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A Gravel Garden Instead of a Lawn

I have a friend who says that many gardens have lots of lawn because of a lack of imagination. While I tend to agree, I think it is more than that. We “know” how to take care of turf: extensive soil preparation, an irrigation system, sod installation (or seeding), then watering, fertilizing, mowing, edging, watering, fertilizing, mowing, edging, repeat. But a garden? That takes thought in designing, selecting, and observing and tending.

In my own garden space, we once had a nice lawn that my husband took care of. He loved it; me, not so much. Then came two female dogs, lawn grubs, and a city rebate offer to remove it, and so we did. We already had small, gray, angular roofing gravel for paths in the rest of the garden, so we replaced the lawn areas with the same gravel. We used about 2 inches of base rock beneath the 2 inches of gravel with fines layer, and our courtyard space now is much more open and expansive. And there are wonderful plants that thrive in the gravel with almost no water.

Thoughtful plant selection and careful watering until establishment can yield beautiful, resilient, interesting gardens. These are not carpets of green but pools of green, gray, and sage with pops of seasonal color. California native plants are very beautiful and provide habitat for birds and pollinators as well. Natives also work well with plants from many other parts of the world with similar climate.

Beautiful, interesting forms
A diversity of plant forms compliment this way of gardening: often low and ground hugging, or tight, rounded cushions accented by short and tall emergent bulbs with strap-shaped leaves. Foliage and form are the stars here, flowers are an ephemeral bonus. In addition to our gorgeous native manzanitas, Ceanothus, and salvias, there are beautiful dry climate species such as Cistus, Callistemon, Euphorbia, and olive. Native blue-eyed grass, Sisyrinchium bellum and its cultivars provide spikey verticals, and Convolvulus and Dianthus are small ponds of muted gray-green. Succulents such as Dudleya, Echeveria, Agave, and Aloe are especially happy here and look stunning in the gravel.

Subtle tonal colors
Gray plants are especially beautiful in gravel gardens. Their soft wooly hairs reflect the sunlight above greener leaf pigments. Examples are manzanitas, lavenders, gazanias, sages, catmints, Sideritis, Ballota, Santolina chamaecyparissus, and Phlomis. Plants such as Stachys, Tanacetum, Helichrysum and Marrubium have a silky, even felted appearance. Plants with needles or whipcord foliage do well here too, such as dwarf conifers and hebes respectively.

Depending on your preferred palette of plants, the underlying color of the gravel can enhance the plant colors: brown to creamy orange, gray to salt and pepper. It’s nice to have carefully places larger anchor stones for scale. If you’re lucky and patient, you’ll notice beautiful lichens on those large stones over time.

Direct seeding
California poppies are also seeded into the gravel in late summer or fall, either falling from existing plants on their own or from saved seed. Other plants that have seeded themselves into the gravel are black violas, native Oenothera and Lupinus species, Phacelia californica, and salvias.

Reduces the need for watering
In a mediterranean climate, the range of plants that can be grown without summer water is quite large. This isn’t to say absolutely no summer water for most plants; in fact many plants benefit from an occasional refreshing summer spritz on the leaves to free them from dust. In my own gravel garden, there is no irrigation but I do water in plants initially, and then occasionally before an expected summer hot spell. Fall is the best planting time, giving plants a chance to grow establish with natural rainfall. Gorgeous and aromatic salvias, lavenders, and woody thymes thrive here, as do summer blooming alliums and Nectaroscordium siculum (Sicilian honey garlic).

A gravel mulch reduces moisture loss while keeping the vulnerable crowns of plants dry. Most woody natives and mediterranean species are susceptible to crown and root rots when moisture lingers too long in the soil, especially during warm temperatures. Surface drainage is much improved with gravel, water drains away from sensitive crowns much faster with a mineral mulch surface compared to an organic mulch.

 

Sideritis cypria, Aurinia saxatilis, Lepechinia hastata, and Tula

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

California native poppies and thistles thrive in the gravel substrate.

Oenothera ‘Silver Blade’ is easy from seed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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