I love the garden design term “desire line“. Used in urban design as well, it refers to a path we take, whether it’s official (as in meant-to-be-part-of-the-overall-design) or renegade (more on that later). It’s usually the quickest route from A to B. You see them a lot in public green spaces–a dirt path carved into a lawn from repeated use. Essentially, a desire line is a shortcut people choose by literally voting with their feet.
Desire lines are also known as cow paths, pirate paths, social trails, kemonomichi (beast trails), chemins de l’âne (donkey paths), and Olifantenpad (elephant trails) There’s a reason why so many of these alternative names refer to animals. Deer, foxes, rabbits, cows, voles, and even pet dogs, create trails. Depending on its width, an animal-made trail may be shared by a variety of species. Like humans, animals use trails for efficiency–getting from a foraging area to a watering area, for instance. But these trails aren’t always the shortest or most direct routes, they’re simply the easiest route.
Human beings, on the other hand, have a unique relationship with paths. In fact, a desire line can be more of a protest line. One academic journal states that desire paths “record collective disobedience.” Animals may make paths to get from one ideal spot to another but only humans will make a path out of sheer obstinacy. If you’re in a city park and see a worn dirt path leading off from a paved pathway and the dirt path leads you through bushes you have to push through to a pond that’s supposed to be inaccessible, that’s a bunch of people loudly expressing by their actions alone that “This park is not the boss of me. I’ll hang out at any pond I wish!“
Desire lines in your own garden
A great garden designer, giving a talk about desire lines, suggested that the best way to find your property’s desire lines is to wait until snowfall and check out where most of the footprints in the snow lead. Sometimes a desire line is self evident, however. Anyone who needs to get from a parking area to a door, laden with bags of groceries, knows that the only possible path is the one leading straight from car to door.
Melding desire and design
So how do you jazz up a necessary path when it’s, say, cutting across the middle of your garden?
If your path doesn’t have to be solid paving its entire length, you could use different materials along its length. For instance, if you’ve got a path that needs to go straight from your back door to some place at the back of your garden, a section from door to lawn could actually be patio or porch. Then a middle section could be gravel or crazy paving. The final section, perhaps deeper into a shaded area at the far end of the garden, could be lined with dark mulch, so that it almost seems to disappear in shadows when viewed from the back door. Adding a few gentle curves to the pathway for interest won’t slow you down if the path is wide enough that you could still blast down the centre of the path.
When a desire line doesn’t necessarily have to be straight, like the path that leads from front yard to back yard along the side of a house, you could put a wiggle in the line using side garden beds.
If the path needs to get you from A to B but chances are you won’t have your arms full of stuff and you’re ok with slowing down a bit, you can always plant something large and immovable directly in the line of desire such as a tree or pond or an island plant bed.
Follow your own desire
Sometimes you’d love a route that gets you from A to B but that route just isn’t possible. Or is it?
Take the example, below, at Keppel Croft Gardens in Big Bay, Ontario, one of my favourite gardens in this part of the world. I don’t know for sure what came first, the trees or the path, but my guess is that this dense grouping of large trees has been there a long, long time. Those trees essentially create a barrier that separates the gardeners’ home, on the far side, from a series of lower gardens (where I’m standing to take the photo). That this path leads directly from the house, through the trees, past a series of side gardens to a large parking lot can’t be a coincidence.
So here’s a fantastic example, I think, of a situation where the desire to take a shortcut became a wonderful garden feature. A pathway is cleared through a dense patch of trees and the remaining trees form a leafy archway.
Where will your desires take you in your garden design?