Garden design is a very personal expression and even at it’s best, it is not an exact science. However, there are some guiding principles that will help you create a pulled-together, cohesive look. As with playing an instrument, if you can learn these fundamentals, you can vamp whatever appeals to you.
The basic principles of garden design are simple enough, however, each is often referred to by more than one name. The 3 categories below contain the basic elements that, when combined together, constitute the generally accepted version of good garden design. Keep in mind that it is your garden and you are the one who should be pleased with the results. Rules are meant to be broken.
This refers to the basic structure of the garden. Order can be obtained through symmetry, as in a formal garden, through repetition of plants or colors, or through balancing bold or bright features with a complementary weight of fine texture or muted features (generally in a 1/3 bold to 2/3 fine ratio). What you don’t want is a garden that looks haphazard, as though plants were plopped in wherever there was an available spot of soil. You don’t have to put a plan down on paper, but you should consider where you want to place your plants before you start digging holes.
Harmony or Unity
As the terms imply, harmony or unity is when the parts of the garden work together as a whole. We've all seen gardens that feel like an assault on the eyes. That happens when there are too many disparate elements.
Harmony is achieved in editing. This can be accomplished by using a limited color palette, the repetition of key plants throughout the garden, The repetition of colors or structures, like round spheres scattered periodically through the borders, or by developing your flower bed around a clear focal point. If you've ever seen a theme garden, you've seen a garden with built-in unity, such as an all-white garden, a butterfly garden, or a Hosta collector's garden.
Flow, Transition, or Rhythm
Great structure and unifying elements will create a pretty picture, but your garden can appear static. To keep things interesting you need to keep the eye moving. That doesn’t mean visitors viewing your garden should be darting their eyes about every which way. You want to slowly guide them through the discovery of your garden, by directing their gaze. You can accomplish this with gradual changes in height or color prevent, curves that can’t be seen around until you get there, or intriguing focal points or seating areas that beckon. The transition can also be used to create the illusion of a larger space by creating depth as smaller plants flow back into taller plants. What you are striving for is to prevent the eye from making a sudden stop.
These 3 elements work together and should be ideas you play with, to personalize your garden. Don't let them paralyze you with the feat of getting it wrong. You can always move a plant somewhere else in the garden or even give it away and try something new. Once you get the garden design basics mastered, you can add even more elements like fragrance and sound. And all gardens are a work in progress, so don't be afraid to play.
Gravel and cobbles of mixed sizes can be used in all sorts of different ways in the garden. You often hear people say ‘oh I hate gravel’ and they are very averse to using it in the garden. But done well it is an incredibly diverse and useful material.
When people say they hate gravel, what they often mean is they hate the pea shingle that gets stuck in sandals as they walk through it. Or they’ve seen huge areas of it where it’s just uninteresting and dull.
So how do you use gravel in a way that enhances your garden?
There are four main things you need to consider when choosing gravel.
Gravel can be used for many things from paths through to areas of open space. It’s a much cheaper alternative to using paving and less maintenance than grass. If you are using it instead of a lawn or a paved area you need to carefully consider how it’s going to look so that you don’t end up with a very boring area. By incorporating planting and different sizes of gravel it can be made to look a lot more interesting.
If you’re going to be walking across the area regularly, then I definitely recommend the use of stepping stones or a solid compacted path so that it’s easy to walk on. Also, take into account how much sun the area is likely to get. If the area is particularly shady then the gravel will most likely end up discolouring and going green. Which wouldn’t be very nice to look at! If you’ve chosen large enough cobbles, then it would be okay to pressure wash them and you’ll get away with it in a shady area.
The key to gravel looking good and functioning well all comes down to size. If you’re going to be walking across it regularly, then small sizes are more comfortable, but then, of course, they do end up getting in your shoes. If you just want an area to be quite open and with some plants through the gravel, then I like to use 20mm stone mixed with larger sizes of mixed River cobbles.
These days, there is an absolutely staggering amount of different types of gravel you can choose from. It can make choosing which one to have a complete nightmare. My personal preference is to keep it quite simple and go for more subtle natural shades.
What type of gravel or stone should you choose?
Avoid any gravels that have been artificially coloured as they end up looking like a cemetery stone! Also, be careful of very porous and chalky types of stone. If there is a lot of powder coming off of the stone and on closer inspection you can see lots of tiny holes then it’s going to go green, because of the porous nature, a lot quicker than solid gravel.
I already mentioned that I use 20mm builder’s stone, this is for several reasons. Firstly I like the look of it, there’s a nice mix of cream and brown and slightly purply colours and it and secondly the price. Because 20mm stone is often used for driveways and for mixing in with ballast, it tends to be relatively cheap. As soon as you purchase any form of gravel that has a fancy name, you can guarantee it’ll be expensive.
20mm stone and river cobbles
To make it look a bit more interesting, that’s when I add the mixed sizes of river cobbles. It completely transforms it from being just a regular looking gravel. Now builders merchants stone will differ from region to region. That’s one of its other advantages, it tends to be sourced locally so naturally looks good with the surrounding areas. It’s also travelled less of a distance which makes it better environmentally.
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Professional international garden designer for over 25 years. My mission is to de-mystify garden design and make it easy for people to successfully design their own garden – without needing to spend a fortune!
There are all kinds of creative solutions to landscape problems. Dry areas or spaces with natural dips in the topography benefit from gravel gardens. What is a gravel garden? These spaces are not only covered with gravel mulch but also host a variety of plants or even a pond. There is a wide range of gravel garden plants that combine hardiness with tolerance to diverse moisture levels. Some tips on how to make a gravel garden will have you on your way to enjoying a unique landscape filled with texture and color.
What is a Gravel Garden?
This type of garden concept is characterized by gravel mulch, but may also include trees, shrubs, groundcovers, flowers, larger rocks, and differently textured hardscape details.
The best types of gravel garden plants are perennials, ornamental grasses, and herbs. The effect provides a Mediterranean style garden that is perfect for plants such as:
Some bulbs such as alliums and crocus will break through the gravel mulch and naturalize in clumps. Xeriscape plants work well in gravel gardens. These might include:
There are many ideas for a landscape gravel garden and suitable plants abound. Layout a plan before you start and choose gravel garden plants that will thrive in your lighting, moisture, and temperature situation.
Can a Garden Be Planted on Top of Gravel?
The curious gardener might ask, “Can a garden be planted on top of gravel?” It seems like it should not work due to the infertility of stone. The key is good soil preparation below the gravel surface.
Dig the soil to a depth of at least 5 inches (13 cm.) and incorporate rotted organic material or compost. Ensure good drainage by working in fine sand, unless your soil is already porous. The soil needs extra nutrients and good drainage to prevent soggy roots and infertile conditions.
Gravel mulch on top acts as a natural moisture conservator, but the stone will get hot in sunny areas and some water will evaporate. Consider this when choosing gravel garden plants.
Install perennials and herbs in clumps to maximize their visual appeal. Put vertical specimen plants as focal points in the center or just off-center. Low growing plants work well to outline a natural-looking path through the gravel garden.
Ideas for a Landscape Gravel Garden
You can design any shape or size of a gravel garden. The area should fit naturally into the rest of your landscape and take advantage of any discrepancies in the yard, such as large rock formations, dips and valleys, or already rocky spaces.
If you want to encourage a natural pond, use a butyl liner in a depression held down at the edges by rocks, then spread gravel over that and fill it with water. Plant water plants at the edges to conceal any plastic liner that may show.
Flatter areas with gravel benefit from occasional raking to remove plant debris and keep them looking clean and sharp. Be creative and bold with your gravel garden. It should reflect your personality and gardening zone.
I find that certain styles of planting have been somewhat hogging the limelight. Prairie planting anyone? Meadows perhaps? Now this is all well and good, and of course they have their place but they lack versatility – and, in the depths of winter, there’s basically nothing there.
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Gravel gardening may not immediately grab the headlines but should in fact be far more popular and better recognised. A gravel garden works on all scales, large and small and its relatively easy to look after – perhaps about half the time of a conventional mixed border. I’ve used gravel gardens equally successfully in minuscule London gardens as well as country estates where vast walled gardens need a large, planted space without the expense of an army of gardeners.
I first came to gravel garden planting through Joyce Robinson’s Denmans – the garden made famous by the late designer John Brookes, which had dry river beds and gravel paths creating space and light within the garden and among the plants themselves. Then Derek Jarman’s gravel Prospect Cottage garden on the beach at Dungeness came into our consciousness before Beth Chatto tore up her car park to make a gravel garden that had people finally taking notice.
The element that links these gravel gardens and plantings together is that they have a gentle sense of ‘somewhere else’. An invented habitat of never normally seen together exotics that can’t co-exist happily within the environment of a conventional mixed border, yet the gravel garden planting mix can be skewed to suit whatever you want: Mexican agaves and Dasylirion can be deployed in a more contemporary setting or for Mediterranean purists, lavender, rosemary and olives. But there really aren’t many rules for gravel gardens especially on larger scales. A scattering of evergreens can make a loose structure so that you have a genuinely year-round garden and then almost anything goes. Rigid colour schemes are not necessarily required for gravel gardens and a contrasting flower colour and leaf shape from one plant to the next can be the recipe for a successful gravel garden. A range of heights is good too. Individual shrubs or small trees emerging from their ground-hugging neighbours and spires of Verbascum erupting from the gravel make for eye-catching punctuation.
Creating a gravel garden
- Wherever possible a local gravel should always be used to visually tie the garden into its setting and to any vernacular materials nearby. It will also have a lower carbon footprint.
- The gravel mulch for your gravel garden should be around 5-7cm deep and spread over all beds so there is no longer any bare soil, and under no circumstances put down any sort of membrane beneath the gravel.
- There is nothing worse than seeing the edges of some awful material poking up through the gravel in your garden. You want the worms to pull the gravel stones down into the soil to improve drainage further and prevent excessive run-off into drains during heavy downpours.
- The same loose gravel can make an ideal path surface as long as the stone sizes aren’t too big, preferably 10mm diameter and definitely no bigger than 20mm or it will be like walking on a shingle beach.
- If you want a more solid surface you could upgrade to a self-binding gravel on the paths that sets hard and has just a few loose stones on the surface but you need to choose a gravel of exactly the same tone. Increasingly winter wet kills more plants than the cold does so drainage is key and a gravel garden solves the problem. Get it right and you can embrace climate change and grow all sort of exotics hailing from Mediterranean climates around the world, including Australia, America and North Africa.
Key tips and examples for creating a gravel garden
Adding silver-leaved plants to the gravel garden mix automatically makes us think of hotter climes and exotic places. In my 2010 Chelsea garden, I initially selected each plant for the leaf shape, colour and texture and although the flowers were important they were less crucial.
Emily Erlam’s creation at Dungeness takes a more gardenesque approach than the neighbouring Prospect Cottage and has exotic Mediterranean species colonising the sun-baked shingle of the beach. The planting helps anchor the modern building to its setting.
Gravel gardens provide plenty of opportunity for flower colour, and the colour scheme can change a number of times throughout the seasons. It can be simple and controlled at times or erupt into a multitude of colours.
With a contemporary Japanese feel, this gravel garden by Matt Keightley is a masterclass in form and space. Simplicity is key with a paired-back palette of predominantly Pinus sylvestris ‘Watereri’, whose mounded shapes give the garden a sculptural quality.
Olivier Filippi who has a nursery in the South of France has emerged as a big name in dry gardens. He favours foliage over flowers and chooses plants adapted to poor, dry soils where they produce the naturally mounded shapes found in the wild.
The Beth Chatto tribute garden at last year’s RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival mixed lavender with junipers, alliums, festucas, foxtail lilies and Eryngium agavifolium, proving that this style of planting can be informal and forgiving. Almost anything could go into the mix, regardless of size or colour. Turn the page for more ideas on gravel gardens
Surfaced spaces have all kinds of uses. You may need off-street parking, or a low-maintenance alternative to a lawn; a path running between flower beds, or just somewhere to sit and enjoy the garden. There are many surfaces to choose from – paving slabs, poured concrete, granite sets, bricks, decking, turf … But, on balance, gravel can be one of the more hospitable options when it comes to wildlife. Not only is it low-maintenance and relatively cheap for you, but it provides the perfect environment for drought-tolerant planting, attracting wildlife when other parts of the garden may not.
Planning your gravel garden:
- Find a sunny position for your gravel garden as this is best for drought-tolerant plants.
- Decide on the shape of the area you want to gravel and mark it out, including areas for planting. Make sure that you give the plants room to spread about. An informal, fluid shape is most suitable for this style.
- Consider incorporating a gravel pool into your garden to maximise its wildlife appeal.
- Research your planting. A gravel garden naturally lends itself to Mediterranean-style, drought-tolerant planting, so lavender, Euphorbia, rock rose, cotton lavender and Phlomis are ideal and provide plenty of nectar for visiting insects.
Gravel provides the perfect environment for drought-tolerant planting, attracting wildlife when other parts of the garden may not
Establishing your gravel garden:
- Rake the area to gravel. It should sit about 5 cm (2 in) below the surrounding ground to allow for the layer of gravel mulch.
- If your soil is not naturally sandy or gravelly, it might be necessary to dig to a depth of about 5 cm (2 in), incorporating plenty of grit or gravel and some well-rotted organic matter.
- Plant up the bed with suitable drought-tolerant planting. Laying a weed-suppressing membrane at this stage helps prevent weeds, but also makes it more difficult for your chosen plants to self-seed, so you might choose not to – the wildlife will be happier too.
- Once planted, the bed can be mulched with 5 cm (2 in) gravel or shingle. Try to match the colour to other paved or stone structures in the garden.
- A gravel pool is easily built by digging out a shallow hole to an approximate depth of 30 cm (12 in) in the centre with sloping sides. Like a normal pond, this is lined with a butyl liner and the edges are buried around the sides in a trench or under large stones. Lay a thin layer of soil over the base and then a 5 cm (2 in) layer of 0.5-1 cm (1/4 -1 in) gravel or shingle, adding a few larger stones for variety. Fill with water. Plant around the edges with soggy-soil-loving plants like marsh marigold and ragged-robin.
Maintaining your gravel garden:
- Keep the plants well-watered for their first season.
- Top-up the gravel when necessary.
- You may need to weed out the more invasive intruders for the first few years until the plants fill out and start spreading around.
- Keep the gravel pool topped up, especially in hot weather as the water is likely to evaporate fairly quickly.
Red valerian – ©northeastwildlife.co.uk
- American harebell – Campanula carpatica – Ajuga reptans
- Cotton Lavender – Santolinachamaecyparissus
- Dyer’s Chamomile (Golden Marguerite) – Anthemis tinctoria
- English Lavender – Lavandula angustifolia
- Euphorbia spp.
- Fleabane – Erigeron spp. – Digitalis purpurea
- Phlomis spp – Primula vulgaris – Centranthus ruber
- Rock Rose (Sun Rose) – Cistus spp.
Struggling for space?
If you can’t commit to a whole area of gravel garden, you can make mini gravel gardens by lifting a patio slab or two and treating the gaps in the same way as outlined above. This provides more planting opportunities and even happier wildlife.
More ways you can help wildlife
How to go peat free at home
Our homes and gardens have an important role in the fight against climate change. Help preserve vital peatland by going peat free.
How to make a hedge for wildlife
Hedges provide important shelter and protection for wildlife, particularly nesting birds and hibernating insects.
How to attract moths and bats to your garden
Plant flowers that release their scent in the evening to attract moths and, ultimately, bats looking for an insect-meal into your garden…
There are many useful mulches to use on the garden bed. Some help retain moisture, as does the gravel garden bed. Gravel beds are something you won’t see in every garden, but they can provide something different in your landscape. Read more to see if laying a gravel garden is an option for you.
Gravel Bed Garden Design
Your gravel bed can be any shape and as large or small as you need. The secret to beautiful plants growing in the gravel bed is plant choice and soil preparation. Drought resistant plants are perfect for this type of bed. Once the gravel top cover is in place, you likely won’t disturb it.
Use a border. This helps define the area and keeps the gravel in place. Bury a metal garden strip around the edges, leaving half an inch above ground to hold the rock. Or use a wider border made with garden pavers.
How to Install a Gravel Garden
Pick the spot for your gravel garden bed. Remove all grass, weeds, and existing plants. Till the soil well, at least five to six inches (13-15 cm.) deep. Mix in well-finished compost. If soil is clay or drainage is poor, compost will help improve it. You may also add coarse sand for a grittier mix and to help with drainage. Once the gravel mulch is in place, it’s difficult to enrich your soil. You can sprinkle dry fertilizer or use a liquid mix, but it is prudent to keep most plants growing in rich soil.
Level the soil with a rake. Add the border when soil is finished. As mentioned above, you can install a metal garden strip or use pavers for the border. This keeps the covering in place.
Choose plants appropriate to your garden spot and your area. Ornamental grasses, herbaceous perennials, and even trees or shrubs may be suitable. Install plants into the soil.
Add any hardscape features such as benches, water features, clay pots, or tin planters. Large boulders complement the gravel garden construction. Upcycle items for planters, keeping in mind that less is often more.
Choose medium size gravel to cover the bed. You may include patterns by using colored slate chippings. Add a pathway, if desired, using larger stones or pavers.
Use a hand spade to carefully spread gravel around your new plantings. Use a rake for other parts of the larger bed, leveling the rock throughout. Save some of the gravel for later in case it is needed to fill in as the new bed settles.
Here’s an easy weekend DIY yard project. Pathways add visual interest to your yard and look beautiful winding around a flower bed.
But a pathway can also help solve a soggy yard problem. If your entry path to your front door is always wet, a gravel path will fix that. And it will add value to your home as well.
If you have a well used pathway, consider improving it with gravel and edging. You won’t ever have to deal with puddles of water or muddy feet ever again.
First, dig out any sod in the path. Be sure to get all the grass out of there. Then level the walkway using a rake.
We used landscape fabric and I really recommend it. This will stop any weeds from coming up under the gravel. It is well worth buying a roll!
We also used rubber edging along both sides of the path. This helps to keep the gravel out of the flower beds.
After this prep work is done, it’s time to start adding gravel. We just used a wheelbarrow to get the gravel in place. We ended up with the gravel two inches deep.
Rake the gravel out smoothly ;it will settle further as you walk on it.
The area we ended up covering with gravel was quite large. Still this took us one weekend to get done.
Here’s the finished walk way. We love it and it has stood up for several years now with no maintenance.
I made the flower bed just before we added the walkway. Here’s how I made that perennial flower bed.
For special tips and more step by step instructions on how to make your own path, check out the article on our website, Country Living in a Cariboo Valley.
It’s a sure thing that people have gardens and backyards and love to beautify them. It often happens that people step over your freshly clipped lawn and leave you agitated.
And that is where the Pathways come in. Most of them have signs like “Go this way” or “Hey! Walk here”.
Sure, installing a walkway is a tiring and a bit expensive task, but it’s worth it. Pathways enhance the beauty of your garden, giving it a specific style or a casual or formal look. Pathways are welcoming in a way such that it leaves man no choice but to walk upon it.
When talking about pathways, gravel pathways make the most economical choice as compared to paved pathways.
They are visually appealing, easy to install, economical, and demand little maintenance.
But how to make a gravel pathway and that too on a slope? As difficult as it sounds, it turns out to be as much easy. To follow the step-by-step way to create a gravel path, read on.
Things You Need
The things you need to install a perfect gravel path for your garden are as follows:
- Shovel (squared is preferred)
- Metal rake
- Landscape fabric
- Crushed stone
- Tape measure
Step 1: Select The Location
The pathway on a slope is different from one on the ground. It requires more effort, better planning, and constant care.
When working with a steep slope, never make a straight pathway as it can cause serious injuries and accidents. A walkway, including a zigzag pattern, is preferred for a steep slope, as it gives better stability and balance.
After selecting the pathway, mark it using a rope, a garden hose, a spray paint, or a string. For perfect directions, use string and stakes. Bury stakes in the ground and wrap the string around each of them tightly, marking the route. Also, mark the landmarks to be avoided.
Step 2: Level Path Bed
Tie a string along the stakes to indicate where the pavers or edging will stand. The string should reach the top of the edging.
Make sure the ground is evenly flat so people can safely go up and down the walkway.
Due to the slopes hindering work at the pathway, you’ll have to do the main leveling side by side. It is better to use a shovel here as its blade will help you cut along the edges.
If you plan on using sod, use a shovel to break it into smaller sections. This way, it is easier to handle the sod.
Step 3: Excavate The Slope
Dig out the desired path using a shovel. For better excavation, mark the starting and ending points. The standard depth for digging out a slope is almost 4 inches, but you can dig a bit further if you like.
Once the excavation is complete, use a shovel to make the path even and level it. For a better idea of the depth, use a tape to measure every once in a while.
You can also take it up using a metal rake. After smoothing it out, use a hand tamper to compress the soil and give it a tidy look.
Step 4: Instill Base Of The Walkway
You can utilize various materials to build a gravel pathway. But when we talk about the base of an object, the material has to be of supreme quality.
You can either use gravel, crushed rocks, or concrete stone. However, mostly crushed rocks are used, as they provide stability and sustainability.
After compressing and smoothing out the trench, add up to 2 inches of sand for keeping balance. Smooth it out using a metal rake. Gradually instill it with almost 3 inches of crushed stone.
Rake out the surface of the crushed stones and bring it to level with the trench.
Step 5: Dampen The Surface
Next, lightly moisten the soil using a water container or a garden hose. Then, to make the surface even, smooth and hard, use a hand tamper and pound the surface a good number of times.
Compacting the surface helps keep out the dust and compresses the newly formed layer of sand and crushed stones.
Step 6: Place The Landscape Fabric Above The Surface
Lay down the landscape fabric upon the compressed stone surface, rough side down. To outline the fabric around the curves, make relief cuts along the edges. On the inside, allow the fabric to overlap at the cuts while on the outside, allow it to open up.
To avoid being irritated by the displacing of the fabric, again and again, use pins or some other sharp objects to keep the fabric from moving.
Step 7: Establish The Edging
Edging materials can vary. You can use bricks, wood, cedar, plastic, or even cobblestone edging. However, the best choice has always been Galvanized steel.
It is reliable and durable and so well-formed that it allows full access to any sort of shaping, be it curved, straight, twisted, or zig-zag. Moreover, its sturdy properties make it the best when building a sloppy pathway.
When placing the edging, don’t go on hammering it directly. It can destroy its protective zinc coating and resultantly lead to early rusting. Place the edging inside the trench and allow it to rest upon the fabric. Avoid putting much pressure over it or displacing it.
Step 8: Fix The Edging
Once you’ve placed the edging correctly, get a woodblock, and cut it according to the thickness of the edging. The cuts must be deep and wide enough to slide over the edging easily. Slide the wood block onto the edging and hammer it firmly.
Repeat the same process across all the other sections of the path, so that the edging sits perfectly.
Step 9: Install The Steps
Place the frame of the steps upon the fabric. Dilute the cement/concrete as per the directions and pour it into the frame. Remove the frame once it hardens and leave to dry completely.
Step 10: Add Gravel
Add as much gravel around the steps as required to cover the fabric and to fill the pathway. Leave half-an-inch of space at the top as to prevent the gravel from spilling. Smoothen out the gravel perfectly, making it all even.
Keep up the walkway by occasionally refilling the gravel and raking it out.
Making a pathway isn’t difficult, even if on a slope or a rough surface. It just needs a bit of determination, a good sense of formation, and fast hands.
Making a gravel pathway can be as interesting and easy that any novice DIYer can get his hands upon it (with guaranteed results).
You might reconsider your designs and want to redo them; it’s totally fine. Trust your eyes, and adjust according to your taste and mood. That being said, your pathway is ready. However, for the walkway to remain what it looks like today, it requires constant care and effort.
Maintain your pathway well and hang a sign telling which way to use, so that no one ever again loves their footprints on your lovely grass. Happy gardening to you!