Before and After my Slate Path

A garden isn't much fun if you're the only one who gets to enjoy it. "Come look at my new planting of ferns!" I would call enthusiastically from the back of the garden to my wife, who timidly stood at the edge of the patio in her nice shoes, clutching onto our baby. "Uh huh! I can see them from here!" she assured me. I can't say I blame her for not venturing from the safety of the concrete into the weeds, mud and exposed roots beyond.

Which is why making a path was a big priority for me. When my dad said 'merry Christmas' with $50 Lowes gift card to spend on the home or garden, I vowed to show some restraint and not blow it all on plants this time. I chose to spend it on concrete pavers for a garden path, but was surprised to score an amazing deal on slate pavers instead. They were originally over $6 but I got them for $2 each. They even threw in a trunk-full of halves and pieces for $20! Sure I had to spend a little more dough on paver base and leveling sand, but when it was all said and done I spent less than $150 to pave a really nice path.

Before, one year ago
After. I still have a lot of landscaping to do.
I had originally just planned on sinking concrete pavers in the ground as stepping stones in gravel, but I had to do the job right to do those pavers justice. That meant excavating the site, grading the slope, tamping down the dirt, adding a layer of gravel and leveling sand, building steps out of 4 X 4's, and carefully laying the pavers as if they were the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. It was a lot of work, but oh so rewarding.

The path alone wouldn't have looked like much without the help of Mrs. Rainforest Gardener's parents, who took on other projects. While I paved with my path, my mother-in-law worked on painting the house a nice warm gray color and my father-in-law put up a brand new fence. Unfortunately, the old fence sat a couple of feet outside our property into an easement, which meant that we lost valuable gardening space when the new one was built closer to the house. On the bright side, that also brought the fence higher up the slope, giving us more privacy and no sinking feeling.

In any case, here's how I did it. I wish that I had taken more photos of the various steps, but when you're working with muddy hands during your baby's naps it's hard to spend much time with a camera.

The landscaping isn't finished yet, but the path, steps and patio are!

How I Paved a Slate Path


This was the most crucial part, though my plan actually changed a little as I worked. My goal was to make a curving walk to the back of the garden, where we could walk without worrying about mud and clinging weed seeds. I chose to make it a dry-laid path rather than a mortared one because I like the flexibility it offers; If we end up later making changes or doing electrical work, we can easily pull up the pavers and replace them.

Because the path traveled down a small hill, steps were added for comfort and safety. I was originally only going to make just one step, but ended up using two widely spaced steps instead since my wife was concerned about tripping. Since the path terminates as a dead end until I build a boardwalk over the dry creek bed, I widened it at the end to act as a small patio and make it feel like a destination rather than a road to nowhere. I also had to build up the foundation so that it wouldn't be inundated with water during heavy rains, such as the ones that fill the adjacent dry creek bed in the photos below. See the wood edge of the stone patio? Pay no attention to the bamboo stakes that I had used as markers for the site.

All of the runoff from my garden drains through this dry creek bed into a storm drain.
Here my Fatsia, 'Soft Caress' Mahonia, Australian tree fern and cast iron plants lend a tropical look.
Excavating and Grading

Though not as important as good planning, you can't expect to build a long lasting walk without first preparing the site. Since the area was choked with maple roots on the surface  I had to dig around them and cut them out with my handy Corona Quicksaw. Digging was a pain, but cutting the roots was not. It pays to build projects like these before your garden fills in so that you don't damage the roots of your surrounding plants. Luckily, most of the roots on my site were from the maple tree that was cut down in fall.

All of the dirt was thrown into a pile and redistributed after digging to build up the steps and small patio. Once the dirt was in place, I attached a piece of plywood to the end of a 4 X 4 and used it to firmly tamp the dirt so that it wouldn't shift or sink later.

Making a Frame and Steps

A wood frame isn't necessary unless the path sits above the surrounding ground. Since the old pressure treated 4 X 4 fence posts were still in great shape, I used them to form the edges of the small patio so that the pavers and underlying sand wouldn't shift or wash away.

For each step I used a leftover 4 X 4 fence post that had been cut in half with the segments stacked on top of each other. I might end up drilling holes in them later and using rebar, but so far the surrounding soil has been holding them in place just fine.

Adding Paver Base and Leveling Sand

This step shouldn't be skipped unless you like tripping and falling flat on your face. I spent more on paver base (fine angular gravel) and leveling sand than I did on the pavers themselves, but trust me - it's a lot more difficult to make the pavers level without the extra sand and gravel as a buffer between the paver and the soil. Once the paver base was level and tamped, I added a layer of sand. I'm sure that there are better tools for spreading these materials, but a simple leaf rake and hoe worked just fine for me.

I ended up excavating more here so that I could include two steps, but you get the idea.

Placing the Pavers

The advantage of a dry laid path is that you can easily move or fix pavers after the fact. There are different patterns you can use, but since my path is an informal and curved one, I combined broken segments with whole pavers to create a patchwork of slate. It was also easier to angle them to fit the curved path and angled steps. For stability, I used whole pavers over the steps and made them wider than the path. Once I was satisfied with the arrangement, I spread leveling sand over the pavers with a broom to fill the gaps. The


I had already made a dry creek bed garden at the end of the path, but the area between it and the fence was a blank slate, pun intended. Since the soil is well drained, partly shaded and always moist, I designated this as my place to grow gingers and other big leafy tropicals like Alocasia macrorrhiza and Musa velutina. To the left of the path I will add a shallow layer of topsoil and grow a low groundcover for open views across the garden.

At the beginning of the path I combined cold-hardy plants like this Aechmea apocalyptica with containers of more frost tender plants. Because they're close to the back door and closely concentrated, it's easy for me to bring them indoors or cover them with a blanket on nights when it freezes. On the other side of path and right next to the back door, I'll install the Laguna water feature that was previously located elsewhere. Here it will be close to the outlet and will be easily enjoyed and heard from the kitchen and living room.

To Be Continued

Over the next few days, I added some sand beneath any pavers that were still loose. Soon I will plant dwarf mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus 'Nana') in the gap between the small patio and the path. I also plan on adding large rocks at between the patio and the dry creek bed. I'll also keep you posted as the existing plants grow and new ones are planted. The photo below shows the garden about one year ago and in present day, so can you imagine how it will look after just one more year?


  1. Great deal on the pavers and you did a great job! It looks wonderful!


  2. Turned out great! Thank you for all the useful tips! I pinned it to my board path and steps.


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