With our class on Path and Bed Design this Sunday Morning, this question from a community member is very relevant and timely!
Question: What plants would be best for paths in a garden? I’d like something low growing that would stand up well to high traffic. I’m thinking of white clover.
This is a great question, because a lot of times the best way to deal with paths is to have them planted. I’ve seen some research out of UCLA on garden tasks that identified path maintenance as the number 1 time sink on vegetable farms and gardens.
The problem is, if there are not plants in a place, then plants are going to want to move in, and keeping them out will take energy. In some places, it will be worth it to spend that energy. So in a lot of places, I use woodchip or stepping stones, or other strategies. Small paths with deep mulch and a lot of shade will be slow to become overrun and can last a few years. And if the path is small the amount of mulch is manageable.
But on a larger scale, keeping clear paths just becomes unmanageable, requiring a lot of annual mulching or some kind of weeding and it’s a lot of added labor.
One video from a great Youtuber showed how the wood chipped paths over grew with clover, which was a better ground over. But my guess is that in a few years time, the monoculture of clover will be replaced by a Polyculture including a lot of grasses.
In many climates where there’s enough rain and the soil can hold enough nutrients, it’s very difficult to get Eurasian running grasses to keep out of inviting bare soils, especially if they’re being walked on.
The absolute best walkable plant is grass, and it’s going to outcompete any other plant growing in that niche.
White clover is a common associate of those running grasses, and by fixing N they actually help invite grasses in. In some ways, that clover actually needs the grass to persist easily over time. So, in most cases, if you start with a pure white clover lawn or path, in a few years it’s probably going to be polyculture of clover, rye and fescue grasses, weedy grasses like five finger grass, and perennial “weeds” like dandelion.
So, either you’re going to plan to have that polyculture be your path, our you’re planning to work to keep that polyculture from becoming your path, the choice is yours. But no other groundcover will work so well as that dynamic mix.
So my personal favorite choice for a path or lawn is a mix of fescue, rye, Kentucky bluegrass, white clover, small spring bulbs, daisies, yarrow, dandelions, chicory, and plantain. That mix will have enough diversity to keep the grass growing a little more slowly, will provide greenery through most of the year, provide for more soil and insect biodiversity, potential food, and be resilient to foot traffic and changing weather patterns from year to year. And, in my opinion it is beautiful.
In areas where I’m using stepping stones or pavers, I’ll use a mix of creeping thyme, chamomile, and white clover.
In areas with enough shade or depleted soils, creeping Charlie or violets may thrive and even eliminate grasses, though neither will be quite as resilient to foot traffic as grasses. Mock strawberry could be another choice.
The real magic of grasses is that they will form a layer of thatch that holds together soil very well, almost like a carpet, and that keeps the area from getting muddy when walked on wet, which is what happens in my experience with a pure clover lawn or path.
So a lot of gardeners seem to have a phobia of grasses, which makes sense because grasses are just too over used. But they play an important role in ecosystems and can be an excellent element in a garden. And in most climates they are going to show up whether we invite the or not. So we’re either going to plan for their arrival or we’ll be spending time and energy trying to keep them out when they do.