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Step by Step: Laying a Stepping Stone Path with JMMDS

By September 10, 2010 November 22nd, 2011 2 Comments
by Val Khislavsky

I tagged along with Julie on a recent site visit to set a stepping stone path for one of our Vermont clients. Here’s a video plus some tried-and-true tips to inspire your next garden path:

Join Julie in process as she ties the path together. Video: Val Khislavsky. Mobile device readers click here.

A stepping stone path serves a practical purpose, getting you from point A to point B while keeping your feet out of the mud, but there’s a lot more to it than that! Laying a stone path is an exercise in possibility—by experimenting with different types of stones, and their various orientations and patterns, you choreograph a personal journey through your garden, from your home to your driveway, or wherever else you’d like to go. The way you arrange stones shapes the rhythm with which move along your path, where you pause to look around or change direction, and how other paths or areas of open space connect.

Here are a few quick tips to get you thinking about your own stone path projects:

L: The mostly irregular-stone path is punctuated by a set of more uniform plank stones; R: The series of plank stones. Photos: Julie Moir Messervy.

1.) Use Julie’s “Rule of Continuity and Change”:
Save your path from predictability by varying the size or shape of the stones you use. Keep one thing consistent, like the type of stone you’re using throughout your path, but vary the way that you use it. For instance, try a few irregularly-shaped natural stones, followed by a run of uniformly-cut stones, like the plank stones above; then return to using a set of irregular stones. Also, make sure to notice how you walk: right-left-right-left, so set each stone so that it doesn’t interrupt the flow, while choreographing the whole to hold interest.

L: The first stone radiates out from the stone terrace in a yin-yang relationship; R: The first stone from the other side is placed parallel to the driveway. Photos: Julie Moir Messervy.

2.) Work from both ends towards the middle:
When setting stones, work from both ends towards the middle (where the threshold stone will tend to be). Make sure to set the first stone on each end in relationship to the surface it connects to (in this case, the stone terrace at the front of the house on one end, and the driveway on the other). Choose the appropriate side of the stone to use to create the most seamless arrangement (yin-yang in the case of the terrace, and parallel in relation to the driveway). Also consider connections to other paths, like the one across the driveway. Stones should be set so that the line of the paths appear to be continuous if not for the driveway.

L: A close-up of the yin-yang relationship; R: Hand tools were used to refine the edge and strengthen the relationship between the stones. Photos: Val Khislavsky.

3.) Set most stones in a yin-yang relationship:
Stepping stone paths flow most seamlessly from one stone to the next when their shapes interrelate so that the protrusions of one complement the hollows of the other. Set yin-yang stones a wrist’s width apart. When choosing which way to set a stone, try out several orientations. You can even flip it over—just be sure to use its smoothest size to minimize tripping. Occasionally make sure to break the flow for emphasis and surprise.

The pleasure of pausing. Photo: Julie Moir Messervy.

4.) Plan for Pauses:
When you create a path, you’re choreographing a journey through your landscape. Think about places to pause, or to stop and look up, down, or around. Always set a “threshold stone,” a larger, distinctive stone that marks a clear pausing or stopping point from which to take in your surroundings, or a point of decision from which to connect to an adjoining path.

L: The path interacts with the porch and roof lines; R: Continuity across the driveway. Photos: Julie Moir Messervy.

5.) Relate the path to the surrounding architecture:
A path is a connective element that can be used to either reflect or contrast with the architectural elements around it. In particular, Japanese stone setting techniques invite the placement of plank stones set either parallel to the architectural lines of the house or slightly off-parallel. Use cut stones sparingly for they draw the eye and act as a kind of bridge between foreground and background.

Master path testers Bandit and Anemone evaluate another path that radiates out from the terrace through the garden. Photos: Julie Moir Messervy.

6.) Remember: It’s a jigsaw puzzle!
When laying a path, it helps to start with a certain set of principles to work from. In Julie’s case, her ideas were informed studying and building paths in Japan. When on site, however, creating a stepping stone path that works is a matter of problem solving, working with the stones, tools, and challenges that you have right in front of you. Essentially, creating a path is like a jigsaw puzzle. Just keep the above principles in mind and try to fit it all together as best you can. And don’t forget to test your path out when you think you’re got it down—walk along it from all directions and see how it flows.

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Tom Hand says:

    Great Images and Great advice as always! If it looks like it’s been there for years then it’s been done well. I like the way you’ve incorporated the plantings along the edges and in the joints. And who can dispute a Golden testing his new walk? Thanks!

  • Val says:

    Thanks, Tom! Much of the space is newly-planted and we’re excited to watch as things continue to grow in. The space in between the stepping stones will be seeded with grass, and they’ve been set at a depth that accommodates easy mowing. Can’t design without planning for the upkeep!

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