, those swales will collect water and send them into the soil to be saved for later use. In wet areas, those swales offer a place for water to drain off the beds and be moved below the level of the more tender plant roots.
In our gardens though, we don’t want to be walking through pools of water or mud to get to our beds. So we need to use a slightly modified version of the on contour swale. I call these nutrient swales.
Here’s how I make them.
Step 1: Make the Swale
You start by digging out the top soil from your paths and putting it on your garden bed. Dig across slopes so swales become like bowls to catch the downward flowing rain.
This process increases the amount of soil you have in your beds. But it also creates that indentation to catch water. The beds get higher and that paths are a few inches (or more) below the level of the bed. That creates the water catchment zone.
Note: If your paths aren’t quite on contour, e.g. not quite level, you can fix that by how you dig your swale. In areas where water might start to run like a water slide, dig the uphill side deeper. Then leave soil in place where the water would normally start to run faster. That creates a bit of a speed bump in the swale that holds the flow in the deeper area.
Step 2: Fill with Uncomposted Organic Matter
Next, backfill the paths with uncomposted organic matter. If you have a lot of topsoil and your paths are deep (e.g. at least 8-12 inches), you can start by backfilling with all your kitchen scraps and whatever you have been saving in your compost bucket. This essentially becomes a compost trench and is one of the easiest ways to make compost and improve soil quickly.
If you don’t have a lot of food scrap waste, and you need to fill deep swales, you can also use branches and decaying woody material. Then you can cover this with the other compost materials you have. It works as a kind of in ground hugelkultur, breaking down over time and feeding the soil for a few years.
For the top six inches, backfill with whatever greens and browns you are able to source in large quantities. Old hay or straw, mulched yard leaves, grass clippings, newspaper, shredded office paper, cardboard, paper bags, and more all work well.
If you already have livestock, dirty litter works perfect filling in your paths. In my case, I use the litter from my goat barn because it has a mix of hay, straw, goat poop, and urine that cover my paths and nourish neighboring beds as they compost.
If you don’t have livestock, some farmers are happy to have you clean out their barns for them and let you take all that organic matter. Some cities or civic organizations also offer free leaf litter or municipal compost at certain times of the year.
Worst case scenario, you may have to buy some inexpensive filler such as straw bales and composted cow manure. This is an absolutely worthwhile investment in a new garden.
Step 3: Cover the Organic Matter
After I have filled the swales back up to level with all that good organic matter, I wait a few days until the materials settle. Then, I top the paths of with some kind of wood mulch.
The mulch you can get free when the electric company cuts trees in your area is awesome for paths. Shredded hardwood, bark, wood chips, and more all work well for this.
If you don’t have access to free or inexpensive wood mulch, you can use pine shavings, bark, or needles. Saw dust is another possible option. Even old carpets turned upside down and cut to the size of your path will work.
You just need to create a permeable surface that will slow down weed growth and be comfortable and safe for you to walk on. Ideally this material will last at least a year before it decays into compost.
Maintenance: Top off Your Paths
As needed you can top off your paths with new organic matter to bring them back up to level with the beds. I tend to fill mine annually in late-winter before I start preparing my beds for planting. This has the added benefit of increasing the temperature of the soil if the paths start to heat up from composting activity.
Benefits of Nutrient Swale Paths
These paths promote good drainage. They feed the soil in your garden beds because soil inhabitants move between the paths and the beds transporting nutrients into the beds. They store water and offer your plants additional room to expand during drought or if soil nutrients in the beds are lacking.
They do require a bit of work up front. However as long as you go heavy on the organic matter and covering, they offer wonderful weed control and reduce the need for watering your beds. They also give you an easy way to compost large quantities of materials without having to build or turn a pile.
Overall, this method saves tons of time on gardening throughout the year while improving your soil. I use it in all of my gardens.
Also note: For things you bokashi, your deeper garden path swales make a great place to bury those bokashied items too!
Option 2: Permeable Rock Paths
For some of my wider paths that I can’t source enough organic matter to fill, I still dig out the topsoil and use it on beds. Then I cover those beds with rocks that I dig out or collect from other areas of the property.
Rocks, contrary to popular belief, do not reduce weed pressure. Those rocks are a perfect hiding place for soil life and weed seeds. Each time it rains, any dust or soil that has accumulated on the rocks, gets washed into the crevices where soil inhabitants turn those bits of dirt into gummy, growth-promoting goodness.
In fact, in areas with too little soil to dig, I love to cover those places with rocks to build soil. Then a few years later, I move the rocks somewhere else and plant cover crops where the rocks were.
The thing rocks are really good for is making weeds stand out. If you see them and pull them early, before the deep tap roots get established, you can reduce work. Also, since the rocks help hold moisture in the soil, those weeds are easier to pull than in dry, compacted soil.
Those rocks warm and dry faster. They also shed water and promote drainage. So, they melt snow and become walkable sooner than grass does.
I never put weed mat under my rocks any more. Weed mat simply gives aggressive weeds something easy to anchor to. It creates more work than it’s worth.
Also, if you don’t have rocks, things like oyster shells gleaned from seafood restaurants and corks from wineries also make for interesting permeable paths. The oyster shells stink at first, but that dissipates quickly.
Option 3: Weed to Meadow Paths
Yep, you read that right. I also like to use weeds in my paths. If you steal the topsoil from your paths to put on your beds, weeds will eventually come. They will grow quickly to help heal that disturbed land.
I let them grow, but I mow them with a push mower weekly to keep them from flowering. I do pull out any of the branching grasses, like crabgrass, since those can quickly become more work than they are worth in terms of healing your soil.
If weeds start to get too aggressive in any particular area I cover them with a piece of old carpet, the leg of a pair of jeans weighted with rocks, or plastic bags (careful plastic can be slippery). That keeps the weeds from seeding into the garden beds and creating more work long term.
Once you get a bit of topsoil back in those rows (thanks to the weeds doing their healing work), you can plant lawn clover as your grass substitute. When you get a bit more soil back from the clover, plant meadow grasses. Try to find perennial grasses that are native to your area or that grow well in your climate.
Keep your paths narrow to reduce maintenance. If using a push mower, paths should be as wide as your mower so you only need to make one pass on each row. If using a weed trimmer or hand scythe, then make paths only as wide as you need them to walk and squat comfortably for gardening.
Also, except as necessary to prevent weeds from flowering and seeding out, do not mow your paths lower than 4 inches tall. Taller top growth, and less frequent mowing, promotes deeper roots. Deeper roots allow water to percolate into the soil and promote better drainage.
This option is lowest on my list because it does take a bit more work on a regular basis than the other two. Yet, its still a lot more simple than trying to maintain lush lawns using chemicals, motorized mowers, and more as you see in more conventional gardens.
Homework and Your Next Simple Step
Take some time to think about the kind of paths you want in your homestead potager. Determine if they support the overall health of your garden. Consider the materials you have available or can free or cheaply source near you.
Hang on to that information and those ideas for the next post on garden beds. Beds and paths must work together to create a cohesive environment for plants to thrive. So, in our next post, we’ll cover some bed designs that work well for a simple homestead potager garden.
Then, in the post right after that, we’ll finalize our design so we can get to work building a potager garden!