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Off the beaten path

February 22, 2007|Jake Townsend | Special to The Times

WHEN it comes to garden walkways, gravel and decomposed granite are fine choices to lay underfoot, but sometimes gardeners want to follow a more creative path. Less conventional materials such as lava rock or even tumbled glass can pave the way to garden trails as striking as the surrounding landscape.

Paul Robbins, a Los Angeles-based landscape architect, has used bark and different rocks to create garden pathways for clients as diverse as Ringo Starr, "Casino Royale" director Martin Campbell and oil heiress Anne Getty. He suggests using rock that is between three-eighths inch and one-half inch thick. Anything smaller, he says, and the material may stick to shoes and be tracked into the house; anything larger might be difficult to walk on.

At Sunburst Decorative Rock in Irwindale, which stocks dozens of path materials, manager Alex Green also recommends smaller rock to avoid twisted ankles. But what about smooth versus rough? It's a trade-off. Rounded polished stones feel nice on bare soles, Green says, but they slide more underfoot. Rough-edged rocks grip to one another better, so they slip less and settle more evenly.

Green recommends laying down a weed barrier first, then spreading a 1 1/2 -inch layer of your path material. Others choose instead to lay a 2-inch thick base layer of pea gravel, topped with a 1-inch thick layer of decorative rock. Measure the square footage of your path, decide how thick you want the top layer to be, then ask vendors for help calculating how many pounds you will need.

No matter which material you choose or how thick you lay it, remember that it may wash away during rains or be scattered with heavy foot traffic. Don't be surprised if you have to replenish the path in six months or a year.

Shape, size, color, texture -- the number of looks is staggering. A sampling of the options:

1. Bark

Bark has a soft, natural look that works well in many California gardens. It comes in nuggets of various sizes, but for the most even, cushioned walk, look for a shredded variety with tiny bark pieces intermingled with soft, almost filament-like strands of wood. The type shown here was purchased at Home Depot; a bag with enough to cover several square feet sells for $3.99.

2. Pea gravel

This workhorse material can be found at most building supply stores. At La Canada Rustic Stone in Pasadena, a 70-pound sack of rock similar to the one shown here sells for $3.10; a "half-scoop," which is about 500 pounds, sells for $11.

3. Red lava

"This is one of our most popular choices," says Miguel A. Macario, manager of Bourget Bros. Building Materials in Santa Monica. This seven-sixteenths-inch rock comes from Hawaii and costs about $7 per 50-pound bag.

4. Green glass

"One of our customers used this glass to give the look of a dry water bed," says Molly Thongthiraj, co-owner of the California Cactus Center in Pasadena. Made from recycled Chardonnay bottles, the glass is easy to maintain. And yes, you can walk on it, Thongthiraj says. It's about $2 per pound.

5. Multicolor glass

This unusual mixture is made from recycled plate glass. The milky white base color has intermittent flashes of red and green. Though the pieces look razor sharp, West Los Angeles Building Materials says the glass has been tumbled so that you can walk on it in bare feet. A 30-pound bag costs about $50.

6. Red brick

This three-eighths-inch material looks exactly as the name implies: teeny pieces of broken brick. Rough edges add visual depth and complexity. A 70-pound bag, enough to cover about 5 square feet, sells for $6.25 from Sunburst Decorative Rock in Irwindale.

7. Surf green

For a completely different garden palette there's this three-eighths-inch mix, which delivers a range of greens, blues and grays. The flat shape of many pieces -- like miniature slabs of flagstone -- helps to differentiate "surf green" from the usual pea gravel. A 70-pound bag is $6.25 at Sunburst.

8. Black lava

The large rock commonly seen as groundcover in commercial settings comes in smaller sizes that make for striking pathways. This five-sixteenths-inch rock, dubbed "black cinder" at Sunburst, is $6.25 for a 70-pound bag.

9. Coral

A popular alternative to pea gravel, this one-half-inch "coral gravel" from Utah glows softly in sunlight because of the stones' translucence. Colors ranges from milky white to a rosy blush. "It looks beautiful when wet," says Macario of Bourget Bros., where a 75-pound bag costs $14.58.

10. NexPave

If you have walked public trails in Southern California, you likely have tread upon NexPave, a wax-coated soil from Corona-based Gail Materials. Aggregate is mixed with food-grade wax to seal out water. "Natural stone or gravel will wash away in the rain," manager David Dzwilewski says. But with NexPave, "water runs over it, not through it." The material also produces less dust, he says. The downside: Erosion can occur at the edges of pathways because water runs over the sealed surface and down the sides of the path. Still interested? You better have a big project. NexPave is about $115 per ton, available through Gail Materials.

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