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I checked out this question about what kind of mulch to use around plants. But this year I want to make some extra fancy victory-garden style paths around the places I'd probably just trample anyway in my vegetable garden.

So, I'm wondering what to avoid. For instance given my local landscape supplier's stock what should I not go with (I can already guess chopped up tires is probably not a good one).

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If you really want the Victorian look use stone dust with fines. This is crushed limestone gravel with the dust and is usually inexpensive.

  • excavate your path two to three inches deep or lay the stone dust directly on the earth
  • wet down with a hose
  • compact with a rented compactor. I also find small children can be very effective compactors when they run up and down the path.
  • the dust will start bonding the small bits together and after a few years you have the perfect substrate for a flagstone path, which is also a traditional Victorian material

See below for the informal look at Gravetye Manor

Gravetye Manor walk

Or the slightly more formal look with some flagstone

enter image description here

  • In my area, weeds like goosegrass make this impractical (herbiciding them leaves the ugly dead tops, pulling them mixes soil with the gravel, pre emergents are expensive and not 100% efficacious. I also prefer not to use herbicides around veggies. With wood chips, you can just pull a hoe through... that said, stone is very attractive, and you won't have to replace it near as often, with good (though time consuming, at least in my area) management. – J. Musser Mar 4 '15 at 0:16
  • Wood chips are also better if your paths are not (pardon) set in stone yet. Much easier to change your mind and change the paths if the paths are not full of the quasi-concrete that the chips & dust turn into over time. But if you know the paths will stay put for the foreseeable future, and that's a while, stone dust is good. I think I'm on version 3 and heading towards 4 for my vegetable garden, as my opinions change about what works best. – Ecnerwal Mar 4 '15 at 0:21
  • The dust with fines is fantastic. We generally lay it in a bit deeper, and compact it in 1" - 2" increments. Regular light hand weeding takes care of any weeds that manage to get a foothold, because very few do. – That Idiot Mar 4 '15 at 0:29
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I avoid mulches that are dyed - the reds and super blacks are common ones. There may be no reason to do so, but I don't know what those dyes are made with. (See J. Musser's comment below for info on dyes)

However what we typically use for garden paths (when not using gravel or pine straw) is wood chips. Wood chips, though a bit more coarse than most mulch, tends to support foot and vehicle traffic better than shredded mulch. The larger pieces also mean that it lasts longer (unless the mulch has some preservative, though I don't know that any mulches use such things) and drains better than shredded mulches.

Often we don't even have to pay for them or delivery. We call around to tree-removal guys and ask if they want to drop off some chips. They're happy to deliver to our job site, and to deliver them for free, because otherwise they'd have to pay for disposal. But we will take a full truck-load, and you might not need that much. So they might not want to deliver a partial load. Worth asking, though.

If that doesn't work, our plan B is to go to the local landfill where the same guys have paid to drop off the chips. Around here (eastern Long Island, NY) most landfills will either let you take what you want for free or charge a fraction of what you'd pay from a supplier. In my home town they'll even load your truck for a nominal fee.

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    Don't wood chips use up nitrogen as they rot down? – Chris H Mar 3 '15 at 19:56
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    I understand that you wouldn't want to use wood chips directly under shrubs or plants (unless under-dressing with layer of compost) as that would draw N from the soil. However I wouldn't think the effect extend that far laterally. I'd still stand by the chips for paths for two reasons: First, as the very informative link mentioned you can mitigate the effect of N loss by fertilizing a bit more, and second, I'd order some king strophoria mushroom spawn to mix with the chips and let them digest chips with delicious results. The mushrooms are great for garden plants and are delicious. – That Idiot Mar 3 '15 at 21:14
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    For paths, yeah, undecomposed organic matter works great. idk about everywhere, but around here, they use incinerated coal tar derivatives for their black dye. Not sure I'd want that in my soil at all. Red dye (usually iron oxide) isn't quite so bad for your soil, but it just looks unnatural and (imo) quite unattractive. These are usually used with 1-Amino-2-propanol (a dye dispersant). I'm not sure what they dye brown dyed mulch with - I'd have to look that one up... – J. Musser Mar 3 '15 at 22:52
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    You don't want a lot of nitrogen available in the paths - that just helps weeds grow in the paths. The wood chips don't reach out and take it from the beds. And if you don't add nitrogen to the paths, the chips rot slower and last longer.... – Ecnerwal Mar 4 '15 at 0:16
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Just a couple things to consider from an ecological aspect. If your garden plants prefer acid soil like roses, rhododendrons etc, swap the limestone dust for decomposed granite ( DG). Lime will bind up phosphates especially in shallow soil. thus it may be counter productive. DG is much more inert yet still compacts to an excellent walking surface.

If wood chips are preferred, be sure to use chips from species like douglas fir that have a low nitrogen/carbon ratio. This will ensure the chips last much longer and perform better as mulch. Using chips from richer species like alders will break down faster and promote weed growth.

While it is true wood chips will bind/rob nutrients, when they are placed on the ground surface the effect is nebulous. Wood chips will also hold soil moisture to the benefit of roots lying beneath.

  • It would have to be pretty shallow soil to completely change the ph of a soil from a few inches of limestone dust. See the discussion about how pine needles as mulch don't make a soil acid. In the same way a topping of limestone dust is not going to have a significant effect on beds beside the path. – kevinsky Mar 7 '15 at 2:01

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