Ohio ó Some people love gardens a whole lot more than
they love gardening.
are the people gravel gardens are made for.
gardens are low-maintenance beds filled with
drought-tolerant plants and covered with a thick layer
of gravel that gives weeds nowhere to take hold. Once
theyíre established, they require little upkeep except
for a thorough cleanup in the spring and perhaps the
Jeff Epping is so sold on the concept that he called it
"one of my recent passions in gardening."
in all, itís pretty maintenance-friendly. Never say
maintenance-free," he said with a laugh.
is director of horticulture at Olbrich Botanical Gardens
in Madison, Wis., which will soon plant its fourth
gravel garden. Its first was installed a few years ago
with help from Roy Diblik, a nursery owner who had seen
the concept at Hermannshof Garden in Germany and had
installed one at his Northwind Perennial Farms near Lake
gardens gained some popularity after noted British
gardener Beth Chatto installed one starting in 1991 on
what had been a compacted parking area. Her book
"Beth Chattoís Gravel Garden" describes the
garden and its creation and lists the plants she grows
said a gravel garden works well for plants native to
areas with well-drained soils that donít contain a lot
of organic matter ó sites such as dry prairies or
rocky seaside areas. He especially likes using the
gardens to grow flowering bulbs, which can rot in
however, is experimenting with all kinds of plants in
his gravel garden. "Iím going to try
everything," he said.
isnít just a garden with gravel used as mulch. The
pebble layer in a gravel garden is much thicker ó 4 to
5 inches ó and serves as part of the plantsí growing
soil and plant debris out of the gravel is critical,
which is why Akron garden designer Sabrena Schweyer
believes gravel gardens are best installed by
professionals or knowledgeable gardeners. If soil gets
mixed into the gravel, or if leaves and other debris are
left to decompose in it, weed seeds can sprout, said
Schweyer, one of the principals of Salsbury-Schweyer
Inc., a garden design and development firm.
means once a gravel garden is planted, it canít be
altered. No moving plants around. No dividing
perennials. No adding annuals in the spring or mums in
idea is not to disturb the soil beneath the gravel, so
the two donít get mixed together, Diblik said. Thatís
why he thinks gravel gardens are ill-suited for people
who like puttering in their gardens, but ideal for
purposes such as lawn alternatives and parking lot
not for gardening," he said, "Itís for
taking up space in a more interesting way."
gravel garden needs to be installed in a fairly sunny
site over soil thatís at least 24 to 36 inches deep.
The soil needs to drain well enough that it doesnít
leave areas of standing water during rainy times, Diblik
soil is topped with an even layer of gravel, 4 to 5
inches deep. At that depth, any weed seeds that might
germinate canít send down tap roots deep enough or
fast enough for the weeds to get established, Diblik
said the garden needs to be contained by an edging so
the gravel can be maintained at a consistent depth. Itís
important that the gravel layer doesnít taper off at
the edges of the bed, he said, because weeds can take
hold in a shallower layer of stone.
gravel needs to be igneous or metamorphic rock, which
wonít break down over time, Epping said. It also needs
to be fairly even in size, so it wonít compact. He
said Olbrich likes to use washed granite or quartzite
chips that are about seven-sixteenths of an inch across.
plant a gravel garden, you start with pot-grown plants
with root balls that are about as tall as the gravel is
deep. Epping has found quart-size pots work best.
remove a plant from its pot, dig down into the gravel
just far enough to place the plant atop the soil, and
then push the gravel back into place around the root
ball. Given time, the plantís roots will reach down
into the soil to get the moisture and nutrients it
needs, but the gravel will keep the plantís crown dry
and healthy, Diblik explained.
vulnerable plants dry out quickly at first. So for eight
to 10 weeks, a newly planted gravel garden needs to be
watered religiously ó daily or every other day,
depending on the conditions, Diblik said.
about eight weeks, he said, you can give the plants a
gentle tug to tell whether theyíre attached to the
soil. Once they are, they no longer need such an
intensive watering schedule.
said his gravel gardens have still needed fairly
frequent watering throughout their first year, and the
second year only during dry periods. After that, the
gardens havenít needed any more water than nature
does a gravel garden need fertilizing. As the plants
naturally replenish their roots, the roots that die
break down and keep the soil fed, Diblik said. Besides,
Epping noted that the kinds of plants best suited to
gravel gardens donít like rich soil.
plants are spaced close together, so after a few years
they grow large enough to form a mass that hides most of
the gravel and shades the ground. That way, Diblik said,
even if a little bit of soil does get into the gravel as
a result of frost heaving, weed seeds wonít have the
sunlight they need to sprout.
said weeds sometimes grow in the plantsí crowns, but
those are easy to remove.
biggest maintenance demand, Epping said, comes from
keeping the garden clean. Every spring the gardeners at
Olbrich cut back the plants and remove all the debris
carefully, using rakes and a leaf blower so nothing is
left behind to decompose in the gravel.
demands of cleanup are why garden designer Schweyer
wouldnít locate a gravel garden in an area with a lot
of trees, which are notorious for dropping debris such
as leaves and seeds.
Schweyer believes gravel gardens will become
increasingly appealing in our area as climate change
brings more extreme temperatures.
just think itís a more resilient way of
gardening," she said.