You may dream of an elegant brickwork or elaborate pebble mosaic walkway even though you know they're outside your budget. You can still have an attractive garden path while keeping costs low. Imagination and hard work make the most of less expensive materials to make your dreams a reality.
In most areas, utilities like gas, water, electric and phone lines, travel into your home through underground connections. When digging a foundation for a walkway, always call 811 to "know what's below" before you start.
Round Wood Pavers
If you have access to fallen trees or a hefty pile of firewood and a saw -- preferably a chainsaw, though an ordinary crosscut saw will do if you don't mind hard work -- then round pavers may be the choice for you. Cut logs into 3- or 4-inch-thick slices and lay them on a prepared foundation, spaced about 1 inch apart. This works best in a garden with a rustic look.
An easier method of laying a wooden walkway -- though it requires more wood -- is to lay the logs side by side in rows. The resulting walkway resembles a corrugated surface. It is durable and makes a sturdy woodland pathway. Cut logs to 2 feet or more in length for single-file walkways and at least 4 feet long for two people to walk side by side.
Recycled Pallet Paths
Even in urban and suburban areas, you can likely find a source of cheap or free used wooden pallets. Use them as a source material for an old-fashioned boardwalk such as you might find at the beach. Cut the pallets apart and fasten the sized planks together like decking over timbers or logs placed along the sides of your path.
Durable Stone and Earth
Flagstone or "Crazy-Paving"
Where rocks abound, stone is a solid candidate for paths. If your yard has slabs of slate, limestone slabs or other relatively flat stones, simply make a flagstone path. No need to dress or cut the stones for precise placement, just fit them together like a jigsaw puzzle using the natural shapes. If you don't have stone on your own property, try approaching a farmer for permission to pick up rocks from fields and pastures. Because large stones can interfere with farm machinery, the farmer may jump at the chance to have them hauled away. Alternatively, you may be able to remove rocks -- or even broken concrete pieces that you can use like stone -- from construction projects, road work or other excavations. Get permission before you take rocks, concrete slabs or any other materials from any property, including government-owned property.
If you have chunky field stone or round rocks to work with, consider using those to line the edges of a path, and then fill between with rounded pea gravel or crushed limestone. Gravel drains well and is usually inexpensive by the truck load. It also spreads quickly and easily with only shovel and rake. To prevent weed growth in the path, lay landscape fabric as a barrier before spreading the gravel on top. Unlike sheet plastic underlayment, landscape fabric allows for proper drainage. It's worth taking the extra time and going to the extra expense to lay it. The larger edging-stones act both to hold the gravel in place and create a distinctive border. One minor drawback is that wheeled vehicles can get stuck in deep gravel, so this may not be the best choice if you constantly need to move a wheelbarrow or lawnmower along the path.
When you have a choice of stone color, pick those resembling the native stones of your area. They blend more naturally into the landscape and look less artificial. As a bonus, where limestone abounds, the light-colored stones make your path easy to see after dark without expensive lighting.
Simple Clay Walkway
A dirt cheap choice for areas with clay soil is to edge with field stone and create a hard-packed dirt path between. Mound clay soil slightly in the center -- with a shallow gutter on one or both sides under the edging stones -- and tamp the entire path firmly with a tamping tool to solidify the surface. Water will slide off and prevent erosion to the path. If you wish, set a single flat stepping stone every 12 to 15 inches for added interest, and firmer footing when wet.
Concrete "Stone" Look-a-likes
When your heart is set on stone, but nature -- or your budget -- has short-changed you, go for concrete look-a-likes. After all, concrete is composed of ground limestone so there is not a lot of difference. This is an easy DIY project requiring only a faux-stone mold, concrete mix and a few simple tools. Alternatively, pour an ordinary sidewalk and stamp "flagstones" or other patterns into it while wet.
Whatever path you make requires a good foundation to support it. Oregon State University offers one method, but you may need to adjust it to suit your specific installation -- keeping the size and type of paving materials, terrain and other factors in mind.
For ideas on landscaping your new garden path, see What to Plant Along a Garden Walkway.