What's the point of a well-maintained yard if trying to get around it means trampling the marigolds and leaving your paw prints in the perfectly clipped lawn? The best landscapes guide amblers with paths—well-defined ribbons that say, "Hey, go this way," and, gently, "Keep off the grass."
Sure, you could spend several days and many dollars putting in a walkway made of cobbles or bluestone, but a simple gravel trail won't break your back—or your budget. Gravel (as well as crushed brick or crushed shell) is a traditional path material found in formal gardens throughout Europe and Asia, and takes little skill to install. An afternoon to get it down (as demonstrated here by This Old House technical editor Mark Powers), and you'll soon have a natural-looking, foliage-free way to walk through your perfect landscape.
Gravel Path Overview
Gravel paths are easy to construct because they aren't set very deep. You only have to dig down a few inches to make room for the pebbles—even in cold-weather climates. Because the tiny stones move fluidly, winter's freezes and thaws won't heave and crack the surface in the same way they would with a rigid material like stones or pavers. Not only that, a gravel path can take on many shapes. "You can make a twisty, curvy, organic walk," says Roger Cook, This Old House landscape contractor. "And you don't have to worry about cutting the stones."
Still, to give the path structure and stability, it must have a compact base. In zones with hard clay, that can be the soil itself. But in most areas, especially where the soil is sandy, you'll need to create a base of tamped-down stone pack, which is a mix of ¾-inch stones and stone dust. A lining of landscape fabric over the base will keep weeds from growing up through the path.
The gravel, being so movable, needs an edge to contain it. Galvanized steel is a durable and traditional choice and also malleable enough for curves. But you can also use pressure-treated wood, cedar, bricks, cobblestones, or even plastic edging. Just be sure the gravel stops about ½ inch short of the edging's top—which should be flush with surrounding plant beds and lawn—or the gravel will spill over. You can also make the path as wide as you like: 3 to 4 feet is standard.
What you put down between the edging is also a matter of choice. Colonial Americans crushed the cast-off shells from their oyster feasts to line their garden paths; these days you're likely to see crushed granite or lava stone as often as gravel.
Step 1: Dig out the Path's Shape
Start by marking the location and shape of your path with a garden hose, length of rope or spray paint. If using spray paint, buy line-marking paint, which allows you to easily spray lines while holding the can upside down.
Using a square-edged spade, remove the soil within that border to a depth of 4 inches.
Step 2: Form the Trench
When digging the trench, use the square-edged spade to make the sides of the trench straight, and the bottom as even as possible. Occasionally check the depth of the trench with a tape measure as you go. Next, smooth the bottom of the trench with a steel rake, then compact the soil with a hand tamper.
Tip: When digging, place the excavated soil onto a tarp to make it easier to remove.
Step 3: Add Crushed Stone
After smoothing and compacting the soil in the bottom of the trench, line the trench with about 2½ inches of crushed stone pack. Rake the pack to level its surface.
Step 4: Compact the Stone Base
Dampen the stone pack by spraying it lightly with a garden hose or watering can. Then, use a 6 or 8-inch-square hand tamper to pound the stone pack into a smooth, hard surface. Dampening the crushed stone first keeps down dust and helps with compaction.
Step 5: Lay down the Landscape Fabric
Roll out a layer of landscape fabric over the compacted stone pack, shiny side up.
To contour the fabric around curves, make relief cuts along both the outside and inside edges. On the inside of the curve, overlap the fabric at the cuts. On the outside, allow the fabric to open up at the cuts.
Tip: Use spikes or pins to hold the fabric taut so it won't bunch up through the finish layer of gravel. You can also let the edging do double duty by installing it over the fabric and letting its spikes punch through.
Step 6: Install the Edging
Make a template (spreader bar) to hold the two parallel lengths of edging lined up at an even 3-foot distance apart: Take a scrap of 2x3 and cut into it two grooves spaced 3 feet apart. Make sure the cuts are wide enough and deep enough to slide over the galvanized-steel edging.
Join together two lengths of edging following the manufacturer's instructions. Line the inside of the trench with the edging pieces, resting them on top of the landscape fabric. Slide the 2x3 template onto each piece of edging across the first section of path. Using a wood block and a hammer, tap the edging into the ground, through the fabric.
Step 7: Tap down the Edging
As you hammer the edging into the ground, using a scrap-wood tapping block, check to make sure it's going in perfectly straight, and not leaning into the trench. Also, never hammer directly onto the steel edging, as this may damage its protective zinc-galvanized coating and lead to rusting. Once all the edging is installed, backfill along the backside of the edging.
Step 8: Fill the Path with Gravel
Pour out enough gravel to come about ½ inch shy of the top of the edging. Rake the gravel out evenly, making sure none of the landscape fabric shows through.
Landscape around the path with flowerbeds or sod. Maintain the path by occasionally raking it smooth and refilling it with more gravel, as necessary.