Perhaps due to my experience living on a gravel road, when the notion of a gravel garden first came up, my reaction was not positive. After learning more, it seemed to me a gravel garden is a great water-wise idea.
First off, don’t confuse a gravel garden for a garden bed topped off with rocks. A gravel garden starts with – not plantings, but rather – three to five inches of pea gravel. After which, you install drought-tolerant, ideally native, plants.
A gravel garden has many advantages. Unlike wood mulch, gravel neither blows away nor decomposes so there is no need to keep adding mulch. Additionally, a gravel garden requires no fertilizer. Once established, a gravel garden utilizes less water, necessitates little if any weeding and is overall lower in maintenance than the typical organic mulch garden.
Here’s the rub: a gravel garden is not for the puttering gardener (ahem, I may resemble that). Once planted, a gravel garden must be left alone; moving or replacing plants will shift gravel and may result in weed infiltration.
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Start with a border: Pea gravel travels easily, so it is necessary to create an edge to keep the gravel in. Use whatever you like – treated wood, larger rocks, metal trim, concrete edging, bricks or stone.
Install gravel: A depth of at least three – preferably four or five – inches will keep weeds from germinating. The gravel should be uniform in size, ideally 3/8 inch.
Add plants: Perennials, grasses and/or shrubs should be planted about four inches deep. If purchasing new plants, choose quart-sized. Space plants about 10 to 20 inches apart. Don’t fret about the depth of the root ball at planting; it does not have to reach the soil beneath gravel – the roots will grow there eventually.
What’s next? Until established – maybe the first couple of months – plants will need to be watered. After that, watering is seldom necessary. Clean up spent foliage each spring to avoid weeds sprouting in remaining organic matter.
You can start a new gravel garden just about any time; experiencing a rain event the day before you want to plant is not a problem because planting will be in gravel not mud.
A gravel garden can be a great curbside/hell strip option. It can also work for a “green roof” on a rooftop.
When first installed, the garden might initially look a bit like the road by my house. Give it a couple years; it will fill in and no one will know the gravel is even there.
Mari Lane Gewecke is a Master Gardener volunteer, affiliated with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus program, and a self-employed consultant.