How to Create a Gravel Garden

gravel garden with plants

Getty Images / fotolinchen

In This Article
Project Overview
  • Working Time: 1 wk, 3 days
  • Total Time: 4 wks, 2 days
  • Yield: 30'x30' gravel garden
  • Skill Level: Intermediate
  • Estimated Cost: $850.00+

If you are someone who avoids the lawn mower and the trimmer, or you simply don't have a lot of time to keep up with yard work, you might consider creating a gravel garden. Once established, these gardens provide a sustainable landscape alternative that needs minimal annual maintenance. Gravel gardens also offer a opportunity to create an outdoor oasis that satisfies your individual sense of style.

Almost all of the work of a gravel garden takes place up front. These instructions will build a 30 x 30 foot basic gravel garden with seating, a birdbath and plants.

What Is a Gravel Garden?

A gravel garden is a specific area defined by a bed of gravel that is bordered and contained by edging. This garden is constructed with both natural and man-made materials and uses mostly native plants to enhance biodiversity. The other main principle behind a gravel garden is sustainability.

When to Build a Gravel Garden

Preparing for this garden will require digging to a depth of 8 inches throughout the entire area. Since rainy weather can turn this phase of the project into a muddy mess, it's best to start when you can expect a fairly good stretch of dry weather.

Before Getting Started

The first thing to do is choose a location. A gravel garden is usually located in a flat area that receives plenty of full sun. Since borders will be needed to hold the gravel in place, a building foundation, wall, or fence can serve the same purpose as hardscape edging. Where to put the garden is also determined by the space you have available and how small or large a garden you want to create.

Tip

A garden of any size will be easier to accomplish when you work from a design plan. You can create your own or choose to work with a landscape architect. You may want to include electricity for lighting, a recirculating pump for a water feature or an in-ground watering system. With an elaborate plan, collaborating with an expert can save you time and costly mistakes down the road. An itemized budget will help keep the project on track and pay off in the long run.

Make a Planting List

Make a list of plants that will thrive in your garden. You can check with your area's native plant society to learn more about the species for your growing zone and find out where to purchase them.

Gravel gardens are most often planted with drought resistant plant species. The right types of bulbs, perennials, grasses and shrubs can all thrive. You can also add color and texture to the garden by using other plant species in decorative pots.

Check Before You Dig

Always check for utility lines before you dig and mark them with spray paint. These might include water and sewer, electricity, or phone lines. You can call 811 or go to the 811 call center's website for information about how to avoid damaging any utilities.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Measuring tape
  • Hammer
  • Rototiller
  • Wheelbarrow, cart, or wagon
  • Shovel
  • Hard rake
  • Laser level
  • Scissors
  • Sturdy gloves

Materials

  • Spray paint
  • 4 wood or metal stakes
  • 12 cubic yards pea gravel
  • 120 foot border edging
  • Landscape fabric (optional)
  • Plants
  • Optional garden features (seating, birdbath, etc.)

Instructions

  1. Designate and Mark the Garden Area

    Measure a 30'x30' space using a measuring tape. Hammer a stake into each of the four corners and spray paint a straight line from stake to stake to create the initial garden border.

    Tip

    It's a good idea to also locate the center of the garden area. To accomplish this use the spray paint to mark lines between stakes diagonally across from each other. The X where these lines cross marks the garden center.

  2. Dig Down 8 Inches

    You can begin by using a rototiller to break the sod. Some tillers will dig to a depth of 8 inches. However, you still may have to do some manual digging in order to achieve the correct, uniform depth. You can also remove the 8 inches of turf and topsoil using a shovel.

    Measure the depth in several areas around the exterior of the garden space and use the level to check that you've achieved a uniform base. Don't worry if you don't have a perfect 8 inches everywhere, but try to stay as close to this depth as possible.

    Place soil that has been removed in a pile outside the garden. You can also pile it on a tarp or put it in a wheelbarrow for easier access.

  3. Clean and Amend the Removed Soil

    Working with the soil you've just dug out of the garden area, remove all grasses, weeds, rocks and debris and dispose of this material. Amend the remaining soil to create a fertile, arable base for your garden. Do this by adding compost, mulched leaves, and other fertilizers. The roots of any plantings will eventually reach down into this soil base to access nutrients.

    Tip

    Take a sample of the soil that you've removed to your local cooperative extension office. The results from a simple soil test can tell what nutrients may be lacking. Your extension agent can also offer recommendations about the best way to make improvements.

  4. Backfill With 4 Inches of Amended Soil

    Starting at the center of the garden, use the shovel to backfill the garden with amended soil 4 inches deep throughout. Avoid compacting the soil as much as possible. You can use the hard rake to help spread the soil and create a smooth, even surface.Using the measuring tape and level, take several readings around the space to ensure you've created an even bed for the gravel.

  5. Install the Edging

    Place the edging around the perimeter of the garden. Solid strips of edging or interlocking stones work more efficiently to prevent runoff. Keep in mind that, in order to hold the gravel in place, whatever type you use should extend several inches above the gravel bed.

  6. Cover the Soil With Weed Barrier (Optional)

    Even though many of the weed seeds have already been removed and others will be inhibited by the gravel and unable to sprout, some weeding will likely be necessary in the beginning. If the garden area was originally weedy with poor soil, weed barrier is a viable choice Unroll the barrier and use landscape pins to anchor it into place covering the entire garden space.

  7. Add the Gravel

    Use the shovel and hard rake to begin adding and smoothing the gravel to create the garden bed. Begin by adding shovelfuls around the perimeter of the garden. This will help anchor the edging. Make necessary adjustments to keep the edging straight and in place. Continue adding gravel until it has reached a depth of 4 inches across the entire space. Finish by using the hard rake to create a smooth, even surface.

  8. Allow the Garden to Settle

    It's a good idea to wait several weeks before planting and adding other features. This gives the materials time to settle and allows you to make any other adjustments that might be needed.

  9. Install Garden Features

    Choose a location for the birdbath, bench and any other surface feature you've chosen for your garden.Heavy items like permanent seating, concrete or stone birdbaths and large decorative rocks will probably not require additional anchoring once the item is sitting level on a flat surface. Lighter weight features like trellises and feeders may need to be anchored in order to keep them upright and permanently in place.

  10. Add Plants

    Remove each plant from its pot and shake off as much soil as you can. Use your gloved fingers to gently comb through the roots to separate them. With your gloved hands make a large enough hole in the gravel to hold the plant without compacting the roots. Gently backfill in around the plant with the gravel you removed. The rootball and foliage should be set in at the same level as in the original pot. This is especially important for shrubs since some prefer the rootball to be just at or above the surface of the planting bed.

    Tip

    Spring is most often associated with planting a garden. This is also often a rainy season and not the best time to dig a gravel garden. Most of the plants common in these gardens also do very well planted in the fall. So if you find your garden is ready for flowers during the hottest months of the year, it's better to wait for cooler temperatures before installing your plants.

  11. Water the Plantings

    Water each planting well at ground level. Overhead watering, except for rainfall, should be avoided until the plants are rooted in. Continue to water every day or every other day for the first two weeks until your plants begin to show new growth-a sign the roots have established in the foundation soil layer.

Taking Care of a Gravel Garden

A gravel garden will benefit from weekly watering for a least the first year. When drought tolerant plants are well set in and growing, the second season they should thrive on annual rainfall except during extended dry spells.

The need to weed is greatly reduced since most weed seed was removed during construction. Occasionally weeding may be required to remove any unwanted spread of plants or an occasional weed seed that does manage to root.

When shrubs are included, some annual pruning (depending on species) will help keep the garden looking neat and organized.

Article Sources
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  1. https://nanps.org/native-plant-societies/