I am the first to admit that I spend a lot of time worrying about my garden beds, and very little time thinking about my garden pathways. This strategy always backfires on me. Garden pathways play a very important role in the garden, beginning with peace of mind.
In the spring, neglected pathways turn into muddy swamps that make it impossible to access your beds. In the summer, weeds settle in for good, dispersing seeds into your carefully cultivated rows and undoing all of your diligent weeding. In the fall, untended pathways continue to disperse weed seeds and the now thoroughly packed dirt no longer drains away excess water, once again creating a muddy situation. Luckily, there are alternatives to this bleak scenario.
The easiest way to deal with garden pathways is mulch. An application of mulch keeps weeds down, helps prevent soil compaction, preserves moisture, and gives you a dry(ish) path in the middle of mud season. Mulch is affordable, relatively easy move around, and in most cases also biodegradable.
Straw mulch works well for strawberries, tomatoes, and your garden paths. The hollow stems create a cushy barrier between you and the dirt, resisting compaction and keeping you out of the mud. Straw breaks down over time and is usually relatively free of weed seeds, although it can contain chemicals from pesticides and herbicides. If you garden organically, look into buying (or growing) organic straw for your mulch.
Hay mulch is somewhat similar to straw mulch. The stems provided a biodegradable cushion that suppresses weeds and reduces compaction. Hay is, however, full of seeds, and so you might find a carpet of grass growing up in your mulched pathways. Hay is also frequently treated with pesticides and herbicides during commercial production, so it is not always the best choice for organic gardeners. That being said, old or moldy hay is usually available very cheaply from your local farmers. I would strongly recommend wearing a facemask when mulching with hay to prevent accidental inhalation of hay particles, dust, or mold.
Cardboard lacks the aesthetic appeal of straw or hay, but it is free and biodegradable. I have not had as much success with cardboard during mud season as I have other mulches, but it is remarkably good at suppressing weeds, and the worms love it.
Pine needles are an ideal pathway mulch in areas with a lot of pine trees. The needles drain well, keeping your pathways dry and springy. My favorite part about pine needles is their longevity. While they are biodegradable, they take a lot longer to break down than most mulches, which means less work for me. Contrary to popular garden lore, pine needles don't affect soil PH when used as a mulch, but if you are worried about PH in your beds then your pathways are a great place to use surplus pine needles. Just keep in mind that there is always the risk of raking up weed seeds as you collect pine needles.
Conventional mulch, like the kind you buy from the garden store, is a perfectly viable pathway mulch for those of us who can afford it. I personally gravitate towards cheaper mulches, but a shipment of fragrant mulch spread evenly over your garden pathways looks absolutely stunning. Wood mulch is available in different shades of color, and keeps weeds down and compaction to a minimum. This is a good choice for both vegetable and ornamental gardens, and will endear you to your more aesthetically inclined neighbors.
Gravel is another pricey pathway material that looks gorgeous in ornamental gardens. Stones come in a variety of sizes, colors, and textures, and do an excellent job of keeping your feet dry - although I don't enjoy kneeling on gravel to weed! As gravel is not really biodegradable (at least over our lifetimes), you won't need to worry about replacing it as frequently as other mulches, and it does not attract insects.
Wood chips can be found at affordable prices and also take a long time to break down. Wood chip pathways appear neat and organized and drain off excess water, preventing mud puddles from forming around your beds and making it easy to navigate your garden.
Living mulches offer gardeners the best of both worlds. Grasses, cover crops, and non-spreading ground cover green your garden, keeping your pathways healthy, mud free, and attractive. White clover establishes quickly and produces a thick, resilient pathway perfect for large gardens with row crops. Small herbs and other plantings compliment flagstone pathways and keep weeds from growing up around the stones. Turf is another viable option, although it requires regular maintenance. Grass grows quickly in temperate climates, so turf pathways will need occasionally mowing and edging.
Mulching your garden pathways is the perfect early spring activity. It might still be too wet and cold to do much planting, but mulching in the next few weeks will make it much easier to navigate mud season. Get your mulching out of the way before the spring rush with one of these mulches, or tell us about your favorite garden pathway solution in the comment section below.