Pathways: A Garden Divided “Part One”

What do you picture in your mind when I write the word ‘garden’?

It’s different for everyone. There are those who think of endless beds, full of flowers that are always in bloom. Maybe it’s having plants that surround your house without a lawn in sight. Is it what you grow in containers on a balcony or patio? What about the garden being a view through a window, which I wrote about here (click!). For me a garden is where I can be alone with my plants. I hardly ever visit with anyone there.

What I have learned from working in gardens for 20+ years is that almost no one thinks of people when they think of gardens, but what is a garden if people aren’t considered in the planning and enjoyment of it? From this gardener’s perspective, it can make for a very unwelcoming space, but who wants to hear that from their gardener? This is why I write.

So, why no consideration for people?

Let me just start by saying that I don’t think it’s intentional. We’re just not seeing the whole picture. My theory is that when you “picture” a garden you’re only thinking about the plants. This visualization gives you pleasure and you automatically assume that this is all that is required to get enjoyment from it. It’s important to not stop there, but to then consider the human element and how different areas are to be experienced.

Paths: a way to include people or just control their experience?

Here’s where I could get into trouble; suggesting that gardeners have controlling personalities! Awhile back I came up with a definition for gardeners, “A gardener is a person who has opinions about plants.” I came to this conclusion while doing some soul searching, asking questions like, “Why do I care so much about a plants color and placement? Why does this matter to me? Why so opinionated?!!” Eventually, I figured out that this was what made me care enough to bother with all of the time and work it takes to create such a place. Gardeners: we care a lot!

A Way In

While pathways give you access to the garden, they can limit the way you engage with the space while there. By their very nature, they “direct” you and show you exactly where to go. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing to keep people on “track”. You can’t have them tramping all around and going through the beds! Even just the thought makes me feel a little anxious…

A problem I have with pathways is that most of them go nowhere, with some actually stopping abruptly in a random spot. Another common scenario is, you’re walking along and before you know it, you’re right back to where you started from! Was there really no where to stop along the way? If not, then why not? A pathway is like a hallway, it should take you somewhere; a room, a place to sit, a view or a surprise just around the corner! Give me a reason, a pleasant reward for my effort!

Another issue with garden paths is that they are not made wide enough.

Scissor-walk through the barberry!

It’s as if pathways are seen as wasting space that could be used for more plants! What generally happens is that once the plants grow to their mature size they encroach and take over that little bit of space that was intended for movement and function. Three feet is a minimum. Anything less is not functional for maintenance or enjoyment and both of these activities are what makes a garden a garden.

A narrow path suggests rapid movement,

with the effect being very trail-like. This can be a good way to create a strong relationship between two points, but consider if that is the purpose of your path. When your forced to walk in a single file, company and conversation are restricted and your not encouraged to stop along the way. Are we walking for enjoyment or just an end to a means?

A wider path will allow for a slower, more meandering progression through a garden.

One of the gardens at Lake Merrit Oakland, CA.

Here is where the rhythm can vary. The feeling is more casual: you can pause to observe a point, accommodate side-by-side strolling or even room to pass someone coming from the opposite direction. If your garden is full and lush with plants reaching out to you, consider a path five feet or wider. It sounds like a lot, but it’s not, and you’ll be happy with the results if you plan it that way. Just remember, pathways don’t take away from a garden, they add to the experience of it!

Stay tuned for Pathways: a Garden Divided “Part Two”!!!

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9 thoughts on “Pathways: A Garden Divided “Part One”

  1. I think of a garden as an exhibit in an outdoor plant museum with the gardener as the curator. What I picture in my mind is very much the endless beds of blooming flowers that you described above!

    An interesting pathway is the one through a maze. I’ve heard that if you follow along one side of it as you walk, you will eventually make your way through to the end. I’m not sure if that’s true or not, but it’s kind of fun to think about!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You guessed Part Two?!!
      No, just kidding! That is something I should start to think about and see where that gets me….
      I like your concept of a garden and its gardener!:)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You’ve added philosophy and literary good taste to your concept of a garden and its need for a properly suited and sculpted pathway, which serves a person’s slow moving meditations , companionship among the flower beds and shrubberies, and the soothing response of a sighing ,”Yes”. Exquisitely done! The applause is deafening! DAD

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The book “Herbs and Savory Seeds” that I recently picked up, has a chapter on Magic Gardens AND Mazes and Labyrinths. Really fascinating but looks like a lot of work! They also give lots of information on ancient gardens with illustrations! I’m saving it for you!!!!! dear Bridget…..keep up the good work/writing!


  4. i love this blog. i believe a garden is for people to enjoy and it should have lots of blooms. i also believe a path makes a garden.
    john estes


  5. I work with so many different kinds of gardens, and only a few are residential. My own garden is very plain and utilitarian. Yet, even the most lush must be maintained. The gardens of the arboretum are only there as a home to all the stock plants that provide cuttings for production. They are not presented very well, and are arranged in patters to make them very accessible, and to be productive, like orchards for cuttings. Even forested areas that get assumed into an adjacent garden must be modified for maintenance and accessibility.


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