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Go down a garden path made of the right stuff

It's fun to lead friends down the garden path - especially if the path complements your home and the style of your garden.

Professor Daniel K. Svenson, director of the Ornamental Horticulture program at Foothill College and a licensed landscape architect, has spent years considering the pros and cons of different path materials, formerly as a consultant to an architectural firm in San Francisco and now as a teacher of future landscaping professionals.

"The trend today is toward more natural materials that drain, like gold, blue and gray fines," Svenson said last month, showing the samples of paving materials which he uses in his Foothill College classes. "Fine" refers to pulverized rock - larger than sand, but much smaller than pebbles. The color of the fine depends on the color of the parent rock, which is pulverized in large drums.

Svenson recommends that after creating a level path bed, a homeowner or contractor mix fine 50-50 with soil stabilizer in order to create a relatively hard material that stays in place. Fine can also be laid without soil stabilizer, but he thinks the additional expense of the stabilizer makes a much better, locked-together surface.

"This is the kind of paving used at Versailles, for baseball infields and on public jogging paths; it wears down over time, but is stable enough for wheelchairs and comfortable for walking," Svenson said. "The big advantage is that it is known as a ground water recharger, unlike hard surface paving,"

The least expensive garden path material is any kind of bark or mulch, which can be laid over plastic ground sheeting for weed prevention.

"Then you can till it into the soil when it wears thin or you want to upgrade," Svenson said.

He showed bags of different rocks and pebbles, in increasingly large sizes, all of which look attractive. However, he recommends rounded rocks only for garden features such as dry streambeds or ground cover in areas which are not used for walking.

"Rounded materials are beautiful but slippery and they kick up and scatter all over the place," he said. "If you want a path to stay put, choose angular material, like decomposed granite."

The nobility of garden pavements includes natural stones, such as flagstones, laid on sand or mortared on top of a concrete base (which is much more expensive), bluestone (very popular at the moment, cut into rectangles) and brick. Svenson believes that the style of the house should influence homeowners - the more formal the architecture, the more appropriate it is to choose elegant materials like polished brick or cut bluestone. But he also likes the look of combined materials, which cuts costs and increases visual interest.

The only material Svenson does not recommend under any circumstances is cut or stamped concrete. "The color is just dusted on the top surface of the paving and it fades over time when exposed to sunlight," he said.

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