A stroll down the garden path is more enticing when the path itself is alive with plants. Splashes of foliage and tiny flowers peeping from between pavers or stepping stones can soften a path's hard edges and help integrate it into the garden.
Some plants actually appear to better advantage when set off with stone or brick, according to Ann Milovsoroff, Landscape Architect at Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington, Ontario.
Stepping stones can act as a frame that brings small or delicate plants to your attention,” she notes. Small stature is the prime consideration when choosing plants to place between stones or pavers. Milovsoroff particularly recommends any of the low-growing thyme family.
“Woolly thyme (Thymus pseudolanuginosus) is the prime plant we think of,” she says. “It stands a surprising amount of foot traffic and releases fragrance when you step on it. But any thyme will work well with the exception of the upright varieties.”
While some plants don't mind being trod on, it's wise to space stones or pavers so that, for the most part, passing feet avoid them. Make the spaces between stones smallest where traffic is heaviest, and widen them out toward the sides of the path. The resulting variation in the amount of green between stones gives the path a less predictable, more natural look.
Milovsoroff suggests interspersing different but complementary species here and there among the base plant for added interest. But restrict your choices to a few varieties. “You don't want a salad,” she cautions.
Planting in the small spaces between pavers or stones may appear daunting at first—how on earth are you going to fit root balls taken from 10-centimetre pots into those narrow crevices? “It's amazing what plants will cope with,” Milovsoroff says.
Begin by digging out a small pocket where you want to plant, then add some good-quality soil containing plenty of organic matter, along with a little coarse sand to provide extra support and drainage for the roots.
Tease the plant apart into the smallest possible growing sections and tuck these tiny pieces into the spaces, using an old kitchen knife to press them in gently. Water well after planting, and water frequently for the first few months to nurture the tiny new roots. Exercise restraint when fertilizing—you don't want excessive foliage growth.
Given the restricted space, you may be surprised at how rapidly plants grow once they're established. This is partly because stones or pavers often create their own microclimates. Because of the temperature differences between day and night, condensation often occurs on their undersides, providing natural moisture. And darker-coloured pavers absorb and retain heat.
If your path is located in full sun, choose plants that tolerate hot, dry conditions. Sara Williams, a horticultural specialist with the University of Saskatchewan's Extension Division and author of Creating the Prairie Xeriscape and Perennials for the Prairies, is an expert when it comes to drought-tolerant plants that are also hardy to Saskatoon's Zone 2 conditions. She emphasizes the importance of good drainage when planting between pavers and stones. Williams also recommends the low-growing thyme family as hardy candidates for pathways, because they tolerate the weight of wandering feet.
“Away from the heavy foot traffic, yellow Sedum acre works well, as would hens and chicks,” she says. “And Veronica pectinata is a good blue that's also hardy to Zone 2.”
Choosing the right plants is crucial, as Shirley Uyesugi learned from her unfortunate experience with the 3.5-metre path that leads through her front garden in St. Catharines, Ontario.
When she put in the path about five years ago, Shirley first planted woolly thyme between the pavers and was happy to see it flourish in the direct sun of her south-facing yard.
“Then I began looking for something a little different, and I bought what I understood to be a special variety of scilla (bluebells) that was supposed to be very small,” she says. “I spent most of one day on my hands and knees planting the tiny bulbs carefully between the pavers amidst the thyme.”