Planting Ideas for Garden Paths and Walkways

There's value in ditching concrete, stone pavers, and gravel in your garden's walkways.

Man walking barefoot on grassy clover pathway

Johner Images / Getty Images

Those who are interested in permaculture and regenerative gardening may be well aware of the benefits — both local and global — of maximizing photosynthesis in a garden. The more plants we include in our spaces, and the greater the number of beneficial interactions between them and the wildlife in the ecosystem, the better. 

One way to make the most of garden space is to opt for living plants to cover garden pathways instead of the traditional concrete, stone pavers, or gravel. It helps to better take care of the soil, nurture life around us, and make our gardens practical and pleasant places to be. 

Planting Between Garden Beds With Beneficial Ground Covers

Some gardeners make the mistake of leaving bare soil between growing areas in their gardens, but bare soil degrades over time. It loses more moisture and the precious soil life will not be able to thrive.

One solution is to create sturdy and replenishable paths of wood chips or other mulch materials between beds or rows. But sowing pathways with beneficial ground covers can potentially bring even more benefits and can sometimes still be a practical choice for your food-producing garden areas. 

The main issue that can arise with living pathways between garden beds, or the rows in a vegetable plot, is an encroachment of the ground cover into your growing areas. In some cases, the simplest option can be to keep grass cover between the beds. 

But the downside of grass cover is it will take some maintenance. Grass pathways between beds or rows will usually have to be mowed frequently, and weeding may be required to keep the grass from invading the crop rows or growing spaces. Planting bed edging of bulbs can help reduce encroachment, but this is usually still something you will need to keep on top of. 

Grass does create a good sturdy ground cover. That said, it can compete too vigorously with crops in some areas. It is also worth bearing in mind that certain other plants will be more beneficial and easier to control.

Using clover as a dominant species for living pathways in a vegetable garden is one excellent option. It can create a ground cover sturdy enough for maintenance and also fixes nitrogen.

Sowing diverse seeds for a mixed lawn — with clover, some grasses, and also wildflowers to attract pollinators and help restrict grass growth — is also a great idea. Ground covers for pathways in a food-producing plot can be seasonal or remain in place throughout the year. 

Planting for a Well-Trodden Path

Breckland thyme, wild thyme
Creeping thyme planted amid a stone pathway. fotokate / Getty Images

Even a very heavy-traffic area can have living plants as part of the path. Rather than creating a solid pathway, you might consider laying stepping stones or pavers with gaps between them. You can plant up the areas between these stones or pavers with a range of low-growing plants that can survive being stepped on. 

Creeping thyme, for example, is excellent for sunnier pathways. As can a range of other low-growing woody herbs and alpine plants. In zones 7-11, Dichondra is another option. You could also try options like isotoma, speedwell, chamomile, low-growing mints, and more, depending on where you live. And in shadier damper spots, mosses/Irish moss can be excellent choices. There are many options that are far more interesting and useful than lawn grass. 

Even lawns do not need to be mundane mono-crop plantations. A well-trodden turf path can be mowed between wildflower meadow areas or wild and "weedy" lawns so you can get easily from A to B. Pavers may not even be necessary. 

An existing gravel path could be planted up with a number of plants that flourish in gravel growing, free-draining conditions, like thyme, Mediterranean herbs, and alpine plants. There is also a range of hardy low growing perennials that thrive growing on a gravel path in shade. 

Living Plant Paths for Low-traffic Areas

For pathways in areas that are not traversed daily, an even wider range of plants can be used to create occasional walkways — with or without pavers in place. Clovers, chamomiles, and a wide range of other ground cover plants can be great for pathways through a part of the garden that you might only visit occasionally, or at certain times of the year. Occasional-use pathways might be left wild throughout much of the year, perhaps only mowed rarely on a seasonal basis. 

The more diverse you make these occasional use living plant pathways, the more beneficial they will be, bringing a wide range of wildlife to your garden and boosting the biodiversity of the garden as a whole. 

Plants can be sufficient ground cover for paths or can take up the space between pavers or stepping stones. Whether you use them to enhance a path or make the path itself, remember to make your garden as lush and green as possible throughout the year. 

Think you do not have space for any more plants in your garden? Think again. Often, thinking about the pathways can open up new and interesting options and possibilities.