Designing a Stone Walkway

Practical considerations on getting from driveway to door, from a landscape professional.

I can’t even count the number of times I’ve arrived at a house, parked my car, and faced the puzzle of how to get to the front door. Although I’ve never ended up at the outdoor shower, I’ve often traveled circuitous routes to find the door intended for visitors to use. Just as a home’s front entry sets the tone for what’s inside, getting there is a big part of its first impression.

Providing visual cues for your visitors will almost always lead them to the right place. The most obvious cue is to provide a sight line to the front door. If a steep slope or other physical obstructions prevent this, a wide path through a lush perennial garden, large stepping stones in an expanse of lawn, or a carefully selected ornamental tree that provides year-round visual interest adjacent to the entry can certainly help.

Perhaps you inherited a walkway that’s showing its age or wasn’t well thought out in the first place, or maybe your home has been remodeled and the new front entrance doesn’t work with the original walkway. As you face the task of envisioning an appropriate path, there are some basic considerations: style, mood, function, and budget. Once you nail down those variables, it will be easier to design a successful walkway for your home and your lifestyle.

Advance planning

Since most of us arrive at our homes in cars, there is an obvious and direct connection between the parking place and how we get to the front door. But after we park our cars, we don’t necessarily want to look at them from the house. If you have the space and can conceal cars, you may actually appreciate the extra steps (and expense) your path may require to get you to the door – especially if the entryway overlooks a garden instead.

Consider the overall layout of your property’s walkways. Design the main path to have the greatest width to indicate its place in the hierarchy in the landscape. If you have paths that branch off the main path – say to a mudroom door, a garage, or an outdoor shower – make these narrower to show that they are not as important as the pathway to the front door.

style: Your home and its setting should help inform the decision process. A farmhouse at the edge of a pasture, a bungalow on a quiet side street in town, or a contemporary home in the woods: Each has architectural references and materials from which you can derive inspiration for the entrance to your home. If your Greek revival home has a brick foundation and an adjacent brick public sidewalk, perhaps it makes sense to use bricks for a formal walkway to the front door. Your seaside cottage with its colorful perennial gardens may be complemented by an irregular bluestone walkway with thyme growing between the joints to reflect your home’s informal style.

mood: What kind of feeling do you want to convey to the street or to your guests and neighbors? Whether your home is casual or prim and proper, choosing a walkway material and layout that matches the mood of your home and the way you live is a good place to start. If your home has a more reserved, formal atmosphere, consider extending that formality into the landscape. For example, a herringbone- patterned brick walkway flanked by a clipped boxwood hedge presents a more stately appearance, whereas large irregular fieldstone slabs with planted joints and ornamental grasses and perennials tumbling along the edges feel more relaxed.

function: Another consideration should be any functional or structural requirements. For example, strollers and wheelchairs will be easier to push if there is a continuous surface without irregular joints or an uneven profile. For homes used year-round, loose walkway materials present a definite challenge when it comes to shoveling snow. Depending on your location, you may also have to abide by specific stipulations for materials or layout by your town’s historic district committee or conservation commission.

budget: Be sure to share financial considerations with your landscape designer or installer right up front. This will help avoid getting a walkway plan that exceeds the capacity of your wallet. Choose the materials, size, and pattern that fit your budget based on the square-foot price. Don’t scrimp on the cost of properly preparing the setting bed with adequate surface and sub-surface drainage; all pavers will shift to some extent due to natural settling and climatic changes, but a walkway that’s poorly constructed or does not drain properly will heave and shift more rapidly, could provide a tripping hazard for you and your visitors, and will cost more money to reset again.

If you want to do it yourself, read up on installation methods before embarking on a project. The smaller pavers may be relatively easy to install for the well- informed, skilled homeowner, but larger (and heavier!) stone is best left to landscape or masonry professionals, who will have both the muscle power and the tools for the best quality finished product.

Choosing the right materials

There are two natural solid stones commonly used for pathways in landscapes around the Island: bluestone and granite. Fired clay brick is also popular, as is the newest material on the market, precast concrete pavers. Other materials such as wood chips, pine needles, grass, crushed shells, and pea stone can also be used, but these tend to require more ongoing maintenance and are not as suitable for use on a well-trodden path as solid stone or concrete.

Bluestone: A durable material for our climate, bluestone can be purchased in diverse sizes, dimensions, and colors. It is also typically less expensive than granite and slightly more expensive than brick. It comes in large, irregular pieces split along natural clefts into a two- to three-inch thickness. This sedimentary stone can also be sawn into rectangular pieces and “thermalled,” a process whereby a torch is used to give the stone a smooth but slightly textured surface, making it more suitable for outdoor use. Although we know it as “blue” stone, its subtle color range actually varies from blue to brown to green and even to lilac.

Granite: Like bluestone, granite is another hard-wearing material that can be manipulated to create many different looks. An extremely durable igneous stone, it is commonly seen in manicured in-town landscapes as setts or “Belgian blocks” (rectangular or square forms often incorrectly called cobblestones), or as sawn and thermalled slabs. Irregular flat granite fieldstone pavers offer a more casual look. These are commonly used in a rural or woodland landscape, with the joints between the stones planted with grass or a ground cover you can walk on, such as creeping thyme, sandwort, or blue-star creeper.

Brick: This is a versatile material that works well in a wide range of applications. Fired clay brick is relatively consistent in size (roughly two-by-four-by-eight inches) and lends itself for use in many different patterns, from the simple “running bond” to herringbone to the more complicated, lattice-like della Robbia weave. It may be set on edge or flat, and is sometimes used as edging to contain loose materials such as pea stone, crushed shells, or gravel (as are Belgian blocks).

Precast concrete pavers: Available in many sizes, colors, and shapes, precast concrete pavers are often sold as a pattern stock by the manufacturer. They are also much more affordable than solid stone. Full disclosure: I have a bias toward using natural stone or fired clay brick. I find that manufacturers of precast concrete have not yet matched the aesthetic qualities – especially texture and color – of natural stone and brick. I’ve changed my mind over the years about some materials but still haven’t come around to liking this material enough to persuade me to use it in my designs.

Combining materials: Avoid combining different hardscaping materials unless you are feeling very clever and competent about the overall effect. It takes a skilled designer to integrate dissimilar materials and have them work together as a whole. If you’d like more texture and pattern, this can be achieved using one material in different ways, which helps avoid a hodgepodge look. Perhaps you would like a linear layout of bluestone but without using all rectangular pieces; one approach might be to use a border of long, straight pieces in-filled with a “cracked ice” pattern (irregular bluestone with tight joints).

Walkway accents: Although the material choice and path layout help set the walkway’s tone, there are many supporting features contributing to the overall effect. Garden beds, specimen plantings, fences, arbors, gates, and lighting are important to consider. A white picket fence and gate with a post light at the edge of the property may be appropriate for an in-town residence. At many up-Island properties, however, fences and lamp posts might seem to be visual obstructions, and low or at-grade path lighting would be better suited for a walkway across an expanse of lawn.

A new stone path can represent a sizable investment of time and materials. Though there’s no single correct solution for any project, it’s worth doing the planning and prep work to make sure your new walkway will accomplish all your aesthetic and functional goals. If you make the effort to design and build a path that leads guests easily to your doorstep in an inviting way, you’re much less likely to be surprised in the outdoor shower by a random visitor who couldn’t find his way to your front door. And that’s something everyone will appreciate.