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Sarah Murch

Gorgeous Gravel Gardens

Making the perfect gravel garden is just a stone's throw away. Explore wonderful ways to enhance your outdoor space with a gravel garden. Landscape Designer, Sarah Murch explains how.
 |  Sarah Murch  |  Gardening & Planting

How good it feels to be turning a corner on a long, wet winter and peering into Spring. The sap is rising, soil warming, days are stretching out and like many gardeners, I’m itching to get out in my garden, full of renewed vigour, developing new areas for our family, visitors and menagerie of animals to enjoy.

For like many people today, we are working and spending more time at home and I realise how important our gardens have become as multifunctioning living spaces. Always a welcome extension to our homes, gardens today are a place for friends and families to socialise safely, for escapism and relaxation.

Yet it can be challenging sharing your precious garden with a multi-generational family. The trick is to create functional spaces that work for all ages.

So over the next few months I will explore easy and low cost ways you can turn your gardens into a user friendly space that is low maintenance yet full of colour, fragrance and wildlife, without the need for heavy machinery or professionals. Projects that are perfect for garden DIYers and novice gardener’s alike.

First up is how to make a Gravel Garden.

Gravel gardens are versatile gardens with a surface mulch of aggregates. This 40mm thick gravel layer is clean and free draining, ideal for growing those Mediterranean plants that dislike sitting in cold, waterlogged soils during our wet winters. But don’t for a minute think of gravel gardens as a sparse looking rocky scree! They are lush, vibrant, spaces where you can immerse yourself in colourful plants self-seeding, repeat flowering and enjoying life to the full.

The allure of a gravel garden is its clean, non-slippery, functional surface. Just like a patio, you can use it for dining, for benches, extra loungers, for the BBQ at weekends, even for hot tubs and hammocks. And it is low cost too. A bulk bag of our local 10mm Trent pea gravel will set you back around £50.00. It will probably take you an hour or so to spread and will cover 16m2. Just compare that to the price of paving and you begin to see the value of a gravel garden. It’s like rolling out a new carpet. The effect is instant.

But the real advantage of a gravel garden for me is the planting opportunities it opens up.

Our gravel garden is around 100m2. It wraps sinuously around a patio, a buffer between soft lawn and hard paving. We’ve laid stepping stones through the main routes, edged with a creeping thymes, a tapestry of mauves covered in bumblebees in spring.

Lavenders, sage, rosemary, santolinas and artemesias form an aromatic shrub layer, handy for snipping and throwing on the BBQ. We have small specimen trees and tall pencil junipers for height and structure, and an architectural evergreen conifer Chamaecyparis nootkatensis Pendula, which waves its weeping branches in the slightest breeze.

Low level planting includes airy gauras, fragrant dianthus, long flowering asters, and frothy geraniums with diverse grasses forming waves through the gravel. Accent perennials flower in succession including echinaceas, echinops, eryngiums. Verbenas and Verbascums self-seed with wild abandon throughout the entire space. I don’t try to control them. I love these vibrant pairings that you could never plan even if you tried.

Gravel gardens are wildlife friendly too. We leave the perennials and grasses standing throughout winter as seedheads for the birds. Goldfinches feast off verbena bonariensis, balancing on the desiccated stems like miniature circus acrobats. Tiny wrens dart at floor level feeding on invertebrates and nesting in the junipers. Our gravel garden is a feeding station for wild birds, dropped seeds and insects are easy picking. In Spring I enjoy watching sparrows gathering up tufts of dry stipa tenuissima grass to line their nests. In summer our gravel garden becomes a magnet for pollinators, shimmering with butterflies and bumblebees.

Flexible design possibilities.

I’ve been creating gravel gardens for my clients for over 20 years and I love their vibrance, flexibility and functionality. Gravel gardens work beautifully in small and large gardens and suit all styles from contemporary urban exteriors to rural cottage gardens. They can replace grass entirely in a small garden, link a driveway to a house, unite a formal terrace with a rolling lawn and are a flexible living space as an extension of a patio. They also act as an all-weather pathway across your garden too.

How to make a gravel garden.

Mark out your area, strip off the grass and remove all perennial weeds or kill off the foliage with a proprietary herbicide.
Next cultivate the area, consolidate it by treading down, then rake the soil level.
Lay down a non-woven geotextile membrane (a fleece type membrane), leaving the edges untrimmed until last.
Spread the gravel of your choice in a 30-50mm layer on top of the membrane and rake level. Finally trim the membrane around the edges.
Set out your plants in position, scrape back the gravel, cut a generous cross shaped slit through the membrane, plant your plant, fold back the membrane and spread the gravel back around the crown of the plant.

Which gravel is best?

Choose a small 10mm diameter gravel for a pedestrian friendly surface. There are different gravels readily available to suit your style. Choose from granite or limestone chippings to multi coloured quartz and slate. In a recent project we spread different sized Scottish pebbles in drifts to mimic the shoreline of a river broken up with larger boulders and softened with planting.

Where is the best place for a gravel garden?

Some sunshine is best, avoid putting gravel under deciduous trees and in deep shade.

What about a slope?

You can create gravel gardens on gentle slopes. Gravel is stabilised easily by plants and use path grid to stabilise sloping pathways or build in steps.

Maintenance requirements.

Cut back perennial plants and deciduous grasses in late winter. Rake through the gravel to remove leaves and dead foliage. Use a garden blower to blow away fine debris.

Surface weeds are easily removed by agitating the gravel surface usually with a hoe or fine rake in spring. Leave plants to self-seed and move about or simply pull up any unwanted plants if you feel they are getting crowded

Ideal plants for your gravel garden.

Plant your gravel garden in layers like your garden but leave space between planting for pathways and openings for seating.

Specimen trees
Pinus mugo, Cercis canadensis Forest Pansy, Cercis siliquastrum, Cornus mas, Juniperus scopulorum Blue Arrow.

Flowering shrubs
Buddleja sp., Viburnum sp., Potentilla sp., Abuliton, Rosmarinus officinalis sp.

Aromatic herbs
Lavandula sp., Salvia officinalis, creeping Thymes, Santolina sp.

Stipa tenuissima, Stipa gigantea, Pennisetum alopecuroides Hameln, Pannicum Squaw.

Low growing perennials
Geranium sanguineum, Dianthus sp., Aster sedifolius, Aster frikartii Munch, Gaura lindheimerei.

Accept perennials
Echinops ritro, Echinaceas, Verbena bonariensis, Verbascum sp., Veronicastrums, Digitalis ferruginea.

Local builders merchants and internet stockists for specialist gravels.

Benefits of a gravel garden

  • Low cost and easy to install.
  • Increases outdoor living space.
  • Wide variety of gravels readily available in large and small bags.
  • Low Maintenance.
  • Once established, no irrigation is required.
  • Flexible design.
  • Wrap your gravel garden around water features and ponds, use it to edge patios and as pathways to new seating areas.
  • Suits contemporary, formal and naturalistic gardens.
  • Non slippery surface, good burglar deterrent - you can hear footsteps crunching.
  • Wildlife friendly.

Visit Ellicar Gardens in April.
See for opening dates and to find out more about Sarah’s garden and landscape design services.