Main Image: Courtyard Garden
How good it feels to be turning a corner on a long, wet winter and peering into Spring. The sap is rising, soil warming, days are stretching out and like many gardeners, I’m itching to get out in my garden, full of renewed vigour, developing new areas for our family, visitors and menagerie of animals to enjoy.
For like many people today, we are working and spending more time at home and I realise how important our gardens have become as multi-functioning living spaces. Always a welcome extension to our homes, gardens today are a place for friends and families to socialise safely, for escapism and relaxation.
Yet it can be challenging sharing your precious garden with a multigenerational family. The trick is to create functional spaces that work for all ages.
So over the next few months I will explore easy and low cost ways you can turn your gardens into a user friendly space that is low maintenance yet full of colour, fragrance and wildlife, without the need for heavy machinery or professionals. Projects that are perfect for garden DIYers and novice gardener’s alike.
Gravel gardens are versatile gardens with a surface mulch of aggregates. This 40mm thick gravel layer is clean and free draining, ideal for growing those Mediterranean plants that dislike sitting in cold, waterlogged soils during our wet winters. But don’t for a minute think of gravel gardens as a sparse looking rocky scree! They are lush, vibrant, spaces where you can immerse yourself in colourful plants self-seeding, repeat flowering and enjoying life to the full.
The allure of a gravel garden is its clean, non-slippery, functional surface. Just like a patio, you can use it for dining, for benches, extra loungers, for the BBQ at weekends, even for hot tubs and hammocks. And it is low cost too. A bulk bag of our local 10mm Trent pea gravel will set you back around £50.00. It will probably take you an hour or so to spread and will cover 16m2. Just compare that to the price of paving and you begin to see the value of a gravel garden. It’s like rolling out a new carpet. The effect is instant.
Our gravel garden is around 100m2. It wraps sinuously around a patio, a buffer between soft lawn and hard paving. We’ve laid stepping stones through the main routes, edged with a creeping thymes, a tapestry of mauves covered in bumblebees in spring.
Lavenders, sage, rosemary, santolinas and artemesias form an aromatic shrub layer, handy for snipping and throwing on the BBQ. We have small specimen trees and tall pencil junipers for height and structure, and an architectural evergreen conifer Chamaecyparis nootkatensis Pendula, which waves its weeping branches in the slightest breeze.
Low level planting includes airy gauras, fragrant dianthus, long flowering asters, and frothy geraniums with diverse grasses forming waves through the gravel. Accent perennials flower in succession including echinaceas, echinops, eryngiums. Verbenas and Verbascums self-seed with wild abandon throughout the entire space. I don’t try to control them. I love these vibrant pairings that you could never plan even if you tried.
Gravel gardens are wildlife friendly too. We leave the perennials and grasses standing throughout winter as seedheads for the birds. Goldfinches feast off verbena bonariensis, balancing on the desiccated stems like miniature circus acrobats. Tiny wrens dart at floor level feeding on invertebrates and nesting in the junipers. Our gravel garden is a feeding station for wild birds, dropped seeds and insects are easy picking. In Spring I enjoy watching sparrows gathering up tufts of dry stipa tenuissima grass to line their nests. In summer our gravel garden becomes a magnet for pollinators, shimmering with butterflies and bumblebees.
I’ve been creating gravel gardens for my clients for over 20 years and I love their vibrance, flexibility and functionality. Gravel gardens work beautifully in small and large gardens and suit all styles from contemporary urban exteriors to rural cottage gardens. They can replace grass entirely in a small garden, link a driveway to a house, unite a formal terrace with a rolling lawn and are a flexible living space as an extension of a patio. They also act as an all-weather pathway across your garden too.
Choose a small 10mm diameter gravel for a pedestrian friendly surface. There are different gravels readily available to suit your style. Choose from granite or limestone chippings to multi coloured quartz and slate. In a recent project we spread different sized Scottish pebbles in drifts to mimic the shoreline of a river broken up with larger boulders and softened with planting.
Some sunshine is best, avoid putting gravel under deciduous trees and in deep shade.