Surprisingly versatile in its colour and texture, the right gravel can turn your outside space into something special
Houzz Ireland Contributor Patricia Tyrrell is an award winning landscape and garden… More
When gravel is mentioned, most people think of driveways, but there’s so much more to this varied and versatile material. Natural and simple, it harmonises beautifully with garden paving, planting and water.
Know your gravels
Gravel comes in many sizes and is essentially small pieces of stone.
It can form naturally over time by the action of water on rock, creating the lovely rounded pebbles we associate with beaches and rivers. This is generally known as pea gravel.
It can also be man-made, formed from crushed rock, which makes it angular and sharp, and varying in size from very coarse down to fine grains.
These two types of gravel have some fundamental differences. Pea gravel has a lot of subtle variations in colour, so it will never look flat or boring, whereas crushed stone tends to be more monochromatic.
Pea gravel is also softer underfoot than crushed stone – a consideration for bare feet, children and pets. Crushed stone ‘beds in’ better, whereas pea gravel requires an edge to keep it in place.
Get some samples of gravel before deciding which one is right for your space and also consider the size. Larger pieces add more texture but are less restful on the eye and are harder to traverse. Gravel that’s around 1cm is ideal.
The type, size and colour of gravel you choose can have a fundamental effect on the appearance and feel of your outdoor space, so consider carefully the look you want to achieve, whether it’s simple and serene or bold and modern.
Let it bloom
Gravel is very attractive to self-seeding plants, which revel in the free-draining stone. The result can be a very natural and romantic outdoor space.
Well-laid gravel doesn’t require a weed barrier, which prevents self-seeders from growing. ‘Well laid’ means the gravel should have a firm foundation or sub-base of hardcore, which is then blinded, or covered, with a thin layer of mill waste (finely crushed stone). This layer is essential to bed the gravel so that it doesn’t move around. It also prevents larger stones from the sub-base appearing through the gravel in an unsightly way.
The gravel layer should then be laid quite thinly as a surface layer (with a depth twice its diameter). If it’s too deep, it can become impossible to traverse. If you feel a weed barrier is essential, it should be laid below the sub-base.
If you’re creating a garden on a small budget, gravel is relatively cheap as a surface and, if well laid, can provide a stable base and foil for some pretty patio furniture.
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Make the most of your shade
If you have a shady garden, it can be challenging to maintain the lawn, and your paving can become green and mossy. Thanks to its roundness, pea gravel works wonderfully in such a space, because of its free-draining nature and constant movement. It’s easily refreshed with a rake or topped up for extra crispness.
Go with the flow
Gravel can create any shape and will visually flow through a space, taking on beautiful curves. Here, the colours of the pea gravel echo the larger stones in the rockery and set off the dressed stone of the house. A clean, subtle edge holds the gravel in place. Made of wood and part-buried into the ground, this type of edging can be treated to blend in with its surroundings and will soften with age.
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Match it up
Here, the blue slate paving is complemented by a low-maintenance gravel mulch of the same or similar material at the edges. This detail, combined with the consistency in colour, allows the patio to ‘float’ and appear bigger.
The strong contrast with the orange background of the rendered wall creates a bold, modern feel.
If you’re planning a simple but robust planting scheme, a stone mulch like this one can be very effective and also low maintenance.
Be inspired by the beach
Pea gravel comes in many sizes. Using contrasting sizes can give the effect of a natural beach, beginning with very fine gravel and working up to boulders. This look can be highly effective in a seaside garden when combined with timbers or driftwood and seaside plants, such as Armeria maritima, eryngiums and other xerophytic varieties, as seen here.
This look would also work well in a dry/gravel garden to create contrast and interest.
Gravel is versatile in texture and colour and can be used to link materials and spaces that might otherwise be difficult to harmonise.
The traditional grey and cream tiles leading to this front door have inspired the garden’s design, with a strong contrast created between the grey limestone and cream tiles.
The crushed gravel has been used to add more texture and a more consistent colour contrast.
Add a modern edge
Gravel takes the shape of its container and makes a lovely contrasting edge to a patio. Larger stones are hard to walk on, so it can also be used to control movement, clearly indicating where to walk and where not to.
A similar edge of large rounded pebbles would make an effective cover or substitute for a trench drain and would be far more attractive visually.
Warm things up
Crushed gravel can look quite harsh when the particles are coarse, but the finer grades, particularly those with a warm, buff colour and softness in texture, bed down to create a space with a distinctly Mediterranean character, as shown here.
Finely crushed gravel is firm underfoot but permeable, making it ideal for paths and informal seating areas. It also works well with sandstone and terracotta – materials we normally associate with warm Mediterranean climates.
Create a stone ‘river’
In Japanese garden design, rivers and water bodies are often represented by gravel, with larger rocks acting as islands. A bridge across the ‘stream’ in this garden completes the look.
In a garden where poor drainage is an issue, it could be incorporated within a design feature like this by adding a swale or water garden.
Work around trees
Paving right up to mature trees can cause long-term problems for both the tree and the paving, but thank to its free-draining, flexible qualities, gravel is a good choice when existing mature trees need to be accommodated. Gravel allows water and air to the roots, both of which are vital to the long-term health of the tree.
Introduce visual variety
A single area of paving can be overpowering and lack intimacy, but introducing panels of gravel and planting to balance it creates a more visually interesting design.
Make sure the panels reflect the lines and scale of the architecture to create a nice balance between the two.
Opt for big and bold
Here, a larger pebble size provides maximum textural contrast with the pre-cast stepping stones and water feature. The designer also opted for a bold colour contrast, with dark slate grey against white, while balancing the whole look with some bold, exotic foliage. Such a scheme can transform a small garden space or a dull courtyard into a modern gem.
Gravel can be difficult to negotiate if you’re wearing good shoes or heels, so the stepping stones don’t just have a strong visual role, but also provide ease of access.
Do you have a gravel garden – or are you thinking of gravelling part of it? Tell us about it in the Comments below.