How did pea gravel get its name? We'll give you one guess.
As gravel goes, it doesn't get any better. These rounded fragments of pea-size stone crunch underfoot as satisfyingly as crispy cereal. Good for covering driveways and paths, and for filling spaces between stone pavers, pea gravel is inexpensive and versatile.
Yet sometimes we overlook this humble standby, especially with all the sexier hardscaping materials around. (Why, hello limestone. New in town?) But its natural appearance, permeability, and versatility often make pea gravel the best choice. If you're wondering how to build a weed- and mud-free garden path, edge a tidy vegetable plot, or put in a driveway without breaking the budget, pea gravel offers a lot of advantages.
Here's everything you need to know about this easy-to-install and inexpensive friend:
Above: Pea gravel covers the ground in a low-water-use garden in Ojai, CA, by Paul Hendershot Design.
What is pea gravel?
These small, fluid stones found near bodies of water have an appealingly smooth texture, the result of natural weathering. Pea gravel comes in sizes from 1/8 inch to 3/8 inch, about the size of a pea, and in a range of natural colors like buff, rust brown, shades of gray, white, and translucent.
Above: This geometric garden in a Brooklyn backyard, designed by Susan Welti of Foras Studio, features bluestone pavers and pea gravel.
What are the best uses for pea gravel?
Paths, patios, driveways, and playgrounds are a few candidates. Pea gravel is often overlooked as mulch material around containers or garden plants: It suppresses weed growth, retains moisture, and doesn't decompose like organic mulch.
Above: A pea-gravel path abuts a bed of mulch and bluestone pavers, neatly separated by a strip of metal edging. Photograph by Nicole Franzen for Gardenista.
Because of its tendency to travel, pea gravel must be contained by some type of edging material, such as brick, stones, Bender Board, or metal edging (as shown above). I found it worked well for the path in the narrow yard beside my house, providing both excellent drainage and a rodent barrier (big plus: rodents can't dig through pea gravel). We embedded flagstones in the gravel as the path approached the lawn, gradually phasing out the gravel—since gravel and lawn do not mix.
Another consideration is that pea gravel shifts underfoot. As much as we love the crunching sound of footsteps on gravel, it can be hard to drag any wheeled conveyance (say, a suitcase or stroller) over pea gravel, and the surface may not be stable enough to support outdoor furniture.
Above: A gravel path with paving stones is flanked by globe boxwoods in a Bridgehampton, Long Island, garden designed by Deborah Nevins & Associates.
How do you install pea gravel?
Compared to other hardscaping materials, installing pea gravel is relatively easy. Generally, you work the soil about 6 inches deep, remove any weeds, lay down 2 inches of coarsely textured base rock (also called crushed rock), and cover that with a 3-inch-deep layer of pea gravel. The base rock stabilizes the pea gravel to provide a firm surface.
Depending on the persistence of the weeds in your area, you may wish to add a barrier of landscape cloth between the base rock and pea gravel. However, landscape cloth can have its own issues, deteriorating or becoming visible over time.
If you're bothered by an existing pea gravel area that behaves like a pile of marbles, it was probably installed without base rock. Mixing in stone dust may help stabilize it.
Above: Regularly spaced vegetable beds outlined with brick and pea gravel, designed by Susan Cohan of Susan Cohan Gardens.
How do you keep pea gravel looking good?
You'll probably need to tidy the surface with a rake every now and then. Luckily, pea gravel doesn't decompose, but it does sink into the soil (which improves drainage if you have clay soil). So you may need to replenish the gravel every four years or so. Most landscape material companies will deliver 50-pound bags, and you can spread the gravel with a mud rake. Snow removal is the biggest challenge: to avoid disturbing the gravel, you have to shovel off most of the snow but leave behind a thin layer, then melt the rest with salt.
How much does pea gravel cost?
A pea gravel walkway or patio costs about $5 per square foot, installed, including a layer of base rock. If you'd like to install it yourself, it will cost half as much. Add in the cost of a header or Bender Board. A wood header is about $5 per linear foot; a metal header is $6 (black metal disappears well). You won't need a header if you're installing gravel against a house, fence, or raised bed.
Above: At a garden in Malmö, Sweden, raised beds and stone walkways complement a base of light-colored pea gravel. Photograph by Maria Manning.
Pea Gravel Recap
- Versatile: can be used for paths, patios, driveways, or as a base for paving stones
- Easy to install
- Serves as rodent barrier if used around base of house
- Prevents weeds
- Prevents erosion
- Improves drainage
- Easily maintained by raking stones into place
- Travels: needs to be contained with edging material
- Difficult to remove from soil if you decide to change landscape
- Shifts underfoot; base rock must be added underneath to prevent this
- Can be uncomfortable on bare feet (compared to flagstones or concrete)
- Does not provide a solid base for dining furniture
- Needs to be replenished every four years or so
- Difficult for snow removal
Planning a walkway? See Ellen's advice for designing a front path in Hardscaping 101: Front Paths. Ellen has also investigated the pros and cons of Decomposed Granite, Limestone Pavers, and Bluestone. And you can explore more ideas for patios, roofs, and fences in our Hardscaping 101 archive.