June has been a hot moist month here in Virginia and everything in the garden has been thriving, including the weeds. It is expected that you need to take care of the weeds in your garden beds, but your paths should be on auto-pilot and not need as much attention. That can only happen if you have prepared ahead. If you don’t have grass paths that you mow, or something like white clover there that will get cut occasionally, you should have mulch on your paths. I’m all for managing your garden without a tiller, so I won’t be talking about that as a viable alternative.
I have noticed that the main reason some people have tillers is to till their paths. That wouldn’t be necessary if they had a green ground cover or mulch in the paths. A tilled path disturbs the ecosystem that is in the paths and when it rains, tilled paths are so muddy that, even if you could walk there without the mud sucking your shoes off your feet, it is not pleasant. Living ground covers and mulch keep the ecosystem in the paths undisturbed for the whole season. The beneficial insects and toads hang out there and the paths are firm and pleasant to walk on, no matter what the weather.
Grass could be an option for your paths, but I only have it growing in the 4’ wide paths that separate the sections of my garden and the perimeter surrounding those sections. Wire grass is rampant where I live and will creep into the garden beds. In that case, it is best to limit the areas where bed meets grass. Each section in my garden has 9 beds. The path between each of those beds is 1½’ wide and is either planted to Dutch white clover or mulched. Most of my 4’x20’ beds interface with the wider grass paths only on their 4’ sides. If you do have grass paths you have to leave room for the mower to get through. Also, you would want to take care that grass clippings aren’t blown by the mower onto your vegetables. You can save space in your garden by not having paths wide enough for a mower, thus not having grass there. I cut the white clover with my sickle.
My favorite path treatment is to plant Dutch white clover. The best time to plant clover is in the fall or the spring. You will find the tale about why I don’t have Dutch white clover in my paths this year, at Homeplace Earth. Long story short, I was busy elsewhere and didn’t get it planted at the proper time. That means that I’m dealing with weeds in my paths this summer. So, after a thorough weeding, I’ve resorted to mulching them. Leaves and grass clippings from your own property are the best things to use for mulch—as long as you haven’t been using any harmful chemicals on your yard. Our fall leaves have long since been used in other places, so grass clippings are my main mulch materials right now. Newspaper and cardboard are options for using in your paths if they don’t contain harmful chemicals. Long ago there was much talk about the safety of newspapers and they were finally deemed safe because the printers had switched to soy based ink, although the glossy pages were still unacceptable for use in gardens. Cardboard has been a common mulch material for paths, but things can change. If you are using these or other materials as mulch in your garden, I encourage you to check out the latest findings about their safety. Otherwise, stick with leaves and grass clippings or plant white clover.
Planning ahead for your paths can save you much work and time in your garden, allowing you to enjoy what is growing in your garden beds even more.
Cindy Conner is the author of Seed Libraries and Grow a Sustainable Diet and has produced DVDs about garden planning and managing cover crops with hand tools. Learn more about what she is up to at Homeplace Earth.
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