Mulch and gravel paths
Mulch and gravel are the
cheapest path materials you
can buy, and they make construction
simple too. All you have to do
is remove the sod, roll out landscape
fabric and spread the mulch or gravel.
Mulch and gravel paths can be
meandering, wood chip–covered trails
or carefully planned designs, and
range from casual to formal depending
on the design and edging material. You
can choose from a wide variety of
loose materials including coarse bark,
decorative mulch, washed stones and
crushed gravel or shells.
Bark, wood chips and other types of
organic mulch make soft paths that
blend well with natural settings. Since
these path materials are lighter than
stone, they’re easier to haul and spread.
Mulch is also a bit cheaper than gravel
or stone pebbles. Remember, though,
that organic paths decompose over
time, so you’ll have to rejuvenate them
every two to five years with new material.
Also, don’t use bark, wood chips
or mulch for paths that run through
areas with poor drainage or that are
wet. It’ll lead to a soggy path.
You’ll find bags of mulch at home
centers, but for the best selection of
organic materials for a path, check
your local nursery or landscape supplier.
Depending on how big your path
is, it may be cheaper to have bulk
material delivered than to buy bags. Plan on a
3-in.-deep layer of mulch about 3-ft. wide. Call the public works
department at your city hall or check
with local tree trimming services.
They often have piles of wood chips or
mulch that are free for the hauling.
For a path
than a mulch
path, consider washed gravel,
crushed stone or crushed shells.
These materials last indefinitely and
only need occasional weeding to look
their best. If you want to run a wheelbarrow
or lawn mower along the path,
choose crushed stone rather than
smooth pebbles. The jagged edges of
crushed stone lock together to form a
firm surface. Crushed stone is also less
likely to get kicked out into the yard.
Gravel for paths is sold by type and
size. Smaller stones, averaging under
1/2 in., are best for paths because they
offer more comfort underfoot and pack
together better. Visit your local nursery
or landscape supply specialist to
see what’s available in your area. Gravel is usually sold by the ton.
Measure the length and width of the
path. Take these measurements to the
supplier and ask for help figuring out
the quantity of gravel you need.
Unless your path is very short, it usually
makes sense to have the material
delivered. Gravel for a path 3 in. deep
and 3 ft. wide will cost about the same as mulch.
Gravel paths do have a few limitations,
though. The stones can get
tracked into the house, so don’t use
them near entries. And gravel paths
are a bad choice in areas where you
have to shovel snow off them. The
gravel can end up in your lawn or
Borders and edging
Gravel or mulch paths require edging
to keep the material from spreading
out onto your lawn or flower bed. You
can also add a border or an edge as a
design element. Here are some common
types of edging you can use:
- Plastic landscape edging is cheap. And it’s fast
and easy to install. If you object to the
look of the rounded top edge, hide it
with a border of plants.
- Steel or aluminum edging forms a
crisp edge that gives the path a neat
appearance. It costs more than plastic,
though, and is less forgiving on
- Brick and stone borders are attractive and
versatile, but they’re more expensive
and a lot more work to install.
- Concrete edging is
less expensive than brick or stone
but has the same advantages. Newer
types that look like random pieces of
tumbled stone are a great lower-cost
alternative to a real stone border.
- Landscape timbers are an economical
alternative to stone or brick
borders. They’re especially useful
for building shallow steps on gradually
Tips for Building Mulch and Gravel Paths
- Rent a gas-powered sod cutter
to remove grass
if the path is long. For short
paths, use a garden spade to
slice off the sod.
- Set edging so it ends up about
an inch above the fill material.
- Use a spacer stick cut to the
width of the path as a guide
when you set the edging or
border. You won’t have to
keep pulling out the tape
measure to make sure the
edges run parallel.
- Cover the soil with landscape
fabric to deter weeds and
prevent the fill material from
mixing with the soil. Don’t use
plastic. It’ll catch water and
create a soggy path.
- Have gravel delivered, especially
if you need more than
a half ton.
- If you want a path that’s firm
enough to roll a wheelbarrow
on, use crushed stone and
tamp it after leveling it.
(Pea rock or other rounded
stone won’t compact.)
Use a hand tamper for short
paths. Rent a vibrating-plate
tamper for long paths.
Stepping-stones are the fastest,
easiest way to build a path.
There’s very little digging
involved. And although the stone is
heavy, a little goes a long way. Since
there’s distance between the stones,
you don’t have to worry about leveling
them with one another. Stepping-stone
paths also cost less because
you’ll cover more distance with less
stone. Stones that are flat and about 18
in. across and 2 in. thick are ideal.
Check your local landscape supplier
or quarry to see what’s available. If
you’re building a short stepping-stone
path, you can usually pick the stones
you want from the pallet or pile of
stones on hand at the supplier. For
longer paths, ask for help figuring the
quantity and have the stone delivered.
If you’re lucky enough to live in an
area with naturally occurring outcroppings
of stone, you may find stepping-stones
free for the hauling.
You can also make attractive stepping-stone paths using 12-in. square or
round concrete patio blocks. These are
available in a wide selection of colors
and textures from home centers, landscape
suppliers and masonry dealers.
Search online for “patio blocks” to see
Tips for Building a Stepping-Stone Path
- Arrange stones so the distance
from the center of one to the
center of the next one is 20
to 24 in.
- Set the stones in place and
cut around them with a spade
or rock saw. Then lift the stone
and dig out the grass and a
- Spread a 1/2- to 1-in.-thick
layer of sand under the stone
if you want to make leveling
the stones easier. Sand is
easier to work with than soil.
A 60-lb. bag of sand is enough for
about four to six stones.
- Set the top of the stepping-stones
about 1 in. above the
soil level. This will give you a
dry place to step while still
allowing you to run a lawn
mower over the path.
Back to Top
Including ground cover plants in
your path makes a stone walkway
easier in two ways: First, you can
skip the thick, compacted gravel base
underneath. That eliminates the backbreaking
digging, plus the hauling and
compacting of gravel. Without the solid
base, the stones will shift and become
uneven, but the plants will hide that.
The second advantage is that you don’t
have to spend extra time laying the
stones perfectly. The plants will hide
There are quite a few perennial
plants that can withstand foot traffic
and will grow between stones. Check
with your local nursery to see what’s
available that will grow in your area.
Here are some ground cover plants that
can tolerate some foot traffic: Creeping
Thyme, Blue Star Creeper, Brass Buttons,
Creeping Mazus and Sedum.
Tips for Building a Planted Path
- Arrange the stones along the
walkway, leaving at least 4 in.
between them for plants.
Then cut along the edge of
the stones with a flat spade
to outline the path.
- Slice off a layer of sod and
soil about 1-1/2 in. deep.
- Spread a 1/2-in. layer of sand.
This will allow the stones to
settle in slightly and keep
them from rocking.
- Choose plants that will stand
up to traffic and grow in the
available light and soil type.
- Water the new plants
frequently for the first few
months until the plants are
- Pull weeds and grass from
between the stones every few
weeks to prevent them from
overrunning the plants.