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Robert Smaus

GARDENING : Plants That Stray From the Straight and Narrow Path

June 18, 1988|Robert Smaus

One of the first things visitors notice in my garden is that I grow plants in the middle of the paths. They can hardly not notice, because one could literally trip over them.

I am a firm believer in paths through a garden. A good path shows you where to look, as well as where to go in a garden.

I also believe in wide paths. Nothing cramps a garden like a narrow path. A wide path lets you maneuver a wheelbarrow down the center, or you can walk side-by-side with your wife when discussing what to plant next.

In my garden, the result of these predilections is a path a little over 4 feet wide that runs the length of the garden down one side, defining a flower bed to the left and a lawn to the right.

The paving material is plain old concrete. It is not poured concrete, however, but pavers roughly 2x2 feet. These are set on a 2-inch base of tamped sand with about a 2-inch gap between, a gap wide enough to plant.

The plants are a relief, because while a 4-foot-wide path is most practical, it is a lot of paving. The plants that overgrow it help diminish the size of the path, without making it any less useful.

They also help blend the edges of the garden, which contributes to a more natural feel for the place--the flower beds don't end abruptly at the path, nor does the lawn, but one bleeds into the other.

Planting in the middle of pathways is not an original idea, but it still surprises this most practical modern generation.

"Don't people trip on them?"

No, because they are not in the center of the path but off to either side.

"Well, what about weeds?"

There is no shortage of these to be sure but I have modified a little weeder that fits between the pavers and makes short work of unwanted plants. It is called a Cape Cod Weeder and came from Walt Nicke (Box 667G, Hudson, N.Y. 12534). I filed off about an inch of the blade so it is precisely the width of the gap between the pavers.

"How do you plant in those narrow gaps?"

I use a narrow trowel. I dig up the soil, amend it with sand and organic matter, put it back in and plant. Then I put a mulch of small rock around the plants, which also keeps one's foot from getting stuck in the gap. The path gets watered along with the flower beds.

"Don't the plants get stepped on?"

On occasion, but they are actually quite visible, framed as they are in concrete. More plants get stepped on near the edges of the flower borders than they do growing in the paths. This is where I grow some of my choice plants, rock garden-sized bulbs.

In effect, it works much like the zigs and zags in Japanese paths, slowing one down so there is time to observe the garden and soak up whatever is there. But when you need to get a wheelbarrow down the path, you just roll right over them. They bounce back. Plants that spread too far into the center of the path do get stepped on and learn to grow lower.

I have found the toughest plants to be a little Australian violet Viola hederacea , which grows in shady sections; a gazania-like plant, Drymondia , which could probably be run over by tank tracks; a low-growing yarrow and dianthus, which would be overwhelmed by other plants grown anywhere else in the garden; a creeping oregano and thyme that smell good when they get stepped on, and the creeping Verbena rigida , which brings a most casual air to the planting.

This casual informality is perhaps what I like most about planting in paths. It is well short of looking weedy, but it does look overgrown--nature encroaching on man, wildflowers springing up among the ruins--and nurtures a hope that all the world will not end up paved some day.

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