Looking Between the Beds: Vegetable Garden Pathways

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Using hay as a mulch for vegetable garden paths

Like most organic gardeners, I grow my vegetables in permanent beds that are separated by permanent pathways. While I don’t want to put a lot of time and effort into maintaining meticulous pathways, I do want them to serve me by providing firm footing in all types of weather. Finding ways to manage my garden paths that benefit me and my garden has been a frustrating, trial-and-error process, but I think I may have it figured out.

First let’s clarify the difference between a garden pathway and the wide corridors that lead to or divide a large garden, which are easiest to manage when kept in a mixture of grasses and clovers that is regularly mowed. In addition to looking nice, framing the garden with well-maintained grass creates a buffer area that deters some pests, and the grass yields clippings to use as garden mulch.

It’s the comparatively narrow paths between beds that require a management plan. The paths in my current garden are sized to match my walk-behind mower, because for years I have tried and failed to replicate a “green path” system I once saw working beautifully in a big organic garden. You design paths that match the cutting width of a walk-behind mower that can discharge clippings out the side, and plant the paths with clovers and well-mannered grasses. Each time you mow, adjoining beds get a shower of mulch, and between mowings the grassy paths provide habitat for beneficial insects.

Green pathways are hard to keep free of weeds

In practice, this never worked quite like it should. First, I quickly discovered that a blast of grass clippings is a disaster in the lettuce patch, resulting in thousands of rotting bits of grass that glue themselves to the greens as they dry. The amount of mulch created by one pass with the mower was quite small, too, but the worst part came in the second and third years, when the perennial weeds I dislike the most – bindweed, ground ivy and quackgrass - managed to find safe havens in the green paths. As a result, weed pressure in all of my beds went up. I am finally giving up on green pathways. Instead, I’m working with weed free, double-mulched paths.

Two-Layered Mulches

For maximum weed resistance, mulches for vegetable garden pathways should consist of two layers -- a bottom layer that blocks light to weed seeds, and a bulkier top layer that’s sturdy underfoot and free of weed seeds.

Pathways using sawdust in between beds

Unfortunately, many of the first combinations that come to mind – leaves over newspapers, or grass clippings over biodegradable plastic film – begin admitting weeds after only a month or so of trampling, and meanwhile they can become dangerously slippery in wet weather.

Thick blankets of clean hay that’s free of weed seeds and pesticides would be great, but who can get it? Unless you know the hay or straw you are using was grown without herbicides, the hay or straw could create a giant new problem by contaminating the soil with persistent weed killers.

The best mulch materials for vegetable garden pathways I have found (so far), are a double layer of commercial grade, woven landscaping fabric covered with wood chips or sawdust. After cutting the fabric to length, I fold 3 or 4-foot wide pieces in half, arrange the folded fabric over a clean, weeded pathway, and cover it with at least an inch of sawdust or wood chips. In addition to providing safe footing and keeping out most weeds, the landscape fabric is easy to lift and flip over in winter, when it’s time to redo the garden paths.

Weed suppressing fabric with sawdust

I can get a mixture of oak and pine sawdust from a nearby sawmill, and lightweight sawdust is super easy to move using a snow shovel. Wood chips are heavier, but they are often free for the asking from tree-trimming crews. When used as a top mulch that is spread over landscaping fabric, even fresh wood chips pose no threat to the soil below. After a year of natural weathering, they will be ready to be processed by soil microorganisms.

When I do my winter turnover of landscape fabric, I often shake the rotted-to-black wood chips or sawdust into adjoining beds.

These days I think of my vegetable garden pathways as a little system of trails that need and deserve regular upkeep, and I’ve given up on the dream of leaving clovers in charge. Instead I use the off season to do the necessary maintenance, and by spring the garden paths are spruced up and ready for the new season ahead.

Barbara Pleasant

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Comments

 
"Between the raised beds in our veg garden, I use strips of landscaping fabric weighted down with 12" * 12" paving slabs every 24", (we are in a fairly windy area,) with coarse gravel in between. This has been down now for over 3 years and is in still excellent condition. "
Stuart Keys on Friday 20 November 2015
"I have lots of trees, which means tons of leaves. I mow over them, rake up and pile the cut up leaves in a huge pile, they are small so don't blow away, let them set overwinter, some grass is in there too of course, and use as mulch the next spring. I use a pull behind leaf rake to pick them up. I also bag some just full size fallen leaves in bags to put around my cold frame as added insulation over the winter."
vera on Friday 20 November 2015
"I use strips of old carpet both as paths and as a weed suppressant. Some carpets and carpet tiles last better than others and remain impervious to weeds. In winter I may roll them back to get the soil and debris off them so that weeds don't grow on them; and maybe put compost; and maybe dig it in and remove weed tubers that have grown under it. (I have a problem with ground elder). And roll it back before growth starts in the spring. When it starts falling to pieces, I throw it away. Not the most beautiful, but it costs nothing and is pretty effective and low maintenance. Someone told me this was no longer recommended in eco circles. I'm not sure why . . ."
Ian on Friday 20 November 2015
"I have tried every type of landscape fabric I can find and my worst weeds love them all! The roots get into the fabric and are very difficult to remove, often resulting in ripping the fabric. This happens whether covered in bark chips or gravel. I now only use heavy plastic sheeting covered with chips or gravel. Of course, I have to stab in a few holes with my garden fork for drainage. This system works well except at the edges. I'm planning to staple the plastic along the outside edges of my raised beds, where possible. "
Alison Perrin on Friday 20 November 2015
"Do you have any suggestions for paths in a sloping garden? We used woodchips and newspaper when the beds were perpendicular to the the slope. When we installed a gravity fed watering system we changed the bed direction to go with the slope to help the flow. That year, all the chips ended up in the down end of the path. We now mow the paths, but as you said, not ideal, especially after crabgrass has found its way in and is laying too low for mower. Any thoughts are appreciated."
Denise on Saturday 21 November 2015
"I really love the carpet idea and have never even thought of it. I've spent tons of $ on all of the weed proof fabrics and the sprays and sprinkle on granules and they seem to attract weeds. I even flattened cardboard boxes down and covered them to try to keep the weeds out, it didn't help. I really like the idea of the wide rows those because as much as I love gardening, is as much as I hate snakes. Not even the so called "good ones" because I don't believe there are any! I have panic attacks and totally freak out over even larger than normal worms! But perhaps if I had wider rows I wouldn't be so panicky in the garden. So far, I've stuck to fruit and nut trees just so I know I won't get cornered by any snakes. I would love to have a great garden though because we have a few acres to play with. Thanks for the info. it really helped."
Shirley on Tuesday 24 November 2015
"Denise, as you see in the second photo, my garden is very sloped, but with the beds perpendicular. The slope makes pebbles impractical because they roll, but try anything else you can find locally, cheap or free. With those downhill runs, grass/clover may be best in terms of erosion prevention....With landscaping fabric, carpeting, or any type of underlayer, weeds do sprout and grow on top of them as friendly organic matter becomes available. That's why lifting them yearly, to dislodge perennial weeds that have taken root, is often essential to making the system work. "
Barbara Pleasant on Friday 27 November 2015
"Over the past 4 or 5 years I have tried to suppress the couch grass on all my paths by strimming. 3 broken strimmers later, I too have come to the conclusion that good quality weed suppressant fabric and wood chips are the best answer. I spent last winter re-doing my allotment paths, 2ft around the edge and a slightly narrower main path with several side paths between beds. I dug out as much couch grass and bindweed as I could find ( some growing through the old carpet that an allotmenteer of a generation or two ago had left - horrid and very heavy). Then I covered all paths. Around the edge of the plot I put gravel at the very edge and bark on top of the fabric. Every time I saw a stray leaf of couch grass or bind weed I either pulled it or zapped it carefully. I wood chipped the main path and mainly left the small paths with just weed suppressant fabric. One season on and I am generally very happy. Yes, there are a few stray blades of couch grass but nothing that can't be dealt with in a few minutes. I no longer have to spent hours and hours of precious allotment time strimming and remembering to charge the battery. The paths will need more chips maybe some this winter but not the whole lot, just topping up really. So I would say, if like me you have a serious path problem, go for proper fabric cover and woodchip or similar."
Mary Garrigan on Saturday 28 November 2015
"Carpet remnants may not be your best choice - they are saturated with some very unpleasant chemicals that will leach into the soil. And as they do not biodegrade, they become bits of "microplastics" (which just means very small bits of plastic), an especially nasty and dangerous form of pollutant, particularly when it ends up in waterways. This is also why I'm not crazy about landscape fabric - a petroleum-based material that disintegrates - but does biodegrade - into bits of microplastic litter. We've always had good performance with clean cardboard (just plain brown, no tape or labels) with wood mulch on top. But I'm going to experiment with something I read in "Carrots Love Tomatoes": Yarrow, a low, tough, dense plant that can handle foot traffic and doesn't need mowing. I imagine that nothing works perfectly, however. :-)"
Wendy on Tuesday 19 January 2016

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