Versatility of Gravel in the Garden

Gravel as an excellent garden element

By Doug Hoerr


Plants love the free drainage, and even the crunch underfoot is a satisfying sound in the gardenI first became attuned to gravel as a design component in gardens while in England in the late 1980s. I was there working as a gardener for two incredible designers and plantsmen, John Brookes and Beth Chatto. Each of them used pea gravel extensively in their personal gardens as pathways and a matrix through which to grow plants. Since then, I include gravel in designs for everything from terraces and garden planting areas to drainage areas around houses without gutters and downspouts. Pea gravel is low-cost and easy to install, which makes it a great budget stretcher. It is a fraction of the cost of stone, brick, and often even concrete. Aesthetically, it adds a pleasing texture, can be found in just about every color, and offers that irresistible crunch that adds to the audible experience of a garden. It also adapts itself to any climate and architectural style, from French formal to West Coast contemporary. Installation is simple, but it needs to be done right or the results will be discouraging.

In this midwestern garden, I wanted to create an inviting pathway to connect the kitchen and vegetable garden to an art studio and lawn. This isn’t a primary walkway—it doesn’t require shoveling for snow—so gravel was a good choice given the homeowner’s desire for a naturalistic feel. By raking some of the top layer of loose pea gravel over onto the planting area, I blurred the boundary between pathway and plantings, making them appear as though they are self-seeded and growing out of the gravel itself. The effect would have been very different with a hard paving surface; a hard paved path has definite edges that can visually subdivide a space too much. Using gravel knits path and plantings together, giving this a cottage garden feel that remains fluid and casual.

Gravel is a user-friendly surface for paths, patios, and other hardscapeI think of houses as machines: They require a huge amount of maintenance and care to continue running efficiently. You need to battle through the shrubs planted in front of your windows only once to be frustrated by painting, washing windows, and the myriad of other chores that require access to the exterior of a home. To make this easier, I often design a gravel maintenance strip/path around the entire perimeter of a house to allow the house (and plantings) to breathe a bit. A good rule of thumb is to make it slightly wider than the roof overhang; a width of 18 inches is usually sufficient. Pulling the garden away from the house slightly also gives a better inside view of the plantings.

In some instances where gutters and downspouts aren’t used or desirable on a house, this gravel maintenance zone around the perimeter of the house can be multifunctional. By incorporating a 4-inch perforated drain line beneath the pathway, this gravel strip doubles as an effective drainage system for water that drips from the eaves. This technique also prevents mulch or mud from splashing onto the house or plantings.

Photography by Scott Shigley, Hoerr Schaudt; Illustration by Michael Hill