Stepping stones make a fast and easy-to-install path through a side garden.

Use prefabricated concrete, imitation stone, or irregular slabs of slate or flagstone.

Avoid laying them in a straight line, which emphasizes the narrow space. Instead, incorporate as much curve as you can to suggest a more interesting winding path.

If weeds or grass is the default groundcover, simply cover that with thick layers of newspaper before putting down stones. Fill in spaces with finely crushed gravel or mulch.

A less expensive treatment, one that installs more easily and quickly, forgoes stone in favor of a 4-inch thick covering of rough mulch over newspaper.

After paper decomposes in a year or so, set out tiny, walk-on plants here and there in the pathway for added interest. Creeping thyme (Thymus praecox or T. minus), half-inch high Corsican mint (Mentha requienii), sandwort (Arenaria montana), or dymondia are maintenance-free choices.

Rosemary McCreary, a Sonoma County gardener, gardening teacher and author, writes the monthly Homegrown column for The Press Democrat. Write to her at P.O. Box 910, Santa Rosa, 95402; or send fax to 664-9476.