You can get away with not having a lot of infrastructure in a garden. It's not the end of the earth, for instance, if you don't have built-up beds or a bean fence. You'll survive without a tunnel house or a tool rack, or even a potting shed. But if you don't have paths, you've got problems.
Paths make life easy. They divide up the garden into undaunting, manageable sections which also help with crop-rotation. They allow you to go about your gardening and harvesting without compressing the soil and, in winter, they stop you sinking up to your ankles in mud. Well planned, they make manoeuvring a wheelbarrow from place to place a breeze and, although not essential to the growth of vegetables, paths add shape and beauty to the garden environment.
But just as important as creating pathways, is what you decide to lay on their surface. I spent years experimenting with different materials until, finally, I discovered a low-cost, easy-maintenance, look-good solution – one that has a duel purpose into the bargain.
Concrete was never an option for me, and not just because I don't like the idea of sealing over the good-earth with something so permanent, or being committed to one garden design. Concrete is deadly slippery when it ices-over or turns green with algae or moss (and who wants to use a chemical paving-cleaner around the veggie beds!). And it's awfully hard to kneel on while you're working.
Grass paths don't do it for me, either. In my part of the world, they soon turn to mud. In drier regions, frequent use wears off the grass, and the bald patches turn slippery the first time it rains. And then there's the on-going invasion of grass into the veggie beds which necessitates regular mowing and edge-trimming. No thanks!
I did try bark chips but they were a disaster (as well as expensive). Whenever I was working in the beds, or when the chooks decided to go on a worm-hunt, soil ended up on the paths. Weed seeds found a home there and, at the first shower of rain, began to grow. I really resent having to weed paths! Pebbles were just as bad, and in exactly the same way. And they were darned heavy to barrow in from the trailer.
So you can imagine my delight when I discovered good old-fashioned untreated sawdust. A lot less costly than bark chips, it's light to barrow-in, non-slip and, laid on top of weed matting, it has a life expectancy of 2 – 3 years even in high rain areas. It's soft to kneel on, smooth to wheel the barrow over and, if it attracts weeds, a super-quick scuff with the hoe sends them flying. But the all-time advantage of surfacing your garden paths with sawdust is that, when it begins to thoroughly break down, it can be shovelled straight onto the veggie beds and dug into the soil. The addition of nitrogen (animal manure, a green winter crop such as lupin, or a few handfuls of nitrogen-based fertilizer) counteracts the nitrogen-sapping properties of the decying sawdust and, ta-da!, every 2 or 3 years, you can look forward to ready-made compost and soil-conditioner on your veggie beds. It couldn't be simpler, cheaper, or more efficient – so what are you waiting for?
Tip: we welcome WWOOFers into our home and perhaps you do, too. For those of them who don't feel confident with intricate gardening tasks or who aren't up to heavy lifting, shovelling the old sawdust onto the veggie beds and barrowing the new material onto the paths is a chore they always describe as satisfying.