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Garden pathways, if done well, are easily kept weed free and can even benefit your garden by maintaining it—how nice would a two-in-one job be?
Well, a hundred gardeners shared the way they maintain their pathways and I share all the best methods in this post!
Keeping weeds down in the garden is half the battle if your pathways haven’t been established properly. We’ve been there!
While it seems unbearably daunting, weed management will become easier over time, as you take consistent action.
The fact is, everything would be overrun with plants if we stopped intervening. So maintaining a weed-free environment will always require you to lift a finger in some way.
Mulching, mowing, hoeing, and pulling are the actions required to keep garden pathways free of weeds. Some pathways stay weed free a lot longer than others and each type of path requires different maintenance to keep weeds suppressed.
The resources that you have available will determine the lowest cost and maintenance type of garden path for you.
To understand all the kinds of garden pathways, I’ve compiled all the best ones and what maintenance will be required for them.
By the end, you’ll know which one is the most efficient for you.
To begin, scroll through the whole post or pick the garden pathway you have, or are thinking about having:
- Stone garden paths
- Dirt garden paths
- Mulch garden paths
- Living-mulch garden paths
Before installing any garden path, you’ll need to clear the existing weeds properly to work from a fresh slate.
To so do, see the Best Way to Remove Weeds to Restore a Large Area
Stone garden paths
Most gardeners opt for stone pathways when they become tired of grass, as it often creeps into the beds!
Stone pathways using pavers and bricks for gardens are increasingly less common as they become uneven within 1-2 seasons from heaving, and weeds grow through the cracks all the time.
Stone pathways are best for people with smaller gardens and who don’t have access to mulch material, or don’t wish to mow or manage a ground cover.
For these reasons, some gardeners still use paving stones and bricks for their gardens and shared what they need to do to keep them weed free.
Pull and spray weeds with vinegar as often as you see them between the paving tiles or brick on your garden pathway. “No need to use any herbicides,” says Helen, an organic gardener.
This applies to any type of stone-based pathway.
You can use paving stone tiles, bricks, or gravel.
Gravel pathways are easier to maintain and suppress weeds for longer than solid stone pieces when paired with raised beds.
Ground-level garden beds may mix dirt into the gravel too easily with traffic, raking, and hoeing activities which would result in weedy paths. For ground-level gardens, it’s cheaper to use mulch as it is less costly to top up than gravel.
for raised bed gardens, the ease of gravel comes from the ability to layer it thickly and evenly, like mulch. You won’t be dealing with weed-loving crevices or heavy lifting to re-lay heaved stepping stones.
Over time, you’ll begin to see weeds pop through gravel. Use the same maintenance methods; pull them and spray with vinegar, and with the added option, top up your gravel after 3-7 seasons when you notice a larger flush of weeds coming through.
A couple of notable examples of using stone pathways in a garden:
Frank, who grows flowers and trees in his garden, uses stepping stones with grass in between. His end goal is that when the trees grow, he will be left with stepping stones and no grass as it becomes too shady.
A good option for forest gardens. Perhaps he could have moss in between instead! How gorgeous that sounds.
Camille, who enjoys polyculture gardening, uses tiles on high-traffic pathways and native grasses between plots “as biodiversity corridors which are home to natural enemies and provide food to other insects.” He doesn’t mow much.
Rachel tried leaves as we did, “but the weeds grew through, same with woodchips. I tried cardboard, but I slipped.” Now she uses landscape fabric with pea gravel on top of flat and level soil. “This has lasted the longest.”
Dirt garden paths
Dirt pathways are most common in narrow pathways between rows of vegetables because they are manageable by man-powered tools.
All you’ll need is a Hoss wheel hoe to remove weeds easily, and I wish this was an affiliate link, but it isn’t!
In particular, it’s the oscillating hoe attachment you’re looking for.
Most gardeners use a regular oscillating hoe (without the wheel) to easily clear weeds. It’s lightweight and very easy to maneuver. But if you’re running a market garden or anything of the sort, the wheel makes it easier to accomplish more work, faster, and easier.
I actually have a Hoss wheel hoe and the oscillating hoe attachment, and plan to do dirt pathways for one of our annual gardens next year.
Push the wheel hoe in a back-and-forth motion down the row to cut young weeds at the base every 2-4 weeks to keep weeds off your dirt pathways. The hoe attachment comes in multiple widths; 4-inch, 6-inch, and 8-inch are the most popular sizes.
So decide on how wide you want your rows to be, and pick the most suitable attachment size.
I love the wheel hoe as an alternative to tilling, it’s a non-disruptive way to keep the soil clear of weeds, and as your plants grow big, it shades the bare soil and prevents weeds from growing.
Mulch garden paths
The most popular garden pathways are made and maintained using mulch! Two kinds of mulch are combined; sheet mulch and shredded mulch.
To keep a mulch pathway weed free, you’ll need to lay out a base of sheet mulch, top it with a few inches of shredded mulch, and be able to source plenty of new shredded mulch material on a regular basis to continuously smother weeds.
Add new mulch to your pathways every 2-4 years before it decomposes. Staying on top of it before you see weeds popping through will result in less effort long term. Over time, mulch breaks down into soil, and weeds will grow if you don’t keep them suppressed with fresh mulch.
The amount of time, depends on what type of mulch you use, see: Does Mulch Turn Into Compost? How Long It Takes
Sheet mulch first
See: What is Sheet Mulching? 7 Ways to Do It (and When)
A mulch pathway remains weed free for the longest time when sheet mulch is done well.
Sheet mulch is meant to smother established weeds for long enough before the sheets decompose. From there, inches of shredded mulch continues to suppress the growth of plants.
Without sheet mulch, weeds would too easily find their way through shredded mulch when layered at the recommended 4 inches. So sheet mulching is an essential foundation for weed-free paths.
Non-waxed cardboard is the most popular and long-lasting material used for sheet mulching, but others may be easier to work with.
What kind of material is best for sheet mulching? After scanning your options, begin collecting what you can.
While collecting material, weed your pathways properly. Remove all rhizomatous perennial roots, or it’ll be a nightmare later.
The best type of shredded mulch for your paths is anything you can get your hands on.
Leaves, straw, woodchips, or pine needles.
We’ve done a few types of mulch pathways for different areas.
- Leaves for garden paths
In one garden, we collected leaf bags in autumn from people putting them out for removal. The leaf bags we used as sheet mulch, and the leaves we used as mulch.
The good: Leaves are free, abundant, mineral-rich, easy to collect, can be collected every year around trees, and are designed for suppressing weeds.
The bad: Leaves, however, are slippery when wet, and can make a ‘mess’ in the wind.
The ugly: Leaves are a perfect habitat for ticks
- Straw for garden paths
In other areas we used straw. It was easy to get an abundance of them.
If you use straw mulch, condition it properly before breaking open the bales. If not conditioned first, it will sprout grass everywhere. Conditioning is basically hot composting by adding nitrogen, oxygen, and water.
To condition our strawbales, we left them solid, watered them with lake water, and the men urinated on them. The bales that got this treatment turned into excellent weed-free mulch.
The bales that didn’t get this treatment sowed many unwanted seeds of rye grass—we got rye grass straw.
- Wood chips for garden paths
Our forest garden pathways are made using woodchips.
The mistake we made without first woodchip pathways, is mowing the plants down, and then putting a thick layer of chips.
What’s the problem?
We didn’t sheet mulch!
So the paths grew weeds very quickly. We concluded that wood chip pathways wouldn’t be sustainable and we rerouted to the idea of living mulch for these areas.
But if you’re up for sheet mulching the garden area in question, wood chips are probably one of the best, nicest, and most common options.
Woodchip garden paths are the most popular type because they look beautiful, take a while to break down, don’t host slugs, and are easy to find using ChipDrop.com or local arborists needing to clean up a mess and in need of a dump site.
If you don’t apply mulch every 1-3 years, weeds will happily and rampantly pop through. Mulch eventually breaks down into fresh, fertile soil
When I asked our community, I found that 60% of organic gardeners use woodchips!
Diane uses woodchips between rows. She alternates her pathways and growing rows. The rows she grew in last year will be covered in mulch, and her previously mulched pathways will be planted rows this year.
Glad I asked because this is just the approach I was considering for our garden.
Suzie loves using arborist wood chips. “It’s easy because my whole yard is an orchard mulched with arborist wood chips and so are my paths.” She has rare fruits and masses of pollinator plants, native habitats, and an area for veggies on the side.
- Plastic sheet mulch for garden paths
One we haven’t tried, and unsure if we ever will, is plastic sheet mulch.
Many gardeners have opted for laying out a permanent plastic tarp to suppress weeds long term.
While it might be the most convenient or low-maintenance option for you, organic methods add value to your landscape and garden. While plastic detracts from it.
Would you rather have pathways that build more soil? Or pathways that increase our exposure to plastic?
Philip says leaves and mulches are too much maintenance as they break down quickly. He uses plastic weed barriers.
Living mulch garden paths
Living mulch pathways are the best way to build soil!
A 2-in-1 job of weed-free pathways and rich garden soil.
Rather than importing mulch onto your site from somewhere else, you can grow your own!
Thyme and clover are popular cover crops used as living mulch.
Pat, an organic gardener, recommends seeding white clover, or Woolly thyme.
With a short-lived ground cover, such as white clover, you’ll need to hoe your pathway, seed it, let it grow for 1-2 seasons, hoe it in, reseed it, and repeat. You’ll be building plenty of nitrogen-rich material to scoop onto your garden beds every season.
With a longer-lived low-growing ground cover such as thyme, you’ll have beautiful walkable ground cover with much less maintenance. Manually pull weeds by hand until it fills in and suppresses weeds on its own.
When I asked our community about weed-free pathways, I got a lot of insights. Here are a couple:
John plants white Dutch clover and perennial ryegrass between rows. “Clover takes over when it gets warmer, grass when it’s cooler.” He keeps it cut to 3-4 inches in height and his garden gets fed 162lbs per acre of green manure.
While it is maintenance to cut, you won’t get much weed competition, and you’ll be constantly feeding your garden with what it needs!
Inga loves living pathways. For a new area, she lays out wood chips once for the first 2-3 years. During this time, she plants her desired low-growing ground covers to fill in any exposed spaces and gradually takes over the path—starting with the edges.
She transplants purchased plants and propagates ones she owns to fill in her space. Over time, no room is left for weeds because it’s occupied with plants already.
See: 12 Low-Growing (Low Maintenance) Edible Ground Covers
In shady areas, you can grow moss pathways.
The best garden path for you?
- What organic mulch options are available in your area? (avoid long distance)
- Do you want a pathway that benefits your garden? (avoid plastic)
- Do you want low maintenance? (choose long-lasting material)
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