How to keep paths free of weeds without burning down your house – a personal journey of enlightenment (here’s hoping)

Donkey spurge and stachys edge the beds

Eight years ago, I turned a a farmyard that had been covered in concrete for decades into a garden. I sketched island beds out on a bit of paper and then sprayed the shapes on the ground with line paint. The paths between were covered with golden Breedon gravel. So flat, so pristine, so weed free.

It didn’t take long for the weeds to move in. I don’t mind this sometimes – I can’t blame verbascum, verbena, donkey tail spurge, thyme and oreganos for preferring that nice free-draining limestone atop a type 1 base to the poorly drained sludge of subsoil and compost I plonked them in. But the grass that covers the gravel in a green fuzz with a mossy understorey isn’t quite the look I’m after.

Nice hot tub, shame about the manky, grassy, mossy path

The past eight years has been an unequal, time-consuming battle between myself and the path weeds. Hand-weeding seemed the obvious solution at first. But with ‘self-binding’ gravels like Breedon, all this does is wrench big clods of gravel out of the path with the rootball, leaving holes and dips in the surface and revealing the type 1 beneath. So I resorted to the chemical route with Roundup. Yes I know. Bad. After around three weeks the path weeds turned a sickly yellow. Trouble was – quite apart from all the insects I probably killed in the process of spraying and the general eco awfulness of the whole thing – the yellow plants just stayed there looking horrible.

Next try was propane gas. Yes, bad too since it’s a fossil fuel. First I bought an enormous red metal flame gun on the internet. We lit it and very nearly burnt the garden and house down. Even after we turned the gas off, the flames shot out into the flower beds setting fire to the dry plants and heading frighteningly near our wooden weatherboarded house. It went back in the shed and I will never touch it again.

Verbascum seedlings might be allowed to stay, but the grass and moss has to go

Chastened, I downgraded to a light weed gun, also powered by fossil fuel propane, but this time with a neat, unscary can that you screw on. It’s fun to use as you zap around the garden and quickly nukes dried path weeds like grasses in high summer. But it’s time consuming and unless the plants are are dry, you need a couple of sessions. Also, I’m sure I’ve vaporised a few ground insects on my Ripley-like sessions and those empty propane cannisters will end up in landfill.

Santolina, so pretty, but the grass is never far away

Hot water was the next weapon I mobilised, inspired by Bob Flowerdew. Every time I boiled the kettle I went outside and dribbled the remains onto weeds on the paths. It worked brilliantly on dandelions which quickly went a satisfying khaki colour and then shrivelled up in days. Eco-wise not so bad, especially if you don’t boil the kettle specially (and have a renewable electricity provider). But the grass seemed pretty much immune.

It was only this winter that I realised a possible solution. One that is eco-friendly. One that costs nothing. One that was staring me in the face for the past eight years.

Verbena thinking about setting seed into the path last summer

One day I had the sudden (and, it would be fair to say, belated) realisation that the only parts of the path that weren’t covered in moss, grass and weeds were the parts we walked on the most. What would happen, I thought, if I tried to fool the path into thinking we walked on it everywhere? I started scuffing my boot across the surface of the gravel in an imitation of an army of walking feet and moss and grass scudded away leaving a flat surface. The roots are still there underneath but underneath a clayey cap and, I figure, if I keep repeating the scuffing, they will eventually give up. Won’t they?

After the flame gun

So far I’ve spent a few happy half hours kicking around the paths – it’s an excellent displacement activity when I have a deadline looming. Plus what else are you going to do in the garden in January? It takes no longer than blasting with flames. It won’t kill insects. It’s kinder than Roundup. It’s much faster than walking around with a dribbling kettle. At the very least, I’ll end up with very strong thigh muscles.