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.
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.
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.
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.
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.