How to Make an Easy and Affordable Path (Part 1)


When I moved in, the yard I inherited was barely more than a lumpy patch of “grass.” My theory is that the yard was once a vegetable garden that was left to go fallow and was eventually seeded without being levelled. It was extremely sloped in multiple directions, and full of large lumps and even larger potholes that I often tripped in while trying to walk across. Our goal for the space was to remove all of the lumpy “grass” and level the sloped yard as best we could to improve drainage. Digging it all by hand, shifting the soil, and building raised beds along the west side (where it is lowest) in addition to getting plants in on time, sowing seed, building a compost bin, etc was, quite simply, enough for one year. As a compromise, we made a pathway halfway up and left a small patch of “grass” at the back. In the second year we decided to change things up, extending the garden in front and moving the main entrance to the right. I also marked out new paths and smaller beds on the east side of the garden. By the time that was done, I was simply too tired to tackle that patch of “grass.”

This spring, as soon as the ground was workable, Davin and I were out there nearly everyday working away at that patch, digging it up a few inches at a time. We were determined that this would be the year that we would finally get it all out — no more hand-clipping the tenacious, miss-matched patch of this and that. No more stumbling and tripping in the potholes.

And we did it! Last Friday we got it all out and laid down a layer of mulch in its place. The following (broken down into two parts) are the ins-and-outs to how we did it.

Why Mulch?

Our original plan was to lay down pea gravel. I like the colour and texture of pea gravel when it is used in pathways and open spaces. We originally placed down mulch as a temporary hold-over until everything was done, but I found along the way that mulch was better suited to the way I use the space. It all comes down to this: I like to walk around outside in my bare feet in the summertime. More specifically, I like to nip out into the garden in my bare feet to collect fresh herbs for whichever meal I am preparing. Mulch feels soft underfoot. Pea gravel hurts.

As far as cost goes, mulch is cheaper in the short term, but it needs to be replenished (to varying degrees) annually or bi-annually. While pea gravel also requires some replenishing here and there, I suspect that it is a more cost effective solution over the long term.

Mulch is soft. My dog Molly likes to lay down on it.

Your Mulch Options

Mulch tends to be a local product, and what is available (and sustainable) will depend on your location. For example, those of you living in the Southern United States, particularly Florida, may have the option of eucalyptus mulch, which is a sustainable waste product. Douglas-fir is a popular option in the Northwest. In my Northeastern, urban location, pine bark and nuggets as well as cocoa shells (a waste product of the chocolate industry) are readily available. I have a dog now and am staying away from cocoa shells. While I suspect she would have to consume a lot of cocoa shells before getting sick, she did eat straw to the point of puking once, so I’m playing it safe for the meantime.

Another thing I do is break up the stems from thick perennials, annuals, conifer bits leftover from Holiday decor, and the prunings from bushes and add that to my pathways. I certainly can’t make a big dent by hand, but every little bit helps, and keeps those materials out of the compost bin where they tend to break down too slowly.

Coir (coconut fibre) is another sustainable(ish) mulch pathway option. Unfortunately, it is not particularly cost effective for large pathways and I suspect it would break down very quickly underfoot.

Rubber tire mulch (pellets created using old tires) is a newer product that is becoming more readily available. It may be “sustainable,” but I can’t imagine adding this material to my garden regardless of the location. While I would be using it on a pathways and not on top of plants, the chemicals leached out of the tires would eventually find its way into the beds. No thanks.

Digging Versus Solarizing

We chose to dig up the remaining patch of grass by hand, but solarizing or composting in place is a viable option. This is done by covering the grass with something that will choke it out and kill it. Thick black plastic is the best choice because it also attracts the heat of the sun and bakes the roots as it smothers. You can also use thick layers of newspaper or cardboard, but know this: you’re going to need A WHOLE LOT of it. The layer must be very thick in order to completely smother the grass and its roots. Old blankets and rugs will work as well, although if you are concerned about inadvertently adding toxins to your soil it is important to try and use those that are made from natural fibres.

Whatever you use, the process can take months, so start well ahead of time. Fall is a great time to begin because it should be ready by springtime.

Part 2, How to Make and Lay the Pathway is here.

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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16 thoughts on “How to Make an Easy and Affordable Path (Part 1)

  1. Love it! Thanks for the advice! And I am with you on the rubber tire mulch….what are they thinking??? lol

  2. Do you take your photos from the second story of your home?
    Many towns make bulk mulch deliveries at a pittance, another bonus for the budget. I like straw mulch for path as well–it’s $7 per bale in my area, and that lasts a year at least.

    • Yep, from the second floor.

      I use straw in the vegetable beds so decided not to use them in the walking paths so the difference would be discernible.

  3. Fantastic post! We’ve been slowly removing all of the grass in our yard too – I think we’re in year 8, so you’ve made much faster progress. We just dig it out too and usually end up adding fresh top soil (if it is a place that we are going to plant – our soil has a lot of clay content) or add a ton of cardboard and then cedar mulch. I’m wondering what you’ve ended up doing to all of the sod that you’ve dug out? We usually throw it into a big pile in our alley and eventually haul it to the garbage dump – we’ve tried composting it, but it just takes way too long and we’ve got pretty limited compost space. I’m pretty confident that this will be the year that we are grass free in our back yard, which looks about the same size as your yard.

    • I address the sod issue in part 2, published tomorrow so I’ll leave that explanation until then. I agree, it can be a real pain in a small space. It’s the weight that causes the most trouble as well as the slow composting problem.

  4. Mulch over pea gravel is a good choice: I inherited river stones over landscape fabric in the front of my house (probably about 600 square feet of it) and it is terrible as a ground cover! Leaves and other debris inevitably blow in and decompose between the rocks leaving little pockets of compost. Then the weeds, especially quack grass takes over.

    You can’t mow it, as it would ruin the mower and potentially result in broken basement and first floor windows; and it is super heavy to move. Not to mention that in order to make use of the rocks somewhere else they would all need to be washed. Washing 300 cubic feet of river stone is not my idea of garden fun.

    I’m pretty sure the only reason the river stone landscape was weed free when I looked at the house was due the use of some pretty potent chemical weed killers. I tried treating it with vinegar to kill off or set back the grass growing between the stones. That was totally unsuccessful: unless you count the front of the house smelling like pickled hay a success.

    Perhaps pea gravel would be easier to rake weeds out of, but trust me, river stones as mulch: worst idea ever!

    • I think rocks are high maintenance – either you do a lot of blowing to keep the bits from composting into dirt and growing weeds that are doubly frustrating to dig out or make a regular habit of spraying toxic stuff. They get pushed into the ground and can be a rather deep layer! I’ve inherited rocks twice now and I do not like them, Sam I Am!

      I don’t know how it is there but here, at least, tree trimming businesses pay to dispose of the rough mulch that is the result of their business and jump at the chance to deliver it to you for free. There can be disease concerns, I guess, but I haven’t had problems myself. I know a master gardener whose long circular drive and all the paths on her one acre garden are mulch. :-)

    • Great tip!

      I haven’t given up on pea gravel, but won’t be using it here. I know a few with pea gravel who do not have weed problems and who don’t use any chemicals. I think location helps. The gravel is in areas where there aren’t a lot of tree seeds blowing in.

    • Hazel,

      I have something smaller than what I think of as river rocks, but bigger than pea gravel. It’s not bad as far as harboring weeds, even though our “lawn” is pretty much solid weeds, but it’s a pain because it collects leaves and debris that are almost impossible to remove. There’s a rose bush planted in there that is covered in leaves at the base, including all around it, but I can’t get in there to get them out.

      I think pea gravel is less likely to cause weed problems because it compacts a lot more than river stone. Growing up, my parents had a large area covered in pea gravel for a play area in our yard, and I’m sure it sprouted some weeds but they’re easy enough to pull out and there weren’t that many.

  5. I also have a mulch path that I love as it is so soft. I used both newspaper and black cloth before applying the mulch and have had very good luck with that. I replenish the mulch every other year.

    I also have a river stone border on either side of a red brick path I installed. I agree with Hazel that it can be a real pain in the neck to keep tidy. Mine is sort of tidy. Violets are hard to argue with this time of year. And there’s something about a baby fern sprouting from the rocks that make me turn and walk away muttering. It does require picking out the stones that get raked out in spring when removing leaves, but I have convinced myself it is a useful task because I like the look of it. It can be dangerous with the lawn mower, but one trick I use is to remove the bag from the mower and mow close up to the edge. The blowing from the mower helps blow off leaves and debris from the rocks provided your river stone area isn’t too wide. Mine is about 1-2 feet wide and 10 feet long on either side of the path I will try installing a black plastic cover over a 15 foot path of field stone set in gravel as that is the biggest culprit I have for sprouting weeds.

  6. If you know an arborist, you can usually get a good load of fresh wood chips for free or very cheap every year.

  7. I do something similar. I have used wood chips which is similar to your mulch on some paths but am having to replace it a lot as it rots down and also the birds throw it around looking for food! I now use gravel or pea shingle and this is easier to maintain and doesn’t need replacing or topping up.

  8. Oooh, am I happy to have looked in. I was wondering where to get cheap mulch. The previous owners must have done that to some areas where nothing will grow and I’d like to replenish it. I can hardly wait until the next installment of the path as well.

  9. Had to read part 1 before part 2, but to this post I just wanted to add that I was looking for a way to kill a large patch of grass in our front yard (to extend some landscaping) and hadn’t thought to use newspaper. Wonder if throwing the landscaping rock on top of it would be enough to kill the grass and prevent weeds.

    • Do you mean that you want to put down newspaper and rock and then leave it at that? I wouldn’t recommend it, especially for a large patch. I’ve seen grass work its way to the edges when people have done this using heavy duty landscaping fabric. With newspaper it would be back in no time.

  10. Thanks for the info on how to make this path, it looks really good in your yard. I have to make a similar one in my backyard and am trying newspaper at the moment.

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