Step 1: Lay out the path
You don't have to be a skilled mason to lay a natural stone path like this one. If you have a strong back and an eye for fitting jigsaw puzzles, you can weave a casual garden path like this just about anywhere in your yard. There's no thick base to install or difficult cutting and fitting—you just lay natural stone over a simple sand bed.
You'll be moving a lot of dirt and stone, so a good shovel and wheelbarrow will pay off here. To simplify the grass removal, we rented a power sod cutter (you'll need a pickup truck to haul this brute). For smaller paths, a kick-type sod cutter would work fine. Buy a heavy rubber mallet or deadblow hammer to settle the stone into the sand bed. If your project requires a step or retaining wall like ours, you'll also need a level and a hand tamper (Photo 5). You can buy or rent a tamper. Finally, you'll need a garage broom to sweep the soil mixture into the cracks, and a good pair of heavy leather gloves to protect your hands.
Step 2: Order tons of stone
For our path, we chose a locally quarried limestone called Chilton. The 1-1/2- to 2-1/2-in.-thick “steppers” are sold by the ton (a ton covers about 90 sq. ft.), but costs vary widely depending on what's locally available. Measure the length of your path and multiply this by its width to determine the square footage. Then add about 15 percent. Our 3-ft. wide by 70-ft. long path required about 3 tons of stone.
Check online, or the yellow pages under “Stone, Natural” or call local landscaping suppliers to find stone in your area. Visit the stone yard to select the stone, since it varies in color, texture and cost. This is also a good time to discuss delivery options. Usually the stone will be stacked on pallets and dropped off near the street.
In addition to the steppers, we needed about a ton of 8-in. wide by 3- to 5-in.-thick stone for the wall and a few 6-in.-thick stones to build the step (Photos 4 and 6). Your stone dealer can help you figure the amount of stone you'll need for special projects like this.
Step 3: Build walls and steps
Because this garden path is informal, we decided to set the stone on a 2- to 3-in. thick sand bed rather than the 6-in. deep compacted gravel base used under more heavily traveled walks and patios. Although you'll spend a lot less time digging and moving dirt with our method, you may have to reset a sunken or tipped stone every few years, because the base isn't as stable.
Landscape suppliers, sand and gravel companies, or your stone supplier sell and deliver sand by the cubic yard. Divide the square footage of your path by 108 to calculate how many cubic yards of sand you'll need for a 3-in. deep base. You'll also need some potting soil and mulch or compost to fill the spaces between stones. We mixed equal amounts of soil and sifted compost in a wheelbarrow and swept it into the cracks (Photo 10).
You can lay a stone path like this almost anywhere that's not too steep for comfortable walking. If after laying out your path (Photo 1), you notice a section that seems too steep, plan on building in a step to break the path into sections that are more level (Photos 5 and 6). You'll have to buy a few stones about 6 in. thick and the right length to form the step. Then level them on a bed of packed gravel and fill behind them with sand before you continue laying path stones.
If your path runs along the edge of a slope like ours, level it by digging it into the slope and building a low retaining wall (Photos 3 and 4). We simply stacked wall stones on a compacted gravel bed for our retaining wall, but if it's more than a foot tall, consider stronger construction techniques.
Step 4: Set the stone
Photo 9: Adjust the stones
Tie a string to stakes about an inch above the finished height of the path for a guideline. The string should follow the natural slope of the path; it doesn't have to be level. Adjust the depth of the sand so the tops of the stones align under the string. Wiggle the stones into place and settle them down into the sand by pounding on the top with a rubber mallet.
Laying the stone is like assembling a big, heavy jigsaw puzzle (Photo 8). Spread the stones out on the ground so you can pick shapes and colors that fit. Use a wheelbarrow or a two-wheel dolly to move heavy stones, and always lift with your legs, not your back. Don't worry about tight fits. The path will look more natural if you leave a few irregular spaces and an occasional stone jutting out into the yard.
Start laying stones against walls, steps or other established borders. Then work out and along the path (Photo 8). Loosely assemble a half dozen stones and stand back to take a look at the arrangement. Reposition the stones if you like, and then set these stones before moving on.
The goal for placing the stones is to keep all the tops even. Adjust the height of each stone by scooping out or adding sand (Photo 9). As you gain experience, you'll be able to look at the thickness of the stone and judge how much sand to leave. We staked up string as a rough guide so that instead of waving up and down, our path dips gradually over its length to follow the natural terrain (Photo 9).
Complete the path by filling the joints between stones with soil mix and planting a durable ground cover (Photo 11). We planted creeping thyme in the larger spaces. Eventually the thyme will spread and fill the cracks for a low-maintenance, fragrant path. Check with your local nursery for advice on durable, spreading plants for your climate. If you'd rather not grow plants, fill the spaces with mulch or finely shredded bark.