Notes of pathways

By garden designer Helen Elks Smith. There is an increasing body of evidence demonstrating the impact of nature, greenery and the effect that simply being outside has on our everyday lives.

It has been shown that we react at a deeply subconscious level to our surroundings. There is evidence that it takes just 3 minutes for green landscapes to give significant relief from stress and anxiety.  Our gardens have a positive impact on our daily lives.

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Building blocks used by garden designers are, in the main, green and these are used to define spaces.  The connections between these spaces have an atmosphere that determines how we feel when moving around the garden.  These pathways can hinder or encourage movement.

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Closely planted avenues of pollarded trees such as limes have been used for centuries to create lightly shaded walkways where one might take a ‘turn around the garden’.   The narrower the trees,  the faster you will walk beneath them.   Planting the trees with a wider gap underneath also allows vehicles to pass beneath, although on this busy B road (below) in Dorset the cars are generally going too fast to appreciate the subtle pull of the landscape.

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Under the strong heat and light of the Mediterranean sun, this high, narrow path in the Alhambra in southern Spain offers welcome shade.

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But in the UK, this tall evergreen hedge would feel uncomfortable, despite the gentle curve, and it would be less used or cause you to speed up as you passed through.

The overall design works best if the path’s planting also supports movement.  Different plant forms create different atmospheres; strong uprights and arching forms such as stipa gigantea tend to dominate and create a focal point, which through repetition can lead the eye and encourage movement.  Here (below) at Wisley, wide planting beds of stipa gigantea  are balanced by the anchoring affect of the Achillea ‘Coronation Gold’  edging the paths as they curve away from the glasshouse. The overall atmosphere is restful as you stroll along the path.

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More upright forms can be used to create quicker and more forceful movement.   Unless you want to create a stampede, soften and slow the movement by  anchoring the planting with dome-shaped plants to add more stability.    Here the vertical stems and form  of the chinese birch (betula albosinensis ‘Fascination’) and the white foxgloves are balanced by the flat leaves and mounding form of the hosta, the horizontal leaves of the cimifuga, the pincushion flowers of the cirsium rivulare ‘Atropurpureum’ and astrantia

To maximize the impact of our gardens on how we feel we need to ensure that there is somewhere  we can simply sit and enjoy a cup of tea.   If we plan our pathways well we will be encouraged out into the garden and the countdown on those 3 minutes will start as soon as we set foot outside.

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