Small Backyard Designs: Pathway Ideas for Your Seattle Garden

By Janine Anderson
Professional Member, APLD

Paths are:

  1. A means of getting from point A to point B
  2. Potentially the most evocative element in a landscape
  3. A calculated method of controlling the visitor’s experience in a garden
  4. A way to reduce the size of large planting areas
  5. All of the above

Ideally, the answer should be E, all of the above. Paths serve many functions. Getting from point A to point B is essential, but it is just one element of a well-designed path. Answers B, C, and D help control how you and others experience a garden, and a well-designed and strategically sited path can enhance that experience.

In addition to the basic layout of a path, its materials contribute to its style and effect. Pathways can be formal, casual, modern, rustic, straight, sinuous, whimsical, controlled, tidy, challenging, etc. Generally, main paths, such as the path leading to your front door, should be free of obstacles and safe for all to navigate. As you move farther away, your path can become rustic and meandering, forcing the walker to slow down to appreciate the landscape as they move through it.

A variety of paths, from the most straightforward to the free-spirited, are represented in this article. Materials, designs, and functions are addressed, as well some issues related to transitional zones, terrain, and mobility. As you consider your path, think about how you want your visitor to feel when on it. Where would you like them to pause and look around? How do you want to direct their focus?

A Plethora of Paths
A unifying element among the most crisply designed paths is a fixed edge. Edging makes a path unambiguous. It clearly defines the path and helps keep pathway materials in the path, and soil, mulch, and plantings in the garden bed. A previous article in this series discussed edging in greater detail.

The following shows a traditional craftsman-style home with a straightforward and level entry walk that complements the style of the home. Backyard and side paths are more casual.

Entry path, concrete pavers, traditional design
Five-foot-wide path leading from the sidewalk to the front porch complements traditional design of house.
Pavers are Holland Cascade Blend from Mutual Materials.
Photo and design by North Beach Landscapes

In contrast, the next photo shows another generously wide entry path, but of a radically different and more contemporary style.

Entry path, poured concrete, contemporary design
This very modern home and garden is accessed via a poured concrete walkway. Design by Scot Eckley.
Photo courtesy of North Beach Landscapes

Here, a traditional home is given a facelift with a sideyard path of modern design.

Side path, Pennsylvania bluestone, modern design
Contemporary take on sideyard path features sandset bluestone pavers and steel edging with ornamental grasses and Mexican beach pebbles. Design by Lisa Port, FAPLD.
Photo courtesy of North Beach Landscapes

The next garden is accessible to one and all, given the wide, level path that wanders through it.

Garden path, poured concrete, contemporary design
Accessible poured concrete path with a colored stain weaves through garden, creating a stunning effect. Design by Vanessa Nagel, NCIDQ, APLD; photo courtesy of North Beach Landscapes

Stepping stones. A wide variety of materials can be used as stepping stones. Flagstone, basalt, and concrete pavers are just a few examples of the materials that can be employed.

Backyard path, Pennsylvania bluestone, casual design
Sandset flagstone path surrounded by buckshot gravel connects two patios.
Photo and design by North Beach Landscapes

Garden path, concrete pavers, gravel
Concrete pavers set in gravel create a casual path that is also easy to navigate. Spacing of pavers determines the pace through the garden, almost forcing visitors to stop and smell the lavender. Border plantings soften the edge the path.
Photo courtesy of North Beach Landscapes

Garden path, granite pavers, mondo grass
Dwarf Mondo grass softens the large granite slabs that lead onto lawn in garden path designed by Lisa Bauer, FAPLD.
Photo courtesy of North Beach Landscapes

Garden path, mixed materials, artful design
Creativity and craft were required for this path of Pennsylvania bluestone and bricks set in gravel. Though safely navigable, one still needs to pay attention owing to the irregular materials and spacing.
Photo courtesy of North Beach Landscapes

Garden path, stepping stones, woodchips
Alder chips surround stepping stones in the garden of designer Barbara Lycett, APLD.
Although the stones are stable and well spaced, visitors still need to watch their footing as they tiptoe down this primrose path. Photo courtesy of North Beach Landscapes

Crushed rock paths. Gravel can make a great path. It is widely available, is relatively inexpensive, and can be replenished as needed. When compacted, gravel with fines, such as 1/4”–3/8” minus crushed granite, creates a hard surface similar to concrete. Clean gravel, such as ¾” clear crushed granite, doesn’t compact as well and moves some when walked on, but its crunchy feel and sound underfoot can be pleasing.

Sideyard path, gravel, steel edging
Sinuous path of compacted ¼” minus crushed granite with steel edging in sloped sideyard moderates speed through garden and provides planting “pockets” for home orchard.
Photo and design by North Beach Landscapes

Backyard path, gravel, casual design
Low dry-stack wall restrains gravel path on left side, while right side is held in place by single tier of wall stone.
Photo and design by North Beach Landscapes

Limestone path, informal edge, desert garden
Etched rock along Desert View Trail at Tohono Chul gardens in Tucson describes the informal edging along this meandering desert path. Photo courtesy of North Beach Landscapes

Other pathway materials. Alder and cedar woodchips are used often as pathway materials. They are relatively inexpensive, simple to install, and easy to walk on. Newly applied, they make a garden look fresh. As they decompose, they can help improve the soil in the garden beds.

Backyard path, cedar chips, relaxed design
Lush plantings are on display in the hillside garden of designer Susan Picquelle. Cedar chip paths afford close-up views of her many specimen plants.
Photo courtesy of North Beach Landscapes

Don’t be afraid to think outside the box when considering pathway materials. Widely available reused and recycled materials can make truly unique pathway.

Backyard path, poured concrete, recycled glass
Recycled glass tiles from Bedrock Industries break up monotony of poured concrete walkway in the garden of Daniel Sparler. Photo courtesy of Susan Picquelle

Narrow strips of lawn can create pleasing and functional surfaces for paths. They are soft underfoot, and their lush green has a calming effect.

Sod path, lush effect, relaxed design
A generous swath of sod creates lush path through planting beds.
Photo courtesy of North Beach Landscapes

Boardwalks can also make dreamy paths that can evoke a lakeside getaway or a wetland walk, though care must be taken if they become slippery when conditions are wet or icy.

Boardwalk path, no-mow lawn, casual design
Visitors reach the front door of this home via a rustic boardwalk that meanders through a sea of no-mow lawn.
Photo and design courtesy of North Beach Landscapes

Final Thoughts
A successful landscape requires paths that are well thought out and executed. They should not only provide access where needed, but also generate an emotional response at strategic points. The style of your home and accessibility issues are important considerations, but not the only ones. Pathway configuration, scale, and materials also play critical roles. Professional landscape designers have spent countless hours studying a plethora of paths, so don’t hesitate to contact one if you find yourself going around in circles.