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10 Things Your Landscape Designer Wishes You Knew About Gravel (But Is Too Polite to Tell You)

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10 Things Your Landscape Designer Wishes You Knew About Gravel (But Is Too Polite to Tell You)

January 4, 2019

My clients are often in love with gravel, or at least with the idea of gravel. But as a landscape designer, I have a love-hate relationship with the paving material.

The other day I visited a clients’ newly purchased house—and realized that the sellers had put pea gravel between the entry pavers to “dress it up.” Gravel was scattered everywhere. Instead of being neatly tucked between paving stones, the stones felt undesirably scratchy underfoot. I thought: right material, wrong place.

Here are 10 things I wish all my clients knew about gravel:

1. Not all gravel is created equal.

A gravel path&#8\2\17;s edge is softened by planting that spill over into the walkway: ferns, euphorbia, and alchemilla. Photograph by Britt Willoughby Dyer. For more of this landscape, see Old-Lands: A Modern Welsh Garden, from a Bygone Age.
Above: A gravel path’s edge is softened by planting that spill over into the walkway: ferns, euphorbia, and alchemilla. Photograph by Britt Willoughby Dyer. For more of this landscape, see Old-Lands: A Modern Welsh Garden, from a Bygone Age.

After you decide to add gravel to your landscape, the next question to ask yourself is: what kind? Each type of stone has its own distinct look and textural appeal, and its own purpose. Your selection will vary regionally, so I recommend the first step should be to visit a local stone quarry to see what is available.

2. Get to know the three most common textures of gravel.

White sage, Century Agave, and decomposed granite create a composition in a Bel Air, California landscape by Terremoto. See more of this landscape in our \20\17 Considered Design Awards.
Above: White sage, Century Agave, and decomposed granite create a composition in a Bel Air, California landscape by Terremoto. See more of this landscape in our 2017 Considered Design Awards.

After you settle on a variety and color of stone, you will need to consider size and texture: decomposed granite, crushed stone, or pea gravel?

In a nutshell: Decomposed granite (or DG, as it’s known) is a powdery granite that makes a fine texture of silt and little rocks. DG is a popular option for paths and patios. Usually yellow-gold and fading to tan in color and relatively affordable. Crushed stone is probably the closest to the typical idea of what a gravel driveway looks like. This material is also used for patios, retaining wall drainage, back fill, and grading. Pea gravel is tricky because its name has the word “gravel” in it, but some note that pea gravel is actually a small and smooth river rock.  See Hardscaping 101: River Rocks to learn more.

3. DG may stick to your shoes or a pet’s feet.

Concrete pavers are set in decomposed granite to create a permeable patio. Photograph by Matthew Williams for Gardenista.
Above: Concrete pavers are set in decomposed granite to create a permeable patio. Photograph by Matthew Williams for Gardenista.

My major pet peeve is that the particles (especially when wet) will hitchhike into your house, where it not only will create a mess but also can scratch hardwood floors.

4. Decomposed granite needs more maintenance than you might expect.

A stabilized decomposed granite path in a landscape designed by landscape architect Christine Ten Eyck. Photograph courtesy of \20\14 American Society of Landscape Architects Awards.
Above: A stabilized decomposed granite path in a landscape designed by landscape architect Christine Ten Eyck. Photograph courtesy of 2014 American Society of Landscape Architects Awards.

Install decomposed granite in layers for added durability, compacting each layer. Also consider adding a stabilizer product (a water-activated binder) to glue the tiny pieces together. While it can hold up for a considerable time, it does need periodic refreshing if soil muddles it or moss tarnishes it in shady spots. Last, you might also consider installing landscape fabric underneath to discourage weeds.

5. Most crushed stone colors range from gray to gray.

In a Brooklyn backyard, designer Brook Klausing edged limestone pavers with crushed limestone dust mixed with gravel. “It’s a very modern look, but I tried to soften it with the gravel and plantings, like the ferns in the gravel,” says Klausing. For more of this garden, see Designer Visit: Brook Klausing Elevates a Brooklyn Backyard.
Above: In a Brooklyn backyard, designer Brook Klausing edged limestone pavers with crushed limestone dust mixed with gravel. “It’s a very modern look, but I tried to soften it with the gravel and plantings, like the ferns in the gravel,” says Klausing. For more of this garden, see Designer Visit: Brook Klausing Elevates a Brooklyn Backyard.

Depending on where you live, crushed stone comes in a variety of colors but mostly shades of gray. Size ranges from .5 to 1.5 inches and can be purchased by the bag or the yard.

This material provides good traction because the shapes are basically angular and fit together like puzzle pieces, and resists weed growth while also allowing water to permeate.

6. You need to lay a weed barrier beneath gravel.

A roll of Landscape Fabric is \$\1\1.\29 from Rona. A 50-foot roll of Landscape Fabric is \$\27.67 from Home Depot.
Above: A roll of Landscape Fabric is $11.29 from Rona. A 50-foot roll of Landscape Fabric is $27.67 from Home Depot.
Tips: Lay down landscaping fabric first to ward off weeds, and unless you’re laying a very small area, it’s usually more economical to buy this gravel by the yard rather than by the bag.

7. Crushed stone underfoot? Wear shoes.

 Being sharp around the edges, crushed stone not so pleasant to walk barefoot on. Photograph by Lauren C via Flickr.
Above: Being sharp around the edges, crushed stone not so pleasant to walk barefoot on. Photograph by Lauren C via Flickr.

8. Pea gravel requires a rake.

Above: See our favorites in 10 Easy Pieces: Gravel Rakes.

Regularly rake paths, walkways and patios to maintain an even surface. Consider installing a edging material to help keep stones in place. I love walking on crunchy pea gravel paths; it reminds me of walking on a beach. Pea gravel sizes can vary from 1/8″ to 5/8″ and come in an array of different buff colors. Purchase either in bags or by the yard.

9. Landscape edging to keep gravel in place can get pricey.

Photograph by Matthew Williams for Gardenista.
Above: Photograph by Matthew Williams for Gardenista.

“Whether you have a pristine space or you garden on the more naturalistic side of the horticultural fence, incorporating an edge between your borders and lawn has many benefits,” writes Clare in our guide to Landscaping 101: Lawn Edging. Edging options include metal, wood, stone, concrete, brick, and even plastic at costs that vary from budget-friendly to pricey.

9. There are better fillers than gravel to use between pavers.

Photograph by Matthew Williams for Gardenista. Cotula leptinella ‘Platt’s Black’ (dollhouse fern) grows densely and has a shallow root system, which makes it ideally suited to creeping between stones to fill cracks. See more of this garden in our Gardenista book.
Above: Photograph by Matthew Williams for Gardenista. Cotula leptinella ‘Platt’s Black’ (dollhouse fern) grows densely and has a shallow root system, which makes it ideally suited to creeping between stones to fill cracks. See more of this garden in our Gardenista book.

Lightweight stones have a predisposition to scattering and can quickly look messy if the material gets out of bounds so I discourage using gravel as filler between pavers.

10. Gravel can be a drag if you have to drag garbage cans.

Maria of the gardening blog, Almbacken, installed a black fence to serve as backdrop to her Swedish garden and a clever cache for her garbage and recycling units. Photograph by Maria Dremo Sundstrom.
Above: Maria of the gardening blog, Almbacken, installed a black fence to serve as backdrop to her Swedish garden and a clever cache for her garbage and recycling units. Photograph by Maria Dremo Sundstrom.

If you try moving anything heavy like garbage cans or lawn mowers over gravel, it can feel like … a drag. Consider installing a concrete pad to store bins.

For more ideas, see How to Successfully Use Gravel in Any Landscape  in our curated Hardscape 101 guides. Read more:

Finally, learn how to successfully use gravel in a hardscape project with our Hardscaping 101: Gravel guide.

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