Growing in Gravel
ade popular by the late Beth Chatto in particular, growing in gravel is cheap, and perfect for gardeners struggling with poor, dry soil. Once plants are established it’s a low maintenance design solution too.
A sunny spot and free draining sandy or gravelly soil are important. This means Mediterranean and coastal plants like silvery Stachys and glaucous-green globe thistles which are an essential part of the look can thrive. For gardens with thick clay soil or a high water table then perhaps think twice. Firstly it’s likely that lots of horticultural gravel for drainage will need to be added which could be expensive. Secondly a design might look odd surrounded by lush green plantings chosen for the wet that have completely different visual characteristics. Here embrace the opportunity to grow jungly moisture-loving Rheum and Ligularia for example instead.
The best time to plants is early spring, not the autumn; young Mediterranean plants hate sitting in winter wet.
Gravel gardens work particularly well in small front gardens which need to look good with minimal maintenance, and where a tiny lawn is unnecessary. The crunch factor makes for enhanced security, too.
Basic Design Rules
• Always aim for a healthy ratio of plants to gravel; two-thirds plants to one-third gravel is perfect. Otherwise it’ll just look like a deserted beach.
• Evergreen perennials, shrubs and conifers are particularly important. Aim for at least 60-70% spread evenly throughout.
• There are numerous gravels available but choose something neutral that will harmonise rather than contrast with the planting. Being a natural look consider local materials and use these. They’re cheaper too. In Cornish gardens small granite chippings are ideal. Similarly in the Cotswolds, fine Cotswold stone is most appropriate.
• Size is important and typically aggregates shouldn’t exceed 20mm (1”). Anything larger is hard to walk on and the shoots of perennials will struggle to push up through it. For children rounded gravels are more comfortable, but if cats are a problem choose rougher, angular types. For acid soils, limestone chippings must be avoided.
• If gravel meets a lawn an edge is required or the gravel will spill over and blunt mower blades too. Granite setts, bricks, cobbles or planks of paving are ideal.
• A gravel garden can be created in one of two ways. The first uses semi-permeable landscape fabric under the gravel, which is more suitable for front gardens or those that have little time for gardening as it keeps weeds down and stops perennials from self-seeding. The second method uses landscape fabric under paths only. To start with this might mean more weeds in beds and borders but because plants spread more quickly this way, they’ll soon crowd them out.