Gravel has long been a popular landscaping material with gardeners – and it’s easy to see why. Words & Photos Mark Rayner
Attractive, easy-to-handle and inexpensive in comparison to other paving materials, this much-loved product also improves drainage and helps to retain moisture in the soil for surrounding plants. So, whether it’s a formal-style garden design incorporating classic white chip, a soft warm gravel garden for drought-tolerant plants or a simple garden path of humble grey pea metal, we give you some inspiration to get gravelling.
Gravel can come in a variety of colours and shades, from the classic white lime chip through a range of warm brown and honey tones to the traditional grey, and the colour you choose may first be influenced by local availability and budget – coloured and white gravels tend to be more expensive than grey. When considering gravel colour, also take into account the area where you wish to use it. If the ground receives little or no sunlight and is in any way damp, a white chip will quickly go noticeably green with mould and, conversely, a large expanse of white gravel in a sunny spot may produce considerable glare.
Another thing to consider is the size and texture of the gravel and whether it’s best suited for your purposes. Coarser-grade gravels (such as lime chip) tend to ‘bind’ together better so may feel more comfortable underfoot, whereas smaller, smoother gravels (such as pea metal) can feel less stable – they may also make it harder to manoeuvre a wheelbarrow. There are ways around this, of course, perhaps with a paved path traversing the area of gravel or just a simple series of ‘stepping stones’.
Wherever you decide to use gravel in the garden you will certainly need to incorporate some kind of edging to contain it. This could be an existing feature, such as the wall of a raised bed, or it may be that you’ll need to create an edging of some sort to keep the stones from migrating into garden beds or onto the lawn. Reclaimed brick is a great material for this and doesn’t necessarily need to be mortared to keep the gravel under control. Timber is another option (sleepers and gravel is a great combination) or, for a less linear edging, consider poured concrete or even a curving row of larger stones. You can also create an attractive edge from terracotta pots or pipes.
Before laying gravel, it’s a good idea to place some kind of suitable barrier between it and the soil to prevent the two mixing and also to help minimise weed growth. A good-quality, permeable weed mat will do the job well (avoid using thick black polythene as this could create issues with drainage), or, if you want to recycle, another effective alternative is a thick layer of newspaper or several thicknesses of a natural heavy fibre such as hessian, thick canvas or wool carpet.
Laying gravel is as easy as tipping barrow-loads onto the covered ground and then evening it up (to a depth of around 100mm) using a rake. You can then make ‘shallows’ within the gravel in which to place stepping stones or plant directly through the gravel (cutting a suitable hole in the weed barrier beneath).
A gravel path along a small vegetable garden can be as simple as two sturdy fence posts or a series of sleepers laid parallel with a layer of pea metal between or perhaps, for a cottage garden look, two meandering lines of brick and a layer of lime chip. Avoid gravelling slopes as any heavy rain will quickly wash it downhill; instead, create a series of level terraces or timber-edged steps in-filled with gravel. Gravel paths are particularly good near the house, where audible footsteps will improve security.
Nothing quite sums up the traditional formal garden than brick edging, white gravel and clipped buxus. If you’re going for this type of design, put care and thought into the ground pattern (symmetry using geometric shapes is best) and go the extra mile when laying your brick edging, ensuring lines are accurate, straight and level (use a spirit level, tape measure and string line). Mortar each brick into position for the neatest finish.
For the true gravel enthusiast, there’s nothing more rewarding than creating a gravel garden where drought-tolerant plants will thrive. Completely doing away with any bare soil and simply planting in pockets within the gravel will not only mean fewer weeds but also less time spent watering.
Choose plants that will thrive in the conditions – favourites such as succulents, grasses and phormiums, and evergreen toughies such as lavender, ceanothus and rosemary will all do well. For splashes of colour, go for flowering favourites such as perennial sedums, drought-tolerant daisies and euphorbias. Avoid plants that can be a bit messy (perhaps losing petals or leaves) and avoid fruiting plants for the same reason. Keep any gravel planting well-watered until the roots become established.
As with most things in garden design, there are many pros but there are also cons – and gravel is no exception. Gravel (particularly fine-grade gravel) has a tendency to migrate on the tread of shoes (into the house) and it can also spill over onto a lawn if there’s not a substantial edging – this can result in a danger when mowing. It’s not particularly child-friendly (a fall onto sharp gravel is more likely to cause tears than tumbling on a lawn), and it can be annoyingly popular with neighbourhood cats who may regard it as a giant litter tray.