Horticulture Magazine

How To Create A Gravel Garden

a modern gravel garden

Sure, grass is great. The green lawn is an aesthetic that’s hard to argue with in terms of versatility, ease of upkeep, and general familiarity. But is it the only option you have when landscaping your garden? Far from it!

In this article we’ll run you through the basics of planning and building a gravel garden. After reading you’ll have what you need to switch out the tried and trusted green grass garden for something a little different. Something where greys, whites, beiges, and even blacks can become the visually-striking backdrops for your outdoor space.

various evergreens in the background with a gravel bed and wall in the foreground
Gravel gardens are reliably stunning

This article will begin with a general overview of gravel gardens before launching into a quick step-by-step guide to get yours designed and built. Here’s what we’ll cover –

  • The benefits of a gravel garden
  • How to prepare your garden for gravel treatment
  • The best gravels for gravel gardens
  • Gravel garden maintenance

The benefits of a gravel garden

If you’re looking for instructions on how to create a gravel garden you’ve probably got a good idea of the benefits already, but we’ve round up a few nonetheless to give some context to the uninitiated –

  • Low maintenance: once your gravel garden is ready to, you’ll need to do way less maintenance than a lawn of the equivalent size would require.
  • No mowing: part of the above comes down to the simple fact that you don’t need to mow gravel.
  • Less weeding: perhaps less obvious than not needing to mow stone is that weeds find it much harder to grow through gravel, especially if you use a weed membrane. This means you’ll spend far less time weeding.
  • Great drainage: water drains much more efficiently through gravel than soil, which is great if your current garden is prone to pools and puddles after rainfall.
  • Brightens up the space: another less obvious benefit to gravel is its reflectiveness; a great way to make your garden a little brighter.
  • Security: if you’re concerned about burglars or other home invaders, the distinctive crunch of footsteps on gravel is far more audible than grass.

Not a bad introduction, all things considered! Now let’s move onto steps for preparing your garden for gravel.

How to prepare your garden for gravel

There are a few steps between you and your very own gravel garden, but the process is probably less complicated than you might expect.

1. Level out the ground

The first thing you’ll want to do is get your ground nice and level. Skimp on this step and your gravel is liable to become uneven, potentially also becoming quite hard to walk on.

The current level of your ground will determine how much work you have to do here: sometimes it’s enough to run a rake over the dirt to spread out any lumps and bumps; other times you’ll need something more heavy duty like a specialised lawn roller.

a lawn roller being dragged along a grass surface
Squash it flat

2. Prepare the edges

Unless you want uniform gravel coverage, we recommend marking out edges and boundaries before laying any gravel. You can use bricks, stones, wood, or myriad other materials for this purpose.

Marking out these boundaries will help you to visualise what your gravel garden will look like as you build it, presenting plenty of opportunities to refine the design as you go.

3. Lay down a membrane

One of the benefits of a gravel garden is fewer weeds and less weeding, and a key part of achieving this is making use of a specialised weed membrane (also called landscape fabric). Spreading this out on top of the ground before you add the gravel reduces the likelihood of weeds coming up, and goes some way to keeping your gravel clean by keeping it separate from soil underneath.

If people will be walking across your gravel on a regular basis we recommend going for a heavier duty membrane, as a light duty one is prone to rip or fray under the pressure of frequent foot traffic.

For best results, spread out your membrane so it’s taut with little to no rucked up areas. Again: this reduces the likelihood of rips and frays which, over time, can let weeds through.

4. Position your plants

While you’ll need to plant things out before adding gravel, we also suggest testing the layout of the plants in your garden before putting anything in the ground. Just like with step 2, this gives you an opportunity to refine the design as you go.

So, position plants above the membrane first to make sure you’ve got everything where you want it, then plant out properly. You can cut holes in your weed membrane to make space for the root ball, ensuring the plant will be able to grow and that minimal weeds will grow along with it –

rhubarb plant surrounded by weed suppressing fabric
Cut crosses or rectangles for your plants

5. Lay the gravel

Once you’ve got the space prepared and you’re happy with the design, it’s time to lay the gravel. Invest effort in getting this right the first time to avoid hassle.

The first step is tipping out the gravel, then simply use a rake or spade to spread it out over the desired area. Try to keep things as level as possible. Also, don’t be discouraged if the gravel looks a little different on the ground than it did in the store or catalogue: often dust accrues during transit which can change the appearance slightly. Simply wash the gravel once it’s down to get rid of the dust and restore the gravel to its expected appearance.

The ideal depth for gravel is 50mm: any shallower and you’re likely to see bald patches as time goes on, whereas you’ll find yourself sinking into deeper gravel when you try to walk on it.

Which gravel to choose

One of the main questions people ask when preparing a gravel garden is “which type of gravel should I choose?” In this section we’ll run you through some of the key considerations.

Type of gravel

There are lots of types of gravel, all hailing from different types (or combinations of types) of stone. Some common materials include flint, granite, quarts, basalt, and peakstone.

Within these categories you’ll find tons of colours, and it’s just as important to choose the right colour as the right material. Granite, for example, comes in exciting colours like red and green along with the more predictable greys and whites.

When choosing gravel type bear in mind that darker colours are better at hiding dirt and will require less cleaning as a result. The trade-off is that they’re slightly less reflective than your whites and light greys, meaning that they might not be as suitable if radiant ground cover is something you’re looking for.

Size

This may not seem like an obvious consideration, but the size of your gravel can make a huge difference to the look and, more importantly, feel of your gravel garden.

If your garden will be walked on, anything smaller than 10mm is liable to get stuck in shoe treads: annoying for the person walking, and gradually detrimental to the integrity of your garden. Conversely, 20mm or above is hard to walk on and can increase the risk of injury.

Pieces averaging around 12mm come recommended.

Shape

As with size, shape of gravel is important. Angular pieces fit together better than rounded, and hold more tightly when walked on.

How to maintain your gravel garden

There are a few things you’ll need to do to keep your gravel garden in tip top condition, although keep in mind what we said earlier: you’ll spend far less time doing these jobs than you would mowing and maintaining a grass garden!

Here’s what you’ll need to do –

  • Remove fallen leaves: leaves can discolour your gravel as they break down and disintegrate, meaning you’ll want to either pick up fallen leaves by hand or use a leaf blower to clear them away.
  • Watch out for bird droppings! As with leaf matter, bird poo can have an enduring unsightly effect on your gravel. Try to prevent birds being able to perch above your gravel, but if the odd excrement manages to get through, spray or scrub it away.
  • Keep an eye out for damp: over time, dampness and moisture can lend an ugly green hue to your gravel. This is especially noticeable on white and other light colours and, as with bird droppings, your best bet is preventing moisture in the first place rather than cleaning stones after the event.

Cleaning your gravel

If you do find yourself needing to clean your gravel, there are a few options. A hosepipe and brush is your first port of call: simply spray and scrub to remove light blemishes.

A pressure washer is a good option if the dirt is more ingrained. Just blast the gravel and watch the unsightly marks disappear. (Use a low or medium setting to avoid blasting gravel all over the place).

In the case of a very localised mess, you can scrub individual stones with a hand brush to restore them to their former glory. Obviously we don’t recommend this if you’re cleaning your entire supply, unless you’ve got a very small garden or an incredible amount of patience.

Our top tip is to keep some spare gravel in reserve to cover over dirty areas if you don’t have the energy for cleaning.

As easy as 1, 2, gravel!

This article has outlined the top level theory to designing and preparing a gravel garden. If you’re looking for a way to revitalise your outdoor space and play with familiar visual themes, then this could very well be what you’re looking for. Gravel is attractive, versatile, and easy to maintain.

Whatever colour you go for and whichever plants you incorporate into your gravel garden, you’re sure to land on a striking and eye-catching design that will delight you and your guests for years to come.

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