Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Garden Diary: Practical Paths, Visual Structure, Metaphorical Leanings

 Midway in life's journey, I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.
- Dante, The Divine Comedy

A friend recently sent me a CD of photos he took in the garden last summer, almost exactly a year ago. He visited before I started replacing the messy, temporary wood chip paths--which had just washed away yet again in a heavy rain--with much more substantial gravel paths. This was a propitious gift; it helped me clarify my goals in this garden on Federal Twist Road. 

(And that quote from Dante? I have to admit it doesn't at all express my own present state of mind, but I do believe it captures a universal human paradigm that we find in the subtext of many gardens, certainly in mine.)

When we bought the house five years ago, the land was covered with 50-year-old cedars. To make room for a garden, we had sixty or seventy cedars felled, chipped, and removed. I asked the contractor to leave several large piles of wood chips for use in making paths. At that time, I had no clear plan, but knew the chips would come in handy. As the garden took shape, I used the wood chips to lay out the paths that defined the garden. There were very few plants at that time, so these pathways were what defined the layout of the garden.

These chips were certainly useful and easy-to-work-with material but, over several years, they proved to have many disadvantages. They easily washed away in heavy rains, they decomposed and sank into the wet clay, they required constant replenishment, and possibly most important, they didn't make a pleasant walking surface. The garden is wet through most seasons, so the wood chips (above) often left visitors with an unpleasant sense of walking through a soggy field ... highly atmospheric, but not a pleasure up close ...

Last fall I began the laborious, and costly, process of building new gravel paths. (With help, of course; I couldn't transport those tons of gravel, by hand cart, myself.) The process took about seven months, with work only on weekends, and a long work stoppage during the heavy snow of winter. The new gravel path (below) makes a solid walking surface well above the wet. Even more importantly, the contrasting color and mass of the gravel add a strong visual structure, providing a clear sense of direction, making spatial relationships easier to grasp, and linking together the different parts of the garden.

Below, on the backside of the garden, you can see the old path tended to fade into the background ...

... while, in dramatic contrast, the gravel replacement (below) rather forcefully carries the eye through a series of curves ...

... and creates a strong sense of direction and anticipation. What is out of view just around the corner?

In August 2009, the path at the east end (below) was virtually disappearing ...

... but by August 2010, the gravel path (below) has become an armature guiding the view across the width of the garden, highlighting the shapes, colors, and textures of the plantings (and clearly showing where plantings need to be improved, especially along the more sharply defined path edges).

Similar story at the west end, which last year was a flat, static field, with little sense of anticipation, and a generally messy appearance...

... the gravel path (below) juts forcefully into the profuse plantings, creates a felt bodily desire to move forward, a beckoning.

Looked at from the high point of the house (to the upper left above), the paths draw out the subtle lines of the landscape--like a graphic or a musical interpretation of the hydrologic flow patterns of the land--calling to mind a river or a stream flowing across the surface and down the gentle slope toward the creek at the bottom of the valley.

The paths also function at a conceptual level; the sense of physical movement they create also suggests a metaphorical journey, and by extension a mindful questioning--certainly an age-old gardening concept, particularly in Japanese gardens. Thanks to that gift of a CD from a friend, I've been better able to articulate my intention to myself. (To find my way out of the woods, so to speak.) I'm aiming to create a sensually appealing environment, but one that goes beyond the physical environment to evoke a thoughtful repose and contemplation of larger questions.

Photos of bark paths by Ragnar Naess


  1. Dear James, The gravel paths are indeed a great improvement upon their bark predecessors. Imust admit that I have no love of bark either as a paving material or as a mulch. It never seems to me to perform either function satisfactorily and other materials produce better and more satisfactory results.

    For my own part, I favour the golden gravel which in the UK is indigenous to the county of Hampshire. When raked neatly and often I find that gravel paths can be maintained beautifully weed free with relatively little work. Bark on the other hand, as you say here, just disintegrates into a soggy mush.

    I can see the appeal of the sinuous nature of the pathways you have created in the landscape here, but, for me, I should prefer more purposeful direction at times in order to 'pull' the visitor through whilst still retaining a sense of mystery when paths take unexpected turns.

  2. I love your paths...they really do help to delineate the layout and create a sense of movement and "destination" to the garden! I'm forwarding your pics to my partner, who I've been trying to convince that gravel paths are the way to go in our garden.

  3. I am still working with mown grass paths, but I do like your gravel ones. I am also keen to use our indigenous stone (which bubbles up out of the ground here) for some more cobbled paths close to the house. Not the most comfortable under the feet but the only authentic paths for our Jacobean farmhouse.

  4. What a difference a year makes. The paths look great. They are the perfect compliment to your naturalistic garden. Love it.

  5. Dear Edith,
    I wish I had a choice of gravel. Actually, I do have a limited choice, and have added a finish layer of what here is called "pea gravel" in light tones of tan and gray in some areas. I plan to complete that process in the coming months. As to the "purposeful direction" to which you refer, I can say I wish at times to have my garden in another place, an open place, not surrounded by woods, and a modernist house overlooking it all. A straight line here would look out of place, particularly because the house is sited at an acute angle to the property line, so that it actually faces a rather close wall of trees, with the bulk of the garden flowing off to one side. It's a very asymmetrical layout. That, with the surrounding woods, makes anything bordering on a straight line or more formal layout seem inappropriate, to say the least. But I get you point, certainly, and appreciate you comments, as always.

  6. Scott,
    I agree with you on the pleasure of gravel as a paving material. I also like hard, geometric paving, and in another environment could easily have gone in that direction. Have you seen photos of some of Mein Ruys' early modernist gardens? I love the way the concrete and stone paving in grid and geometric layouts has aged. Good luck convincing your partner. I had the same problem, but he gave in, finally. (He's not the gardener in the family.)

  7. Michael,
    Thank you. I always appreciate your encouraging comments.

  8. elizabethm,
    I know you left a comment because it came to my email, but for some reason it does not appear here. I agree with your use of indigenous stone for paving, and all my stone walls are of local stone, from the immediate vicinity. Unfortunately, I have no knowledge of where my gravel comes from. But we do have two local gravel quarries, so I believe it too is probably local. Your house is Jacobean? So very old. Our cultures are so very different.

  9. Appreciate the comparative essay - makes it easy even for Luddites like me to see and appreciate your hard work all the more. It and your prose reveal a muscular Christianity I never suspected of you!

  10. Hold on, GAT! I certainly did NOT mean to give that impression. You can call me Jewish or Unitarian, perhaps, more properly one with mystical leanings, but not a Christian by any means. As far as I'm concerned, the Southern Baptists and their ilk own that label.

  11. I find the improvement to an already beautiful space by the addition of gravel to be nearly miraculous, James! How wonderful of your friend to give you a cd of your garden past. We are the proud owners of gravel paths as well. I love the volunteer seedlings produced in the gravel, ready to be moved to appropriate spaces without digging. We have mulched one problem area, an old carpark, with pea gravel for a new Gravel Garden ala Beth Chatto.

  12. I did not know you had to take so many cedars from your garden. It would have created completely different garden (or none at all). It was likely good that you used mulch to begin with, especially if you wanted to redirect or tweak the paths. Now that they are in stone you must like where they lie. I use pea gravel in my back yard, but I have such a small garden that it is affordable, though they are in need of refurbishment.

  13. Frances.
    I like your gravel garden idea. That's really what I have around the house. It came that way, paved in pea gravel. I'm gradually removing the plastic liner under it so more seeding can take place.

  14. Les,
    I never even considered leaving the cedars. When we moved here, we left a house with "big sky" and a beautiful sunset every day. Here, I haven't ever been able to see the sun set. Too many trees; not exactly the ideal place for a garden, but I decided to go with the flow, and find plants that could grow in this man-made clearing in the woods.

  15. I, too, love the distinction between path and exhuberant growth because all at once it provides visual rest, grounding and predictability (in both texture and dimension). And I especially like the border of larger stones you've given it.

    Speaking of pea gravel, I have always found that paths of this material make walking difficult since it's like treading on rolling marbles. Do you find this with yours? I know that similar pathways in the UK use what's called 'grit', more like our fine gravel. But whenever I want to do such a path, the material available around these parts ends up having the look of a commercial parking lot.

  16. Ailsa,
    You're very insightful ("visual rest, grounding and predictability"). I have to agree with you about the pea gravel. Over half the paths are still lacking their finish layer of pea gravel, and I find it much easier to walk on the base layer of bluish stone. I prefer the look of the pea gravel and the sound it makes as it's walked on, but it is harder to walk on it. I've thought of using crushed stone, but I fear it will just disappear into the spaces between the base stone layer. I should experiment and give it a try.



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