Making a Garden Pathway

I have a fixation with pathways.  While others entertain themselves with the latest series’ on Netflix, I sit in front of my computer looking a aspirational landscaping pictures on Pinterest (or surfing documentaries, but that’s another story).  It’s hopeless.  I definitely need some help!

Ever since I moved into my current house, I’ve wanted to build a path in the backyard.  Our backyard has the features that could make for some really cool landscaping designs.  Just add hearty portions of time and money and season with some backbreaking manual labor and balzingly humid summer days!

That’s why it’s stayed pretty scruffy for almost 3 years now, until a friend of mine had some flagstone to get rid of, if I’d just be willing to haul it away.  That was the spark that I needed to get this project underway.

Erosion mess

Our lot slopes down a fairly steep hill that bottoms out in a shady area where we’ve had a hard time getting the grass (or anything for that matter) to grow.  This area gets a decent amount of foot traffic because it’s the fastest path to take the trash out, but because of the slope of the yard and the lack of consistent sun, most of the topsoil has washed down leaving a rocky, clay mess.  I really don’t even like to go out there, unless I’m dreaming of turning into something cool.

On the left (looking up toward the deck steps) is a grungy hill that’s a catch all for leaves that I’ve blown off the deck. This strip of dirt seems to stay a mess although I suspect that it would be a great place for a row of hydrangeas which don’t need a ton of sun and could help with the erosion problem while adding a splash of  summer color to this otherwise drab spot.


The bottom of the hill runs up to a natural area that gets some shade for the better part of the day.  Depending on the weather, this is either a muddy bog or a dry, dusty and dirty area where moss and weeds and scrappy grass battle it out.  The moss is winning with the weeds not far behind.  This area needs a lot of TLC and probably a lot of lime as well!  Or I could dig it all up and build a pathway.  I’m opting for the latter.


The idea I have is to build some natural steps, probably with some railroad ties, leading down from the deck to a path that will run along the old fence and then open up into a patio by the big rocks, big enough for some lawn furniture and a fire pit and maybe, one day, some kind of gazebo.  This area is relatively flat and I’m hoping to create a clean barrier for the grass using the path and then turn the soggy bottom into a nice flower bed along the fence for shade loving plants.  Maybe add some outdoor lights and create a manicured, cultivated look.  All on a shoestring budget!

You can see from the markers where I’ve paid out the path.  The big space at the end is 16′ x 16′ and my idea is to use pea gravel to create my path and patio and maybe put the flagstone in the pea gravel to add some aesthetic interest.  Like many of these projects, I’m making up as I go, something I would definitely not recommend to anyone asking for advice!

Day 1

I’ve been perusing the internet for ideas and some basic instructions for a simple garden path and checking out some local gardens for ideas.  I’m pretty much a one man show as far as the labor force is concerned, so I’m going to take it one step at a time and keep it as simple as possible.  The first step is to dig up the grass along the path at the bottom of the hill, saving what I can to transplant.  I’ve measured my pathway to be 4 feet wide.  I did some reading and while there’s not really a “right” size for your path, most of the landscaping forums say that 2 people can walk comfortably side by side on a 4 foot path.


I’m going down about 1-2 inches on the left side of the path and a little less on the right in an attempt to keep the path as level as possible.  I don’t mind a little slope, left to right, because my theory is that I’ll need a little drainage.  Digging the pathway up is utterly back-breaking, especially for a guy who spends more time typing about projects on a computer that actually doing them!  I have a newfound appreciation for the guys who do this everyday!  Despite of the roots that I have to regularly stop and chop with a hatchet, the digging goes surprisingly well.  It just takes a long time!



Early this morning, I picked up a load of pea gravel (1/2 yard or 1 bobcat bucket) from a local landscape supply company.  I’m pleasantly surprised by how reasonable pea gravel is, which is part of why I even started this project in the first place.  A bucket of gravel, about the max I can fit in the back of my son’s old pickup without absolutely crushing the suspension, is about $23 and will cover 80 sf approximately 2″ deep.  I’m going to need about 4 times that for the whole project, but that’s going to take a few weeks.  Not only can the truck handle just one load at a time, that’s about all that I can manage in a day along with the digging and dirt hauling.


I also picked up a railroad tie for around $15.  I’m going to need another one of these to make a total of four 4″ stairs going up the hill, but again, there’s only so much I can do in one day!

The splurge for me on this project is the metal edging.  I bought these 8′ strips of steel landscaping edging for $10 a strip.  That’s a big investment, but they will be really durable and I’ve got some of the plastic stuff around other parts of the yard that I’ve found tear up pretty easily.  I want to have clean, manicured lines around my path and patio that I’m not going to have to replace anytime soon.  I’m hopeful these will do the trick.  I also sprung for the professional grade landscape fabric as a weed  & mud barrier, buying the 4′ wide roll to fit my path.


After digging and shaping the main path, I went ahead and placed the base railroad tie step.  Railroad ties are brutally heavy, so I’d recommend having someone help with moving them around.  My steps will be 4 feet wide, so I can make 2 out of an 8 foot railroad tie.  The creosote smell of them brings back old memories of being a kid and playing on railroad tracks (how dangerous was that!!) and I’m enjoying building the steps even though it’s a blazing humid inferno outside and I’ve already spent like three hours digging and hauling dirt.



The problem with cutting the railroad ties down to size is that they are thicker around than my circular saw can handle, so my strategy was to cut around each side of the tie with my saw blade as deep as I could get it and then make the final cut through with a reciprocating saw (or you could just as easily use a low-tech hand saw.



The tie is actually about 8 1/2 feet long so I have to go through the cutting exercise twice, measuring carefully with a carpenter’s square so my saw cuts line up.  That’s a bit of a challenge since used railroad ties aren’t exactly S4S!  But after some cutting and lugging and more digging to make sure my base step is level, I’m ready to start laying some gravel down on the main path section.


It’s around 1:00 and I’ve been hard at it since 8:00 this morning.  Finally some helpers start to show up!  We roll out the landscape fabric to cover the main pathway.  The idea here is to keep weeds and mud from getting up into the pea gravel.  This lays out nicely and I finally feel like the path is starting to take shape!


Next step is to lay out the steel edging and stake it down.  This sounds like it’s easy but it is not!  Not so much because the edging is itself hard to put down but because the stakes that are attached to each end need to be “popped off.”  After what amounts to working out for about 5 hours straight, there’s not a lot of strength left for breaking steel stakes off the end of the edging strips!

I’ve got just enough gas in the tank to lay a thin layer of gravel down and see how it’s going to look with the flagstone in it.  I’m not sure how much I like the stone/gravel look and need to decide if I want it to be just gravel or if I want to stick with the combo look, but I don’t have to decide that today.  I also need to work on how the path will terminate at the fence.  I didn’t really plan that out carefully, but I can easily see that this is an area that could get messy if I don’t work it out.  But that’s a job for next weekend!





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