Looking Between the Beds: Vegetable Garden Pathways

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Using hay as a mulch for vegetable garden paths

Like most organic gardeners, I grow my vegetables in permanent beds that are separated by permanent pathways. While I don’t want to put a lot of time and effort into maintaining meticulous pathways, I do want them to serve me by providing firm footing in all types of weather. Finding ways to manage my garden paths that benefit me and my garden has been a frustrating, trial-and-error process, but I think I may have it figured out.

First let’s clarify the difference between a garden pathway and the wide corridors that lead to or divide a large garden, which are easiest to manage when kept in a mixture of grasses and clovers that is regularly mowed. In addition to looking nice, framing the garden with well-maintained grass creates a buffer area that deters some pests, and the grass yields clippings to use as garden mulch.

It’s the comparatively narrow paths between beds that require a management plan. The paths in my current garden are sized to match my walk-behind mower, because for years I have tried and failed to replicate a “green path” system I once saw working beautifully in a big organic garden. You design paths that match the cutting width of a walk-behind mower that can discharge clippings out the side, and plant the paths with clovers and well-mannered grasses. Each time you mow, adjoining beds get a shower of mulch, and between mowings the grassy paths provide habitat for beneficial insects.

Green pathways are hard to keep free of weeds

In practice, this never worked quite like it should. First, I quickly discovered that a blast of grass clippings is a disaster in the lettuce patch, resulting in thousands of rotting bits of grass that glue themselves to the greens as they dry. The amount of mulch created by one pass with the mower was quite small, too, but the worst part came in the second and third years, when the perennial weeds I dislike the most – bindweed, ground ivy and quackgrass - managed to find safe havens in the green paths. As a result, weed pressure in all of my beds went up. I am finally giving up on green pathways. Instead, I’m working with weed free, double-mulched paths.

Two-Layered Mulches

For maximum weed resistance, mulches for vegetable garden pathways should consist of two layers -- a bottom layer that blocks light to weed seeds, and a bulkier top layer that’s sturdy underfoot and free of weed seeds.

Pathways using sawdust in between beds

Unfortunately, many of the first combinations that come to mind – leaves over newspapers, or grass clippings over biodegradable plastic film – begin admitting weeds after only a month or so of trampling, and meanwhile they can become dangerously slippery in wet weather.

Thick blankets of clean hay that’s free of weed seeds and pesticides would be great, but who can get it? Unless you know the hay or straw you are using was grown without herbicides, the hay or straw could create a giant new problem by contaminating the soil with persistent weed killers.

The best mulch materials for vegetable garden pathways I have found (so far), are a double layer of commercial grade, woven landscaping fabric covered with wood chips or sawdust. After cutting the fabric to length, I fold 3 or 4-foot wide pieces in half, arrange the folded fabric over a clean, weeded pathway, and cover it with at least an inch of sawdust or wood chips. In addition to providing safe footing and keeping out most weeds, the landscape fabric is easy to lift and flip over in winter, when it’s time to redo the garden paths.

Weed suppressing fabric with sawdust

I can get a mixture of oak and pine sawdust from a nearby sawmill, and lightweight sawdust is super easy to move using a snow shovel. Wood chips are heavier, but they are often free for the asking from tree-trimming crews. When used as a top mulch that is spread over landscaping fabric, even fresh wood chips pose no threat to the soil below. After a year of natural weathering, they will be ready to be processed by soil microorganisms.

When I do my winter turnover of landscape fabric, I often shake the rotted-to-black wood chips or sawdust into adjoining beds.

These days I think of my vegetable garden pathways as a little system of trails that need and deserve regular upkeep, and I’ve given up on the dream of leaving clovers in charge. Instead I use the off season to do the necessary maintenance, and by spring the garden paths are spruced up and ready for the new season ahead.

Barbara Pleasant

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Show Comments


"Between the raised beds in our veg garden, I use strips of landscaping fabric weighted down with 12" * 12" paving slabs every 24", (we are in a fairly windy area,) with coarse gravel in between. This has been down now for over 3 years and is in still excellent condition. "
Stuart Keys on Friday 20 November 2015
"I have lots of trees, which means tons of leaves. I mow over them, rake up and pile the cut up leaves in a huge pile, they are small so don't blow away, let them set overwinter, some grass is in there too of course, and use as mulch the next spring. I use a pull behind leaf rake to pick them up. I also bag some just full size fallen leaves in bags to put around my cold frame as added insulation over the winter."
vera on Friday 20 November 2015
"I use strips of old carpet both as paths and as a weed suppressant. Some carpets and carpet tiles last better than others and remain impervious to weeds. In winter I may roll them back to get the soil and debris off them so that weeds don't grow on them; and maybe put compost; and maybe dig it in and remove weed tubers that have grown under it. (I have a problem with ground elder). And roll it back before growth starts in the spring. When it starts falling to pieces, I throw it away. Not the most beautiful, but it costs nothing and is pretty effective and low maintenance. Someone told me this was no longer recommended in eco circles. I'm not sure why . . ."
Ian on Friday 20 November 2015
"I have tried every type of landscape fabric I can find and my worst weeds love them all! The roots get into the fabric and are very difficult to remove, often resulting in ripping the fabric. This happens whether covered in bark chips or gravel. I now only use heavy plastic sheeting covered with chips or gravel. Of course, I have to stab in a few holes with my garden fork for drainage. This system works well except at the edges. I'm planning to staple the plastic along the outside edges of my raised beds, where possible. "
Alison Perrin on Friday 20 November 2015
"Do you have any suggestions for paths in a sloping garden? We used woodchips and newspaper when the beds were perpendicular to the the slope. When we installed a gravity fed watering system we changed the bed direction to go with the slope to help the flow. That year, all the chips ended up in the down end of the path. We now mow the paths, but as you said, not ideal, especially after crabgrass has found its way in and is laying too low for mower. Any thoughts are appreciated."
Denise on Saturday 21 November 2015
"I really love the carpet idea and have never even thought of it. I've spent tons of $ on all of the weed proof fabrics and the sprays and sprinkle on granules and they seem to attract weeds. I even flattened cardboard boxes down and covered them to try to keep the weeds out, it didn't help. I really like the idea of the wide rows those because as much as I love gardening, is as much as I hate snakes. Not even the so called "good ones" because I don't believe there are any! I have panic attacks and totally freak out over even larger than normal worms! But perhaps if I had wider rows I wouldn't be so panicky in the garden. So far, I've stuck to fruit and nut trees just so I know I won't get cornered by any snakes. I would love to have a great garden though because we have a few acres to play with. Thanks for the info. it really helped."
Shirley on Tuesday 24 November 2015
"Denise, as you see in the second photo, my garden is very sloped, but with the beds perpendicular. The slope makes pebbles impractical because they roll, but try anything else you can find locally, cheap or free. With those downhill runs, grass/clover may be best in terms of erosion prevention....With landscaping fabric, carpeting, or any type of underlayer, weeds do sprout and grow on top of them as friendly organic matter becomes available. That's why lifting them yearly, to dislodge perennial weeds that have taken root, is often essential to making the system work. "
Barbara Pleasant on Friday 27 November 2015
"Over the past 4 or 5 years I have tried to suppress the couch grass on all my paths by strimming. 3 broken strimmers later, I too have come to the conclusion that good quality weed suppressant fabric and wood chips are the best answer. I spent last winter re-doing my allotment paths, 2ft around the edge and a slightly narrower main path with several side paths between beds. I dug out as much couch grass and bindweed as I could find ( some growing through the old carpet that an allotmenteer of a generation or two ago had left - horrid and very heavy). Then I covered all paths. Around the edge of the plot I put gravel at the very edge and bark on top of the fabric. Every time I saw a stray leaf of couch grass or bind weed I either pulled it or zapped it carefully. I wood chipped the main path and mainly left the small paths with just weed suppressant fabric. One season on and I am generally very happy. Yes, there are a few stray blades of couch grass but nothing that can't be dealt with in a few minutes. I no longer have to spent hours and hours of precious allotment time strimming and remembering to charge the battery. The paths will need more chips maybe some this winter but not the whole lot, just topping up really. So I would say, if like me you have a serious path problem, go for proper fabric cover and woodchip or similar."
Mary Garrigan on Saturday 28 November 2015
"Carpet remnants may not be your best choice - they are saturated with some very unpleasant chemicals that will leach into the soil. And as they do not biodegrade, they become bits of "microplastics" (which just means very small bits of plastic), an especially nasty and dangerous form of pollutant, particularly when it ends up in waterways. This is also why I'm not crazy about landscape fabric - a petroleum-based material that disintegrates - but does biodegrade - into bits of microplastic litter. We've always had good performance with clean cardboard (just plain brown, no tape or labels) with wood mulch on top. But I'm going to experiment with something I read in "Carrots Love Tomatoes": Yarrow, a low, tough, dense plant that can handle foot traffic and doesn't need mowing. I imagine that nothing works perfectly, however. :-)"
Wendy on Tuesday 19 January 2016
"Wendy, in my garden yarrow grows 3 feet tall, though it does persist as low rosettes of ferny foliage during winter. "
Barbara Pleasant on Wednesday 22 November 2017
"You said you turn over the landscape fabric that is covered by saw dust or wood chips in your paths (not corridors) every winter. I'm wondering why you don't leave it down and just top off the paths with more fresh sawdust or wood chips yearly. Does the fabric degrade in one season? Do weeds eventually come through and tear up the fabric or have to be uprooted because they grow too large? We are getting ready to turn some grass and weed-covered land into a brand new garden plot and weeds will be a bear we expect. Thanks!"
Mandy on Wednesday 30 May 2018
"Mandy, the reason to flip the fabric is that organic matter accumulates on top of it, and weeds get started no matter what. Flipping it give you a fresh start weed-wise. "
Barbara Pleasant on Sunday 10 June 2018
"What is the downside of just using smooth rocks or pebbles instead of mulch or sawdust?"
Sue Lambert on Monday 6 August 2018
"I suspect the downside of pebbles is that they cost a lot more than bark chips or mulch. Perhaps if you want a harder surface it's better to go with the slabs on top of fabric idea with shingle/ pebbles to fill in. "
M J Garrigan on Monday 6 August 2018
"I've been pricing out stones/rocks this afternoon and yes that point became very clear. Pretty expensive to fill in a large area with stones. "
Sue Lambert on Monday 6 August 2018
"Sue, the downside of pebbles is that they are shifty underfoot. You can place steppingstones close together, with pebbles surrounding them, for more solid footing."
Barbara Pleasant on Wednesday 19 September 2018
"Hi. I'm working on a garden redesign and re-thinking my garden paths and came across your post. What is the purpose of your "winter turnover of landscape fabric"? I mean, why is this turnover necessary? I currently have wood chip mulched garden paths, and they do nothing but rot and create compost, which weeds then love to grow into. I have a lot of creeping charlie in my garden, and this and quickly overrun my beds. I think that the sawdust and landscape fabric could work well, but would like to understand the upkeep of it first. Is the "turnover" because the fabric degrades? And by "turnover" do you mean replacement? Thanks!!"
Nola on Wednesday 15 May 2019
"Do you think grass clippings would work as mulch over landscape fabric, in lieu of sawdust?"
Nola on Wednesday 15 May 2019
"Nola, the turning of the fabric moves the weeds and rotted wood chips to adjoining beds, and gives you a fresh start for re-mulching the pathways. Grass clippings can be slippery underfoot, and wheeled things like carts or wheelbarrows do better on wood chips than on sawdust. There is no perfect solution, except for your creeping charlie (ground ivy) problem. Glechoma is highly sensitive to boron, so you can spray it with a dilute solution of household borax and it will die back for several years. "
Barbara Pleasant on Thursday 16 May 2019
"Is there any harm you have seen from using sawdust? I know sawdust will deplete the ground of nitrogen if used in the garden, but I didn't know if is okay to use in the walking rows without it causing a problem. Is this the reason you have to put down plastic or fabric under it?"
Angela on Monday 23 September 2019
"Angela, you are right in that fresh sawdust can reduce available nitrogen when mixed into soil, but it has no negative effects on adjoining beds when used as pathway mulch. After sawdust has weathered in pathways for a season, it can be raked into gardening beds. "
Barbara Pleasant on Tuesday 24 September 2019
"I have seen tamped down earth around some plants and weeds don't seem to be as big a problem. Can I tamp down the walkways and keep weeds from growing in lose soil?"
Norma S Larsen on Wednesday 9 October 2019
"Norma, yes you can use bare earth in walkways, though erosion or slippery mud could become issues in wet weather. Weeds that grow in compacted walkways are often scrawny, though there are a few that specialize in colonizing compacted soil, such as prostrate spurge and broad-leafed plantain. "
Barbara Pleasant on Thursday 10 October 2019
"Cardboard becomes very slippery when it's wet, so I haven't found it usable for paths. Newspaper is great, but for only one season at most, and anyway it's harder to find than it used to be. The trouble with gravel, besides it's cost, is that in a vegetable garden dirt eventually gets mixed in and weeds start to grow. You can't mix it into your soil as you can with sawdust or bark mulch. So that leaves the landscape fabric idea or maybe the carpet scraps which I am now trying. No perfect solution!"
Jennifer Richter on Friday 8 November 2019
"I was experimenting this year with garden path coverage. Very much not a fan of having plastic based anything in the garden long term. I tried chopped straw on a couple of my garden paths this past year. Boy was I in trouble with the missus when that stuff started tracking into the house... I don't imagine sawdust being any better - and quite probably worse. I also tried pavers, but unless you invest in a good pair of kneepads, that just didn't work either. I found I was keeping the knees in the soft soil at the bed edges rather than on the pavers. Micro-clover didn't work (except it did distract the one baby bunny that managed to find its way through the fence. He loved the stuff so much he never touched the early peas.) All of the clovers around here are extremely aggressive. If I wasn't out there with an edger every weekend it would grow into the beds relentlessly. Best of all were the cedar planks. They were cut ends from some raised beds I had built. Still not comfortable to kneel on but more so than the block pavers. Best of all, I could easily lift them to pick the slugs that would hide there in the mornings. Put a dent in their numbers for sure. A little pricey initially but pine rots just too fast here. (Northeast US.) Gonna invest in 2-plank duckboards in cheaper rough-cut cedar for half the garden this coming season. "
Terence on Saturday 16 November 2019
"Thanks for your report, Terence! This summer I visited a garden where broad boards were used in most of the pathways, and it was working really well."
Barbara Pleasant on Sunday 17 November 2019
"I'm interested in your comment about using broad boards between garden boxes. The previous comment mentioned 2 plank duckboards. Do you have photos or feedback about how well it works?"
Emily on Wednesday 29 April 2020
"Emily, a friend uses boards over heavy black plastic, and her narrow garden paths don't have a single weed. The boards provide very sure footing and make the plastic last longer. When the boards I use to anchor row cover end up scattered in paths between my beds, I find myself wanting to stand on them. "
Barbara Pleasant on Thursday 30 April 2020
"By chance, do you have some pics of boards used between rows? "
Emily Peterson on Thursday 30 April 2020
"Would Leaves under wood chips work well? I've got a 1 year pile of Oak leaves (unshredded) ?"
George on Wednesday 10 March 2021
"I am sharing your guide; there is a lot of wisdom there and the secret ingredient is cleaning them off in the winter. I like the idea of a 2nd loose layer of nursery fabric under the bark to facilitate mulch removal (my first layer is pegged down) - last year I used pine needles and there is a lot of breakdown by the end of the season and the deal is once you get dirt at the bottom (and it is amazing how fast this stuff breaks down) weeds take root and can easily penetrate the fabric from above (even though they don't from below)-The whole idea is to keep dirt from the top of the fabric. That is why weedblock ALWAYS eventually fails. We have blueberries, blackberries, figs, elderberries and azaleas and they all don't mind taking the leftover mulch end of season. "
nancy jocoy on Saturday 24 April 2021
"Thank you so much for this super helpful guide! When you turn the fabric over in the winter and dump the saw dust into nearby beds, what do you do next? Do you just leave the pathways uncovered for the winter? Do you store the fabric or put it back down in the pathway for the winter?"
Adrienne on Tuesday 21 March 2023
"I too use the method described of a ground cloth covered with wood chips. I use old welcome mats (rubber, coconut fiber, whatever) in the entrance way and wherever really stubborn super weeds grow. I find that come Spring everybody is getting rid of their winter mats and I gladly take them. I sometimes put heavy cardboard down in early Spring. I cover my raised beds with cardboard and straw over the winter, then I place the cardboard on the paths, put the black landscaping cloth on the beds to warm the soil and block the weeds and then use a new roll plus wood chips that I get for free from my town, on the paths. "
Sue on Wednesday 3 May 2023
"My friend recommended using asphalt roofing tiles between the perennial rows in my garden. It's heavy enough to stay in place and looks durable enough to last several years. I have done one row that way using scraps from when we redid the roof. I want to buy more because this looks like exactly what I've been looking for to make my garden more manageable. I've used cardboard and plastic and not been impressed. Landscape fabric, the roots grow right through it. My husband thinks there are too many toxic chemicals in the asphalt tiles. What do you think? "
Cindy on Thursday 1 June 2023
"I have a large netted veggie area (17m square), and have been using carpet for years on the paths between the beds. I've pulled them all up now as I have an infestation of earwigs and slaters hiding under the carpet. I think I will try wood chips instead. My chickens may have to be invited to clean up the place over winter. (no winter crop this year)."
Ray C on Thursday 25 January 2024

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