Pathways to Confusion

What is a garden without a path? A moor. A field. A desert. A wood, maybe.

Byron found pleasure in "the pathless woods." But Kipling knew gardens had paths. He sings of "grubbing weeds from gravel paths with broken dinner-knives."

When I took on my plot last winter, paths were a priority. It had none; previous incumbents evidently lacked a sense of direction. The earth was weedy, but visible. I needed paths before summer swamped it.

At home I happened to have two ideal path ingredients: Edwardian bricks (I'm knocking down a wall) and a mass of rooted box-hedge cuttings. One of my unfulfilled childhood ambitions was to plant a miniature box hedge. Three years ago I'd decided to try again. But the home garden is freewheeling, and box hedges are the essence of formality. The allotment was just the place. I kept waking early, figuring out path layouts.

Light finally dawned: I arrived, if I may say so, at a brilliant, logical design. The plot is rectangular, 60 by 30 feet. The gate (an ill-fitting, cobbled-together door) is in one corner. Some plots have a path that runs from central gate to central shed, like a child's drawing of home. But my shed, at the same end as my gate, is also off-center.

So my site-specific plan was for brick paths where I'd most likely wheel my barrow, starting at the gate. A wheelbarrow tire is not wide. My paths, aptly, are nine inches wide - the width of three mortarless bricks laid side by side. Most plots are divided into rectangles. Mine is triangles. The first path angles from gate to plot center. The second echoes it from the left corner. Both are edged with would-be box hedges.

That's all so far. An affluence of vegetables has sidetracked me. But the grand plan, to be continued this winter, features paths from the other corners to the middle, where there will be a deep round hole full of water, for watering. Further paths may cross the center side-to-side and others run parallel with the boundaries. Clever, eh?

But there are doubters and mockers, conventionalists every one. They suspect me of revolution. Joe Gallagher's face betrayed his disapproval. It said: "rectangles, rectangles." And the hedge - still so small that I have charmingly filled the gaps with parsley - baffles him. Perhaps he thinks it a middle-class frippery.

My friends David and Lynne are the real teasers. They found my parsley funny, my paths hilarious. David pretended they were circus high wires on which he teetered exaggeratedly. "So how wide should they be?" I laughed. His answer revealed a profound traditionalism: "Wide enough to allow two people arm-in-arm to walk comfortably." THAT, according to garden writer Patrick Taylor, in his excellent little volume "The Garden Path," is "the classic rule." He also quotes the 19th-century taste-setter J.C. Loudon: "No path should be narrower than four feet, six inches."

If I had paths that wide, where would I grow my vegetables?

Victorian conventions die hard. As recently as 1955, Frances Perry, author of "The Woman Gardener," advocated paths "of a width conforming with dignity." She also contended that a path "should not stop suddenly for no apparent reason."

It was Lynne who sent me the excerpts. My (unfinished) paths do stop suddenly. But in due time the reason will be apparent. If they didn't stop suddenly, disrespectful comedians and trapeze artistes would plunge headfirst into my well.

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