One of the most challenging problems I’ve dealt with when first setting up my raised bed garden was that of weedy pathways. The first year of gardening will always be the most difficult in terms of weeds. While I managed to suppress most of them, there are still adjustments to be made, and hopefully, I can inspire you to make the right choice.

Keeping your garden paths weed-free starts with setting them up the right way. Depending on your climate, the popular choices for paths are woodchips or grass. Keep the woodchip pathways weed-free by adding layers of cardboard or landscaping fabric underneath a minimum of 3 inches of woodchips.

Pathways are important in your garden for three main reasons. Firstly, if you’re like me and care about the look of your small garden, you’ll know that choosing and maintaining the right pathways will contribute to the beauty of the garden.

Secondly, it’s a traffic area that you’ll most likely use every day. It deserves the same attention as any other path on your property. Your paths will influence the way you feel, and the way your feet will feel when you walk on them.

Thirdly, if you choose environmentally friendly pathways, they’ll become part of the garden in the truest sense: they can hold moisture in between your raised beds and serve as a composting material – either green or brown.

What to put between your raised beds to control weeds:

Let’s explore the most popular materials to create your brand new garden pathways:

  1. Grass
  2. Woodchips
  3. Sawdust
  4. Compost
  5. Gravel or Pebbles
  6. Paved slabs
  7. Board walks

1. Pathways made of grass

PROS:

The luscious green color of grass is a pro in itself because of its soothing effects on the human eye. Grass pathways give the garden a sense of abundance even in the winter months because, after all, it’s alive and growing.

Apart from being pretty, grass is a good choice for garden pathways because of its self-healing abilities. In fact, it’s the only path that will maintain itself. All you have to do to keep it thriving is trim it regularly.

Grass is an excellent composting material, and all gardeners know how important compost is. As long as it doesn’t contain any synthetic fertilizers, it’s safe to throw the grass clippings in the compost pile as the “green” material.

CONS:

The same quality that makes grass self-healing is also a con because of the hassle it can create if it’s not trimmed at the right time. It’s the kind of path that requires regular effort on your part.

In dry climates, having grass as a pathway, as nice as it may look, is not very sustainable. Grass requires a lot of water and it doesn’t make sense to waste your resources on a pathway. It can also develop dry patches where grass can no longer grow.

Weeds can still grow even in a grass pathway, but as long as you don’t allow them to go to seed and mow the grass regularly, you should be fine. In fact, regardless of what you choose for your path material, you will be dealing with weeds.

During a rainy season, grass can get mushy and slippery as the soil beneath it absorbs a lot of water. Wear proper shoes in wet conditions to avoid any accidental falls.

Climates that allow grass to thrive will also be dealing with slugs and snails, and tall grass is the perfect hiding place for them. Keeping your grass short will discourage slugs, but you need to take extra measures to get rid of them.

2. Pathways made of woodchips

PROS:

Woodchips are probably the most popular choice at the moment, with plenty of Youtube gardeners showing off their neatly mulched paths. And for good reason. Woodchips are usually easy and cheap to procure, or even free if you become friends with your tree surgeon. You can even make them yourself from garden waste, twigs, and branches using a wood chipper.

  • Pro Tip: A wood chipper is one of those purchases that doesn’t make sense in the beginning, but for experienced gardeners, it’s an important tool. And it’s not just for creating mulch – wood chippers also work as shredders. Use them to finely chop bulky plant debris and autumn leaves – it will help your compost pile break down much faster, and you don’t have to do the work manually.

    If you’re researching wood chippers, you can choose from budget-friendly (electric) and heavy duty (gas) options on Amazon.

Wood chips break down and feed those nutrients to the soil in a process that takes years and turns the topsoil into rich humus. Volunteer plants that have self sown can then grow on the pathway surface – you can move those bonus plants wherever you want.

Another advantage of having woodchips in between your beds is water retention. Raised beds have good drainage and sometimes can dry out too quickly. Woodchips will hold on to that extra amount of water that the soil needs.

CONS:

Even if in some areas woodchips are cheap and easy to come by, that mostly depends on your country and location. As raised bed gardening isn’t at all popular where I’m from, woodchips are rare and expensive. They’re mostly packaged as decorative bark, and it would take a lot of bags to fill up an entire garden.

Woodchips paths still need to be maintained and won’t last forever. Every few years, you’ll need to replace them with fresh ones or add a new layer on top.

Don’t make the mistake of laying woodchips on bare soil without any barrier to stop the weeds. If your garden is new, weeds will grow back in a couple of months, causing you to redo your paths all over again.

3. Pathways made of sawdust

PROS:

I chose to mulch my pathways with sawdust because it was the most readily available resource and extremely cheap. Eventually, I ended up preferring this material because of its softness and versatility.

It’s pure pleasure to walk barefoot on sawdust paths in the warmer months and it looks great if it’s kept weed-free and refreshed every single year. Over time, it compacts and doesn’t need replacing as often.

CONS:

While woodchips only need replacing every 3-4 years or so, sawdust breaks down extremely fast. It’s safe to compost it, but if you’re not loving the idea of re-doing your pathways every year, go with something else instead.

Unlike woodchips that still have weed-suppressing abilities, sawdust is light and fluffy and it will let some light through, as well as oppose little resistance to emerging weeds.

Here’s an example of using sawdust to mulch the paths in our garden:

YouTube video

4. Pathways made of compost

Charles Dowding has made this option popular, but it’s safe to say it only works if you have plenty of compost available. As he prepared the site for his new garden years ago, Charles chose not to have wooden sides for his raised beds so that he could keep the slugs under control.

It made sense to lay compost everywhere on top of the cardboard and simply make the gardening beds higher than the pathways. To this day, his paths look neat and tidy and remain weed (and slug) free.

If you have access to that much compost – ideally home made or municipal compost rather than aged manure, this method could be the right one for you. I know Charles has inspired a lot of people with his garden design.

5. Pathways made of gravel or pebbles

PROS:

The biggest advantage for gravel and pebbles is that it’s so pretty and relatively easy to adjust or clear out whenever you need to.

CONS:

Maintenance with gravel pathways is a big issue. When gardening, you’ll be displacing soil and compost, dropping leaves or vegetable scraps. All those things are notoriously difficult to pick up from gravel.

Eventually, it will stop looking so tidy, not to mention you’ll be feeding the weeds with all the compost and food scraps.

Gravel and pebbles aren’t nearly as comfortable as woodchips and sawdust. When gardening, you’ll probably want to sit on your knees every once in a while, and pointy gravel will feel rough against your skin.

6. Pathways made of patio slabs and stone

PROS:

If you have the option of installing patio slabs, they will dramatically change the look and feel of your garden. You can find tons of inspiration on Pinterest – anything from bricks to rustic stones, to concrete slabs. Choose what fits your personality and make your garden stand out.

If you decide to go with patio slabs, cleaning them will be a breeze, not to mention you won’t be carrying any woodchips or other debris from your garden back inside the house. For this reason, patio slabs make a very good choice, particularly for small urban gardens.

CONS:

Depending on your choice, patio slabs are expensive, and you need some serious DIY skills to install them yourself. They’re also permanent, so if you ever decide to change things up, it could prove difficult.

Weeds will still grow in between the cracks, unless you have landscaping fabric underneath, and they’re a pain to eliminate completely. Resorting to weed-killing sprays is toxic for your environment and for your garden.

However, there are some organic, vinegar-based weed killers (you can find a great one here), but don’t expect them to work like magic unless you apply them often and repeat applications after it rains.

7. Board walks on your garden paths

I’ve recently discovered this solution for boardwalks serving as garden paths on someone’s Youtube channel. These simple, handmade boardwalks consisted of long boards nailed together, creating a wooden surface to walk on.

They’re a good provisional option if your paths tend to get muddy, but I don’t see them as a good, permanent solution.

Deck-style walkways that are professionally installed can look very attractive and they can be as complex as you like. However, they won’t be taking care of the corners and irregular-shaped areas in your garden, where weeds can quickly flourish.

Remember that you’re not by any means limited to just one pathway style. You can combine them all to your liking.

Whichever option you may have in mind, ask yourself – can you maintain it weed-free easily, or will it start to degrade after the first couple of months?

Practical tips for creating weed free garden pathways

How wide should your paths be?

Even though the purpose of this article isn’t to extensively describe the size and orientation of your garden paths and raised beds, you should keep a few things in mind when designing your pathways.

The main ones should be wide enough so that a wheelbarrow can easily pass through. You’ll be using a wheelbarrow to transport compost or mulch to your beds, and you may be carrying buckets when watering your plants or harvesting.

I know sacrificing the width of your paths seems tempting, but it will make certain chores harder than they have to. My paths are 0.8 meters wide and even 1 meter wide in some areas, and they feel quite spacious.

Another aspect to have in mind is the possibility of eventually installing an arch trellis in between your raised beds. Covering your paths with arch trellises will help you grow your plants vertically, save you a lot of space and make your garden look exceptionally beautiful. But you need generous width for that – keep that in mind when designing your pathways.

How to create a weed free path in an overgrown garden?

When creating your paths on soil that has been overcome by weeds, tilling is an option, but it’s really not necessary. You can choose to lay a tarp or an old carpet on the area you want to clear of weeds. However, this process is time-consuming and there’s a better option.

The best and easiest method is killing the weeds at the same time as creating your pathways. When using woodchips, you can accomplish this by laying two layers of cardboard directly on top of the weedy soil, watering it down and covering it with a generous layer of woodchips.

You don’t need to level the ground as the woodchips will even everything out, especially when used in a thick layer.

If you’re using sawdust, the best method would be laying down cardboard (we’ve also tried a paper-based weed barrier and it worked well), and watering the sawdust before using it. After laying it on top of the cardboard, water everything thoroughly. Pieces of sawdust will get blown by the wind in the first couple of days, but later on, the sawdust will form a compact layer and it will start to slowly break down.

Pay special attention to the edges of your raised beds, corners, and awkward spots in your garden. They’re most prone to being invaded by stubborn weeds. Over time, as you stay on top of weeding and suppressing light by using covers and mulches, the weeds will lose their strength and the following years will feel much easier.

Until then, if you notice any particularly problematic spots in your garden in terms of weeds, use more cardboard and add a new layer of mulch.

But what about just using landscaping fabric?

You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t mentioned using landscaping fabric anywhere in this blog post, and there’s a good reason for that. We could take the easy route and use synthetic covers for our garden or spray the pathways with herbicide, but that’s not the kind of gardening we practice.

Anyone starting a small garden is usually geared towards a healthier lifestyle, growing organic food, and behaving as environmentally conscious as possible.

We should strive to leave the smallest mark possible in our soil and surroundings, and using landscaping fabric is mostly an invasive and ineffective way to keep weeds out long term.

Landscaping fabric is NOT biodegradable. It acts as a barrier between the mulch and the soil and it doesn’t allow the woodchips to break down. It kills the worms and messes with the ecosystem of your soil. Not to mention that it can tear and deteriorate.

Weeds will grow through it, and I’ll doubt that anyone will ever dig it out and remove it from the ground. So it’s just another form of pollution.

If you must use landscaping fabric, try choosing a biodegradable weed barrier. This type of cover melts into the soil by the end of the season, since it’s mostly made up of paper. It lets water and nutrients run through much like paper and cardboard.

Typically, this type of fabric is secured to the soil using metal pins, which is another element we don’t want to randomly forget inside our garden paths if we care about the environment. Get creative and find other ways to keep the weed barrier secured to the ground.

Conclusion

If you’re in the planning stages, you now have a lot of information to digest for your future garden. Now that you know the pros and cons of most materials out there, you can create a Pinterest board and get inspired by all the beautiful examples.

And don’t forget to:

  • Make your pathways wide enough for your needs;
  • Lay cardboard or biodegradable landscape fabric as a weed barrier;
  • Use the mulch of your choice – woodchips, sawdust, gravel;
  • Keep the grass short and trimmed around the edges;
  • Maintain your patio slabs by regularly weeding in between them;
  • Avoid using landscaping fabric – it will stay in the soil forever;
  • Relax. Over time, the weeds will become less aggressive.

Your garden paths are important, and they’ll literally be the stepping stones toward your new experience as a gardener. You need to be both creative and practical to create a garden that’s beautiful as well as hassle-free. In the end, it’s all about focusing on the plants, not on the weeds.

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3 Comments

  1. Thank you for this! Last year I put cardboard in my VERY weedy paths. This year I’m out removing all the weeds… I obviously need more cardboard and cover with mulch this time… but since my weeds are SO will established… should I till before putting the cardboard down? Or is that just Water off my time?

    1. Tilling might help to some degree, but the persistent weeds will still come back. The only way to keep them down is adding cardboard and mulch every year, plus weeding a few times per year, and before the weeds go to flower. It’s might 3rd year and I still need to weed my paths but not nearly as much as year one. Thanks for reading!

  2. Haha… I re-read the post and know I don’t need to till. 🤦🏻‍♀️ Sorry. Thank you for this post!!!

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