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  • Writer's pictureShelley Barnett

A Permanent Path

I did it! After eight years I installed a permanent path though my beloved shade garden. It is no longer a dirt track covered with upstart plants. As weeding my path had been necessary and ridiculous, I've longed to build one that would last. Now I have a path that is attactive, strong and DOES NOT NEED TO BE WEEDED!

My interest in shade gardening began at my previous house where I had limited sun on my beds. Over time I gathered an extensive collection of shade loving plants and when I moved, I took a selection of them with me. A year later, I was still deciding where their new home would be.

temporary bed during my move
temporary bed a year later

At last, I chose the back corner of my yard for the garden. I picked it because of the magnificant tree that grows there with its height drawing you to the garden and its sweeping branches welcoming you.

As I tore out the choking vines and abundant undergrowth, I was excited by what I found. The tree had a network of exposed roots radiating out from it. The roots would oganically define the planting areas so the garden itself would be laid out by the tree that stood at its center. Fantastic!

I lovingly installed my collection of plants among the roots where they have thrived ever since. More on planting this unique garden in Made in the Shade.

Over time I expanded the garden, opening new beds until they surrounded the base of the tree and stretched beyond. As the plants have grown and spread, I've divided them to fill the new areas. Though I have added some new perennials, it tickles me that most came from my original collection.

One of my great joys each year is watching my shade garden awaken in the spring. It has my earliest blooming flowers: winter aconite, snow drops and hellebores, as well as, many other spring favorites: bleeding heart, Virginia bluebells, jacobs ladder, lungwart and fairy wings.

Watch it awaken, from early April to early June:

At the outset I had worn a partial track leading into the garden, but over time it began to feel like a beginning with no end. This inspired me to build a graceful path that curved though the garden, drawing you in, through and out the other side. It brought movement to this area and anchored it as the cornerstone to all my gardens. More on building the original path in A Path to Nowhere.

I covered this first path with a thick layer of bark mulch which looked great that summer. After a couple of years it had completely turned to soil and had weeds growing through it constantly. So, despite the path's importance the function and feel of the garden, it never felt complete.

Can you see the path below?

So this spring I took on the project of building a functional, long lasting path. One that I could easily run my cart over but where I would also savor a shady stroll through the garden. A stroll enjoyed without the distraction of weeds.

Creating a Permanent Path:

  1. Dig down and smooth

  2. Line with the good stuff

  3. Fill with woodchips

  4. Add finishing touches

  5. Divide and rearrange

Dig down and smooth: To begin, I removed the top few inches of soil creating "walls" along the edges that would help hold my top layer in place. This also allowed me to smooth out the base, forming a strong foundation. I set the extra soil aside to use later.

The last third of the path needed more soil not less, so I used the overflow to fill in low areas and build up the edges of the beds. This added polish to the somewhat neglected back of the garden.

I also extened the path to reach my compost piles. It will be wonderful to roll up without worrying about poison ivy among the weeds.

Line with the good stuff: A strong mid-layer is key to block any plants from growing up through the path. I used heavy duty landscape fabric but you could also use a double layer of standard weight. I bought landscape staples to secure my fabric along the various widths and curves of the path. I was suprised to use over 400 staples as I had orginally got a box of 50.

I drove the staples into place with a rubber mallet, trying a new spot each time I hit a rock or a root. Laying the fabric was a slow but satifying process and the result began to feel like a work of art. It felt strange to fully cover it in the end.

Fill with woodchips: For the final layer of my path I used woodchips, adding enough to bring it level with the edges. I chose woodchips over bark mulch because they would take so much longer to decompose. Though I considered using pea gravel, as it would last indefinitely, wood won out.

The look and feel of wood seemed just for this spot. The woodchips are a delightful color now against the green garden and will continue to look charming with age. I also prefer the softer feel of walking on wood over stone. Likewise, I want to hear the birds rather than the crunch, crunch, crunch of gravel.

Add finishing touches: I finished off the path with two pieces of bluestone leftover from building my patio. Digging down into the wood chips before placing the stones was necessary to avoid future bumping and tripping. More on building my bluestone patio in Hip to Be Square.

The stones make a smooth, strudy entrance and help keep the woodchips in place. I plan to add another to the third entrance eventually.

Divide and rearrange: Once the path was completed, I turned my focus to the beds which called for my attention. Many of the plants needed to be divided especially those which had grown into one another. I used the divisions to fill in the empty spots and extend existing borders.

more hosta

European ginger, a low growing groundcover, looks best at the front of a bed. It doesn't bloom but its shiny, deep green leaves are attractive all season. I had some patches that were planted too far in and always hidden. I dug them out and created a ginger border edging one of my beds.

ginger border
ginger border

Then I filled the interior spots with plants more suited for the location. By moving some tall hosta to the back I had room to spread out the shorter hosta in front. I also divided off some of my maidenhair fern to move to more places. This fern is so light and airy that it adds a unique texture among the other plants.

the mama fern
a new maidenhair

It's hard to stop once you begin rearranging your plants but when I was satisfied, I called the project to an end. My beloved shade garden was finally finished and I will walk the path for years to come.

Happy Gardening!


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