I 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.
I 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
Herb gardens make the most of gravel’s versatility: The plants are especially well-suited to the free-draining conditions around their base, and will happily self-sow to give the garden a relaxed, naturalistic appeal.
When constructing a gravel surface, a locally sourced base material forms layer 1. The material varies depending on the part of the country, and the most efficient way to find it is to pick up the phone and call a nearby quarry or bulk-materials supply yard. Ask for the crushed stone that is typically a by-product of processing pit run gravel or crushed aggregate. You want stone that has been sifted through a 1⁄4- or 3⁄8-inch screen so that you get not only the larger stones but the dust, sand, and gravel fines that compact well to make it a stable and durable base.
Layer 2, the top layer, consists of decorative pea gravel (about 3⁄8-inch diameter). Again, the gravel’s colors will vary from region to region, so select one that is locally appropriate.
Basic guide to laying a gravel surface:
Step 1. Grab a shovel and wheelbarrow and dig out approximately 4 to 5 inches of soil over the length and width of the gravel path. Make sure that the soil beneath is firm and drains well.
Step 2. Spread the layer of crushed stone. Dampen it lightly with a hose and compact it evenly over the pathway surface with a compactor or hand tamper. You’re done when the surface is about 1⁄4-inch lower than the level of any adjacent paving, edging, or planting bed.
Step 3. Evenly rake out a thin layer of decorative pea gravel over the layer of crushed stone. Just a single stone or two in depth for the pea gravel is enough. Lightly compact the pea gravel into the screenings by hand or motorized tamper.
Step 4. Sprinkle a topdressing of pea gravel over any areas where the crushed stone layer is visible. A light misting of water over the surface will wash away any dust, and you’re finished.
Photography by Hoerr Schaudt
Originally published in Organic Gardening magazine, April/May 2014