Up the garden path

In all seasons, there is one area in the garden which we enter - or at least pass through - every day. It greets us in the morning and it brings us home every evening. It welcomes visitors and it hosts farewells. It brings in the new and ushers out the old. It's the garden path or, more precisely, the path to the front door.

A path to the front door, lined with Box (Buxus sempervirens) in a garden designed and planted by us (Howbert & Mays)

In winter we may just pass along it with our collars up and eyes down. In summer we may linger with spirits raised. But whatever the weather, the garden path is probably the most frequented part of the garden: which all goes to make it a Very Important lace. A front garden - and most of all the garden path, or the route to front door if there isn't a precise path - shows how you want to present yourself to the world. A well-loved front garden and unkempt back garden raises the same important question which you can have about your car: is it more important to clean the outside, and show a good side to the world at large, or to clean the inside because you're 'worth it' (and want to be clean and comfortable too.)

pebble mosiac path in Bray

A Victorian pebble mosaic path in Bray, Co Wicklow, complete with traditional glazed rope edging.
 
For these reasons, it's a good idea to think about the garden path: materials, lines and flow, as well as the plants around it. In the past, especially on grander houses, the path to the front door was often elaborately paved. Availability of materials rather than a conscious decision to be worthy was behind the choice of 'locally-sourced' products. Coastal parts of Dublin have (or had) paths made from pebbles, artfully arranged into wonderful patterns. More inland parts of the city had more tiles or bricks. But all in all, there was a necessity to use materials that, if not entirely local, were at least from somewhere nearby. Thus, granite, brick, beach pebbles and tiles were the main materials used in the Dublin area.

Path in Bray

A concrete path to the front door, bordered by fabulous Kniphofia and succulent plants.
 
These days when labour is so expensive, a complicated pebble mosaic is pretty well out of the question in most cases. A no-labour alternative which still uses local materials is gravel. Gravel has the advantage of being cheap, easily installed, free-draining and noisy - excellent if you like to hear footsteps as they approach the door. The down-side is that is can get stuck in shoes and work its way into the house where it is a nuisance. It is however, relatively 'soft' compared to, say, a paved surface. Other options for the path to the front door include paving stones, cobble-lock or various combinations such as paving stones set in gravel.

Pebble mosaic path in Bray

Spring bulbs and roses flank the path, terminating in two superb Pyracantha (Firethorn) against the house.
 
From a planting point of view, many winter-flowering plants come with the advice 'plant somewhere that you will pass in winter so that the blooms can be appreciated'. This advice makes sense as most winter-flowering plants are fairly subtle in terms of their blooms: Sarcococca, Hellebore, Snowdrops and Daphne are all plants that take a bit of looking at (and sniffing) to appreciate. At the far end of the garden they would be lost and their scent unappreciated. Box (Buxus sempervirens) is an excellent plant for bordering a path to the front door. Although much planted, it is unbeatable as a low, formal, low-maintenance hedge or specimen.  It is low enough for the subtle plants behind it to be seen and appreciated but also evergreen. Its new leaves in early summer are cheery and it adds a sense of formality. Other plants that make an excellent formal or semi-formal edge include Lavender (the best ones for Ireland are 'Hidcote' and 'Munstead'), Iberis sempervirens (Candytuft) or, if you have lots of space, Nepeta 'Six Hill's Giant' (Catmint). Nepeta does what many people want lavender to do - masses of lilac flowers, a haven for bees and butterflies - but it is pretty vigorous and is best when cut back in mid-summer so that it can have a second round of flowering later in the year. This also keeps its size in check.
 

Garden path

A pebble mosaic path near Monkstown in Co Dublin.

decaying cobble path

Another pebble mosaic path in Co Dublin: weeds are starting to gain a foothold.

 

 

garden path with concrete

Tragedy revealed: new over old: under every concrete path how many older paths are there?

Paving stones through gravel in a pretty cottage garden path to the front door in North Dublin.