Stepping stones: a step in the right direction

08/09/2014 12:00 AM

08/07/2014 2:20 PM

Good gardens are full of interesting destinations, and making your way from one to another is always pleasant when you’re walking on well-placed stepping stones.

A handsome line of hefty stepping stones irresistibly directs your feet from a patio out to an exuberant flower bed or politely suggests a stroll through a woodsy side yard. It will lead your eyes and your feet to a garden gate or a secluded bench. Stepping stones are good-looking problem solvers, too, tidying up well-worn shortcuts and keeping your feet dry in soggy spots.

Stepping stones have a way of taking quiet charge of the tempo of the experience of a garden. Paved paths hurry you along, but stepping stones have a pace all their own — they can be used to deliberately slow down the experience of a garden, says Joann Schwarberg, a landscape architect in the Kansas City area.

Increasing the spacing between them — or introducing a new paving material — can change the mood dramatically. These are good ways to mark transitions within a garden.

Garden designers place great emphasis on the fine art of choosing and placing stepping stones. “Generally, they start at a more architectural environment and lead to something less formal,” says Schwarberg. Visitors don’t always know quite what to make of a garden, and stepping stones reassuringly mark the way.

Just by their nature, stepping stones are rarely set in a straight line. In one client’s garden, Schwarberg designed a path of fieldstone stepping stones curving off a patio and around behind a screened porch to a private side yard.

In another garden, she used a sweep of large, rugged stepping stones as solid steps up a slope. The stepping-stone staircase is an unusual treatment, she says, but “it’s a lovely way to make a staircase more natural.”

Vanessa Gardner Nagel, a landscape designer and owner of Seasons Garden Design in Vancouver, Washington, calls stepping stones in gardens a “subtle way-finding technique,” and recommends them as a way to save a little money, too. They are generally not as expensive as a path made with bricks, cut stone, or other materials, she says.

They’re also a good environmental choice. “Solid pavement doesn’t allow much drainage,” Nagel says. “Stepping stones allow water to stay on-site.”

Every designer has rules of thumb about choosing stones that are the right size and weight and about how to place them so they are naturally comfortable to walk on. The size, shape and color of stepping stones should complement the setting, the architecture of the house and the colors and textures of existing garden structures, walls and walks.

Thick stepping stones are best, designers say: Nagel uses stones up to 3 inches thick. Pavers only 1 1/2 inches thick will look good when you lay them down, but they are brittle and will not hold up to either weather or regular use.

Big stones also “have more presence,” Nagel says, “and they don’t look like you are inviting Minnie Mouse into your garden. You are not mincing as you make your way along the path.”

Setting the stones is a bit of an art. Measure your own pace as you stroll along where you’re thinking of using stepping stones, and test the pattern with your own feet before you set the stones permanently in place. Resist the temptation to make the path razor-straight: A natural curve is more comfortable and relaxing.

Stepping stones are meant to be “a step apart,” Schwarberg says, but everyone’s stride is different. Large stones solve most spacing problems because they are comfortable for both short and tall people. Schwarberg likes stones that are about 18 inches in diameter; she leaves a space of 3 to 6 inches between each step.

Wherever you use them, stepping stones must be placed solidly. Nagel always sets stones on a base of sand and packed gravel. Digging out a little soil and wedging a stepping stone into place only works for a while, she says.

Well-chosen and carefully placed stepping stones shouldn’t be an afterthought. They are a fundamental element of style in a garden, Nagel says. And remember, they create planting opportunities, too. The stones may be set in mulch, gravel or sand, but creeping thyme, ajuga, sedum and dozens of other low-growing plants, as well as grass, will spread naturally between stepping stones. Flowers may pop up in the spaces, too.

Your first instinct may be to remove them, but step back before you pull them out. You may decide to let nature make her own way along your path of stepping stones.

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