Gravel: A great, versatile landscaping choice
Here’s how to choose and use this easy, plant-friendly paving for great paths and outdoor rooms.
Hard yet soft ― these seemingly contradictory qualities are part of gravel's appeal.
Durable enough to cover paths, terraces and driveways, gravel conveys a softer mood than most other types of paving, says Susan Calhoun, garden designer for Plantswoman Design on Bainbridge Island, Wash. "It feels more organic than pavers or brick," says Calhoun, who prefers to limit the "harder" materials to entrances and heavily used outdoor areas, choosing gravel everywhere else.
"It's the perfect transitional material from house to garden."
Gravel is also versatile, says Los Angeles landscape architect Mia Lehrer. It looks totally natural outside homes in the Italian, French or English style, yet equally at ease around sprawling ranch houses and contemporary structures.
"It can look casual or crisp, depending on how you use it," Lehrer says.
Flexibility is what Los Angeles landscape architect Rob Steiner most appreciates about gravel. It conforms to any shape, he says, and it's easy to change.
Want to add a new flower bed? Just move the gravel aside ― "no jackhammers needed." Gravel works well in all climates, but for different reasons. In arid regions, it makes a great groundcover for areas of the garden that won't be planted and irrigated.
And gardeners in the wetter Northwest appreciate gravel's quick drainage. "It never puddles up, which is why I love it for paths," Calhoun says.
Affordability is, of course, another benefit, especially if you use local rather than more expensive imported gravel.
"It's a highly cost-effective way to cover an area," Steiner says.
Finally, there's the sensuous quality. Gravel's earthy texture, its give underfoot and its crunchy sound are the reasons why this oldest of hardscapes will always be perceived as the softest of paving materials.
Gravel refers to rocks ranging in size from an eighth of an inch to 1.5 inches. It comes in two forms: Manmade crushed rock has sharp, irregular edges; nature-made river rock (also known as natural pebbles) is rounded.
Choose the right type
Visit your local landscape supply yard to experience the look and feel of different types of gravel. Consider how it will be used.
- For high-traffic areas, such as paths and patios, use manmade crushed rock. Because the pieces bind together well, they create a more stable surface for walking. The most common size is three-eighths of an inch, an all-purpose gravel that's also good as a mulch around plantings. For a softer surface under bare feet, use quarter-inch or finer natural pebbles.
- For low-traffic areas, river rock is an attractive choice. Its larger, smoother pieces are less stable underfoot than crushed rock, but they have more presence.
Lay the groundwork
Although many references suggest excavating 6 to 8 inches for a gravel path and layering crushed rock, sand and then gravel, most designers don't use this method. They say the smaller pieces inevitably work their way up, spoiling the clean look of the gravel. Landscape fabric also tends to show up at the surface. Instead, lay a 2- to 3-inch-thick layer of gravel directly on bare, weed-free soil that's been compacted with a tamper or roller.
Keep it tidy
Rake gravel regularly to remove leaves and other debris. Use a rake with round wire tines.