Steppingstones are for shortcuts, for little hops between one part of a garden and another. They are for making your way into a flowerbed to plant or weed.
They may take you to secret places -- through the shrubbery to the spigot or a potting bench, or to a shady spot where a hammock awaits. A few steppingstones leading off the patio into the lawn create movement, carrying not only your feet but your eye into the garden, one step at a time.
Of course, steppingstones also keep your feet dry, prevent you from stepping on your plants and reduce soil compaction. In every garden there are spots where well-placed steppingstones will work hard, solve problems and look terrific.
Deciding what kind of steppingstones to use and how to place them is half the fun. Whether you stick with traditional materials or choose decorative steppingstones that look like little mill wheels, turtle's backs or large sunflowers, the steppingstones should be large enough to accommodate your feet in sandals, boots or clogs.
Some experts say 12 inches in diameter is big enough, but something a little larger, about the size of a place mat, will be more comfortable and make you feel sure-footed even if you're taking the path at dusk.
For paths close to the house, you may want to use stones that complement your home. Most houses are built of a number of different materials, and attractive contrasts can be carried into the garden.
Steppingstones can be of brick, slate, smooth- or rough-cut stones or sturdy plastic. Uniformly cut limestone or cast concrete pavers from a builder's supply store can be arranged to create crisp and attractive patterns.
Before you begin placing steppingstones, think about the various kinds of pathways you could create. Just inside a garden gate, small steppingstones set close together will tend to slow you down, giving you a moment to appreciate the impressions you receive just upon entering the garden. On paths you use frequently, stones set farther apart will allow you to proceed a little more quickly.
Where the path skirts a flowerbed, you may want to lay down a few large, comfortable steppingstones, big enough for both feet, to invite you to pause along the way.
If you will be the only one using your steppingstone path, the placement of the stones is relatively easy: Your own stride is the only one that matters. Set the stones along the path and walk on them, and make adjustments until they feel comfortable.
Walk the path in both directions, quickly and slowly, and walk it again carrying a watering can or a bucket of compost.
Paths that several people use regularly call for a little more work, particularly if the path is for both children and adults. Larger steppingstones accommodate different strides gracefully, but you'll still need to take some care before setting the stones.
Ask other family members to walk back and forth along the path to test the spacing. If the steppingstones are too heavy to move easily, cut pieces of cardboard the size of the stones to help you position them.
It is best to set the stones in a bed of sand. Pack soil and sand around each stone until it sits firmly in the ground even when you step on an edge. You may need to reset a stone or two after a few days of use or after the first rainstorm.
Ten plants for walks
Lots of different plants are appropriate for growing around steppingstones in sun or shade.
1. Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans) thrives in partial sun or shade. Varieties with variegated foliage are especially pretty in dappled light.
2. Mazus (M. reptans) spreads to form a low mat in partial sun or shade in moist soil. Blue flowers open in spring. 'Alba' is a white-flowered variety.
3. Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum var. pictum) has silver, purple and green foliage. These lush little ferns will fill in the cracks between pavers in shady gardens.
4. Cheddar pinks (Dianthus gratianopolitanus) soften the edges of stone paths in sun. They bloom prolifically in spring, and the flowers have a spicy clove fragrance.
5. Chilean strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis) and wild strawberry (F. vesca) grow well in sun or part shade. They have small white flowers in spring. Wild strawberries produce tiny edible strawberries.
6. Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) spreads quickly in moist, shady gardens, but it tolerates dry areas, too. The leaves look like pinwheels.
7. Pachysandra (P. terminalis) is a classic ground cover. It is reliable, easy to grow and thrives in woodland gardens. It spreads slowly.
8. Moss pink (Phlox subulata) spreads to form a mossy carpet that bursts into bloom in spring (pink, white and blue flowers are available). Grows in sun.
9. Creeping thyme (T. serpyllum var. coccineus) forms a low, dense mat of tiny leaves. Pink flowers cover the plants in spring.
10. Labrador violet (V. labradorica) is the common violet, with deep green leaves and dark violet blooms in spring. Many consider them weeds, but they are tough and persistent ground covers between steppingstones.
Steppingstones are available by mail from these suppliers:
100 Lillian Vernon Drive
Virginia Beach, VA 23479
800-545-5426 or www.lillianvernon.com
Sells steppingstones that look like toads (four for $40), sunflowers (three for $45), or like roses in bloom (three for $40), and also sells sets of beach-theme steppingstones that have impressions of seashells or coils of rope (three for $40). The catalog is free.
Plow & Hearth
P.O. Box 6000
Madison, VA 22727
800-494-7544 or www.plowhearth.com
Has steppingstones that look like a family of turtles (four for $25) and cat steppingstones ($25 each). Catalog free.
Smith & Hawken
P.O. Box 431
Milwaukee, WI 53201
800-940-1170 or www.smithandhawken.com
Offers round teak steppingstones (four for $99). Catalog free.