You may have already read how I built an informal patio without digging using the tried-and-true smothering technique. Recently I used a variation on this technique to build a packed-gravel path. Building the path required no digging, no edging, and only two materials: gravel (a large-rock kind for an undersurface and a sharp, small-rock kind for the path surface) and wood chips (for everywhere else).
However, it did require patience.
My husband wanted to walk to the back lawn from the spot where he parks his truck. He had to cross a section of old pasture, which was covered with clumps of tall grasses among "weeds" like thistles, curly dock, lamb's quarters, alfalfa, dandelions, plantain, and milkweed. He needed a path.
Here's how I built it.
Step 1. Spread the mulch
I spread wood chips a foot deep across the area in which we would build the path. I made a big enough mulched area to include the path and large planting areas along both sides, so I covered roughly forty square feet. This requred several truckloads of wood chips, which my friendly neighborhood tree trimmer dropped at the edge of the driveway for a pittance.
This type of mulch, by the way, is made up of small sticks and wood pieces. My husband thought it looked a bit messy, but I loved it because it looked just like a forest floor (which it will become, when the trees grow up).
Though I always use wood chips because they're so inexpensive and easy to get, this technique would likely work with another type of organic mulch (pine needles, weed-free straw, etc) if it were piled deep enough to smother the vegetation below it.
The mulch does a better job of smothering if it's laid on layers of cardboard or newspaper. My mulch was deep enough that I didn't bother with the under-layer of paper. It also works better if it's walked on a bit to pack it down.
Step 2. Wait
After I spread it came the hardest part of making the path: waiting at least two months, preferably six, to ensure that the plants under it were well and truly smothered.
Luckily, I had many other garden-related projects to take up my time in the intervening months. Meanwhile, my husband walked across the mulch from his truck, packing it down and muttering to himself (and sometimes to me) that it was ugly and full of sticks and made an annoying crunchy sound underfoot.
Personally, I happen to like the crunching.
Step 3. Mark the path and test it
After a couple of months, I came to a pause in my other projects and was ready to make the path. First I figured out where it should flow and how wide it should be. I laid a hose along one side of the proposed path and walked around to view it from all angles, trying to visualize how the path would look. I pondered it as I drank a cup or two of tea. I walked along it with my arms out, making sure they didn't brush against the low branches of the adjacent mature spruce tree.
Step 4. Excavate
When I was satisfied that it was the right size and in the right place, I removed the top six inches of mulch from the path-to-be. I didn't actually carry the mulch anywhere; I simply put on my gloves, knelt, and pushed it from the path-to-be up onto the banks on both sides. Then I used my feet to pack down the banks.
Where dandelion leaves were growing up through the mulch (yes, some did claw their way to the surface through a foot of wood chips), I dug up the few plants that were directly in the path. For the rest of them, I ripped off their leaves, piled more mulch on top of them, and packed it down.
My main goal in smothering the path area was to get a weed-free path. If the plantings along the path have a few wild plants in them, I won't mind as long as there's room for the plants I want to add.
(Urban and rural gardening seem to be related but different pastimes. In my previous garden, a small city lot, I could afford the energy to dig up the plants I didn't want, such as dandelions, and I dug up many of them because I needed the space. Here, the landscape is too large for that kind of exertion, and I only bother to clear a place here or there as I add plants.)
If you want to be certain of weed-free beds, use paper layers under your mulch and wait at least four or five months to be sure that the plants under the mulch are really dead.
Step 5. Lay gravel
I'd cleared a six-inch-deep channel through the mulch, and this channel was to be our path. We walked up and down it several times to pack the mulch-turned-dirt. It was thick and black like good compost, with tiny bits of pine needle in it. I was sorry to see it paved over instead of planted, but at least it showed me how divine the soil would be in the beds adjacent to the path, and knowing that, I could better figure out what to plant there.
We spread some egg-sized rocks along the path, just one rock deep (about two to three inches), to form a shallow drainage channel. Our neighbor the landscaper came and spread about three inches of smaller-sized gravel (sharp-angled, not round) on top of that.
Step 6. Pack gravel
This top layer was rather fluffy at first, and we sank into it when we walked, leaving footprints. I walked every inch of it, packing it down, but still it shifted slightly underfoot.
Then another neighbor introduced us to his gravel packer. It's a heavy metal barrel attached to a metal harness-type handle. It rolls along on its side, and its weight packs down the surface that it rolls over. You can fill it with water to increase the weight, which we did.
This amazing tool packed the gravel much tighter than we could have in a month of walking. All it took was one pass up the path and another back, and that gravel felt as solid as a cement sidewalk underfoot.
And that's all there was to it. The path has been great. It's lighter-colored than the surrounding mulch, so it shows up at night. (I like to use color contrasts—in hard materials and also in plants themselves—to make paths more visible in the evenings.)
The gravel surface isn't great for going barefoot, but wheelbarrow and lawnmower roll along it smoothly. I made sure to run them both along the proposed path when I figured its width.
The only time that mulch drifts onto the path is when I drag the garden hose across and displace it. I'm thinking I should have used that gravel-packing tool to pack down the mulch too! But planting creepers on the banks to each side of the path will take care of any drifting mulch. If I didn't want to do that, I would line the path with rocks or another hard edge to keep mulch off the gravel. No need to worry about the gravel drifting into the mulch; it doesn't move.
This is the easiest way I've found to build a path with a hard, continuous surface. I'll be interested to hear if it works as well for other people as it has for me. If you try it, please let me know how it works.
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