By their very nature, vegetable garden paths invite utilitarian design and materials. Expensive and fragile slate or brick paths should be avoided. Gardeners frequently bring heavy tools to weed, water, mulch and remove spent plants at the end of their growing season. In addition, paths must be wide and sturdy to accommodate wheelbarrows, bushel baskets, hoses, hay bales, and heavy piles of manure and mulch. Fortunately, several materials live up to these daunting requirements.
Grass paths offer several obvious advantages. They provide a soft, cool surface for walking barefoot. Gardeners can cut grass several times a season to provide nutrient-rich mulch, which can be immediately piled around the adjoining beds or carted away to enrich the compost pile. Grass also prevents soil erosion and mud problems. In the "cons" category, however, mowing grass presents yet one more chore during an already-busy gardening season. Some people find the surface too slippery during wet weather.
Ground Cover Paths
Like grass, certain low-growing plants--when planted as herbal walkways--become living mulch that's easy on the feet, pleasing to the eye and that lasts for years. Fragrant, sturdy herbs like thyme or chamomile make ideal vegetable ground cover paths. Buy the herbs in large-count plug trays from wholesale suppliers to cover the entire path fairly quickly. Keep in mind, however, that the herbs aren't quite as handy as healthy grass when it comes to weed suppression, especially before they fill in the entire walkway.
Few materials offer the crisp demarcations between paths and garden beds that gravel does. The material also provides excellent drainage, while preventing wet soil from splashing onto vegetables and rotting them. It comes in a range of colors and pebble size, from tiny white or pink pebbles that make lovely lines in the moonlight to sturdy earth tones that complement the vegetable beds. On the downside, gravel can be hard on the feet and knees, expensive, backbreaking to install, and prone to weeds. It also tends to displace itself over the growing season, requiring frequent raking and replenishing. Unlike organic materials, gravel won't biodegrade if it bounces onto the lawn or into the vegetable beds.
Wood Chip Paths
Wood chips or bark mulch come in a variety of colors, from silvery-gray to almost neon red. Chances are most of the chips will soon fade, so choose this path material by price, function and chip size rather than color. Cedar pieces or chunks offer the additional advantage of pest control and a lovely fragrance. Like gravel, wood chips can be uncomfortable to walk or sit on, and also tend to be more weed-prone than some other paths. Put gravel or wood chips over a layer of newspapers or landscape fabric to ease this problem.
A hard-packed dirt path can be surprisingly attractive, provided you sweep and tend it during the warmer months. Dirt paths don't cost anything, of course, unless you need to lay soil down over rocky or root-filled dirt. Like grass, dirt treats the kneeling or crouching gardener more kindly than gravel or wood chips, and is cool and smooth for bare feet. However, you'll likely find yourself weeding the paths even more often than the vegetable garden. In addition, the rainy season probably brings with it the need for cumbersome boards or armloads of hay to lay across the walkway as you move from one bed to another.