Garden Lover’s Ground Cover: Pea Gravel

The beauty of this inexpensive ground cover is that it complements whatever style of garden you have.

Gravel Garden Path - R. RuleCHEAP + FABULOUS | Hardscape is pretty much everything in the garden that isn’t plants or water. It is the palette of materials a designer uses to create pathways and patios, arbors and decks; it is woodwork and metalwork and masonry. Hardscape elements are always best when they are linked together by a stylistic theme that is made better still when it is tied into the architecture of the residence.

One of my favorite hardscape materials is gravel.

I love gravel not just because it is inexpensive; I love it because it has been used in Italian, French, English and Japanese gardens for centuries, and because it has not been co-opted by any one particular garden style or period of garden history. Equally appropriate in both formal (think French parterre) and informal (think English cottage gardens) settings, it can also look terrific in modernist situations.

While I haven’t gone as far as English garden designer John Brookes has and begun an entire garden with a vast sea of gravel from which I carved out planting beds and created islands comprised of large, irregularly shaped stones, I have devoted a section of my own garden to an ample patio made of two foot square concrete pavers that float in an edgeless frame of crushed stone; and I do try to find a place for gravel on most of my residential projects (while gravel is popular for commercial work in Europe, it has not gained the same acceptance here).

Why Gravel Works So Well Here

One very good reason to use gravel as ground cover in the Pacific Northwest is that it is a perfect sieve. With residential construction at an all time high, there is increased pressure on central storm drains and a movement afoot among municipalities to encourage drainage directly into  individual sites; gravel is a drainage no-brainer.

Most of the problems associated with gravel have to do with ongoing maintenance. First there is the fear of being able to separate fallen leaves and needles from stones. This can be dealt with in two ways, One is to avoid installing gravel where evergreen material is most plentiful, and  the second is simply top raking, which is less time consuming than a lot of garden tasks.

The other big fear with gravel is the potential and inescapable scourge of weeds. Installing a porous filter cloth three or four inches below the crushed stone all but eliminates weeding. Typically, gravel must be contained (I do have places in my own garden where I have not felt this was necessary), and this is usually accomplished by using wooden or metal borders. Simple as that. —Ron Rule

Ron Rule is a well-known residential garden designer in Vancouver. He is the founder and head of the Certificate In Garden Design program at the University of B.C.

Photo: Ron Rule


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