Gravel gardens: benefits, design tips, and best plants

A California apartment gravel garden designed using gravel, rocks, perennial plants and decorative pots.
My Garden Life
July 17, 2023
Table of Contents

Gravel gardens are becoming increasingly popular due to their low maintenance and unique design options. Gravel gardening is also a great way to create an attractive landscape that requires very little supplemental watering – an important consideration for anyone living in a region prone to seasonal drought conditions.

In this article, we discuss types of garden gravel, design tips for creating an attractive landscape with your new gravel bed, as well as some of the best plants that thrive in these conditions.

What is Gravel Gardening?

Gravel gardening, also known as gravel landscaping, is a landscaping technique that involves using gravel or small rocks as the primary surface material in a garden or landscape design.

Many people opt for a gravel garden because of its reputation of being easy to maintain: gravel is indeed a great option for those who don’t want to spend hours weeding and watering. However, the greatest benefit of gravel gardens can be found in its ability to save water.

Gravel gardens - Clumps of purple and white coneflowers planted in a gravel garden made with gray crushed stones.

How Can a Gravel Garden Save Water?

Gravel gardens save water in 5 different ways:

1. Reduced evaporation
Gravel acts as a protective layer that covers the soil, reducing direct exposure to sunlight and wind. This layer helps to prevent moisture from evaporating quickly, keeping the soil beneath it moist for a longer period. As a result, less water is lost to evaporation, and the garden requires less frequent watering.

2. Improved drainage
Gravel allows water to drain quickly through the gaps between the rocks. This feature is particularly useful in areas with heavy rainfall or where the soil has poor drainage. By promoting efficient drainage, gravel prevents water from pooling or stagnating, reducing the risk of overwatering and root rot. Consequently, the garden requires less water as excess moisture is efficiently removed.

A wide variety of conifers and red barberry shrubs in a white gravel garden.

3. Water infiltration
Gravel can help facilitate water infiltration into the soil. When rainwater or irrigation is applied to a gravel garden, it can permeate the gaps between the rocks and gradually seep into the underlying soil layers. This process promotes deep root growth and encourages plants to access moisture from lower soil levels. By encouraging water infiltration, gravel gardening reduces surface runoff, which can lead to water wastage.

4. Weed suppression
A layer of gravel acts as a barrier, preventing sunlight from reaching weed seeds present in the soil. Since many weed species require sunlight for germination and growth, the gravel layer inhibits their development. Fewer weeds mean less competition for water resources in the garden, allowing the plants you intend to grow to receive a larger share of available water.

Gravel gardens can be placed in small urban spaces between pavement. A variety of colorful perennial flowers in a small gravel garden between a road and sidewalk.

5. Water retention
While gravel helps prevent excessive evaporation, it also has the capacity to retain some moisture. When rainwater or irrigation is applied, the gravel absorbs and holds onto a portion of the water. This retained moisture gradually releases into the soil, providing a supplemental water source for plants during dry periods. This water retention feature can reduce the frequency and amount of water needed for irrigation.

In arid regions or for water-intensive plants, additional watering may still be required – but rest assured you will be using a lot less water than in a traditional garden design.

Constructing a Gravel Garden

Creating a gravel garden is very simple. Planting is no different from any other garden getting started. You can put your plants in the ground and then fill in around them with the gravel.

A helpful option when creating a new gravel bed is incorporating a layer of landscape fabric before you plant. This will prevent existing weed seeds in the soil from emerging up through your gravel. The steps are:

  1. Prepare the bed, improve the soil with organic matter if needed and level.
  2. Add a layer the landscape fabric, trimming or piecing as needed to cover the space.
  3. Cut holes in the fabric where you want to place plants.
An area covered with black landscape fabric with holes cut in the fabric to plant new plants. Gravel will be layered over the fabric to create a gravel garden.
  1. Dig a hole and plant the plant, replacing and packing soil around the root ball.
  2. Water new plantings thoroughly.
  3. Finally, layer gravel over the entire surface.
River gravel being placed over a garden planted using landscape fabric as a foundation.

    Planting in an Existing Gravel Garden

    There’s nothing special about adding or replacing plants in an existing gravel garden versus a standard garden bed. It does require a couple of extra steps to get past the gravel.

    1. Scrape the gavel away from the spot where you want to plant and just leave it to the side.
    2. If the gravel is underlaid with landscape fabric, cut a hole to create a space for the new plant.
    3. Plant the new plant, or if you are replacing an existing plant, dig up the old plant and discard it, then plant the new plant as usual.
    A Japanese maple tree is being set in a hole within a gravel garden about to be planted.
    1. Water around plant thoroughly to get plant off to a good start.
    2. Push the gravel back around the new planting.
    A Japanese maple newly planted in a gravel garden with a wood fence in the background.

    Types of Garden Gravel

    Garden gravel comes in various types, sizes, and colors, each with its own aesthetic appeal and functional characteristics. Here are some different types of garden gravel commonly used:

    Pea gravel

    Pea gravel consists of small, rounded stones typically between ⅛ to ⅜ inches in size. It is smooth and often comes in natural colors like beige, brown, or gray. Pea gravel is commonly used for pathways, patios, and as a decorative mulch.

    Open areas of a courtyard are covered with pea gravel surrounding raised timber garden beds and large terra cotta pots containing herbs.

    Heavy rains may be an issue for pea gravel as it does not hold up well against them; if you live in a place with frequent rainstorms, you may want to take additional measures. For instance, placing plastic sheeting underneath the stones prior to laying them down helps protect them from being washed away during heavier storms. In short, do your due diligence before investing in pea gravel to ensure its longevity and suitability for your area’s climate conditions.

    River Rock and Pebbles

    River rock is larger than pea gravel, typically ranging from ½ inch to 2 inches in diameter. It is rounded and smooth due to natural erosion by water.

    A silvery-green artemisia silver mound plant growing in a gravel garden made with river rock.

    Pebbles are somewhat smaller, typically between ⅛ to ⅜ inches in size. Pebbles can come from rivers but can also be sourced from other areas such as beaches or quarries. Pebbles can come in a wide range of colors and textures, from mixes to solid colors.

    River rock and pebbles are also commonly used for water features, dry creek beds, and as a decorative element in gardens.

    Crushed Stone

    Crushed stone is made by crushing larger stones into smaller fragments. It comes in various sizes and shapes, including angular, irregular, or crushed gravel fines. Crushed stone is often used for driveways, walkways, and as a base material for pavers or retaining walls.

    Close up of a barberry shrub surrounded by crushed gray stone.

    Crushed stone is a popular choice for pathways due to its angular shape, which provides a smoother look when laid properly. The sharp edges of crushed stone provide better traction than pebbles do in wet weather conditions, reducing slips and falls. Cost-wise, however, it may be pricier than other options such as river rock; thus budget should be taken into consideration if this is an issue.

    Decomposed Granite

    Decomposed granite is finely crushed granite rock that has weathered to a granular consistency. It is often reddish-brown in color. Decomposed granite is commonly used for pathways, patios, and as a low-maintenance ground cover.

    Beautiful bluebonnet plants in full flower growing in a bed of decomposed granite gravel.

    Lava Rock

    Lava rock is formed from solidified volcanic lava. It is porous and lightweight, usually available in dark shades of red or black. Lava rock is used for decorative purposes, in succulent gardens, and as a mulch in xeriscaping due to its ability to retain moisture.

    A single agave plant growing in a gravel garden created using red-toned lava rock.

    Marble Chips

    Marble chips are small pieces of crushed marble, available in various sizes and colors. They are often used for pathways, borders, and as a decorative ground cover. Marble chips can add a touch of elegance and brightness to a garden.

    A dwarf pine growing in a gravel garden is surrounded by a circle of bright white marble gravel.

    Slate Chips

    Slate chips are flat, irregularly shaped pieces of slate rock. They come in different colors, such as gray, blue, or green. Slate chips are commonly used for pathways, patios, and as a decorative element in garden beds.

    Sempervivum plant growing in a gravel garden created using gray slate chips.

    These are just a few examples of the many types of garden gravel available. The choice of gravel depends on the desired look, functionality, and the specific requirements of your garden or landscaping project.

    Design Tips for Gravel Gardens

    When designing a gravel garden, there are several key tips to keep in mind.

    Choose the right plants for your gravel garden

    Consider selecting drought-tolerant species such as succulents and cacti that can handle dry conditions, or ornamental grasses that thrive with minimal water and maintenance. Perennials and annuals also work well in a gravel garden; just be sure to select varieties adapted to your climate zone.

    You will find our best tips for plants for gravel gardens below.

    A small gravel garden with black river rock planted with a variety of ferns, grasses, and annual flowering plants.

    Take into account the size of your space

    Smaller areas may require low-growing plants like groundcovers or creeping thyme, while larger spaces can accommodate taller shrubs or trees without overcrowding the area.

    A modern single story house completely landscaped with a gravel garden with shrub and perennial plantings.

    Include hardscaping elements

    Consider edging materials like stone borders or raised beds to help keep the gravel from spilling out onto pathways or other areas of your yard. This will also add structure and definition to your design, creating an attractive look for any outdoor space. Add pathways through your gravel garden using pavers or flagstone for a more natural look.

    A flagstone path winds through a gravel garden planted with colorful perennial flowering plants.

    Overall aesthetic

    It is important to consider the overall aesthetic of your garden before adding any plants or gravel material. What colors do you want? Bright and vibrant or muted hues? Do you prefer a formal look with straight lines and uniform shapes, or something more relaxed?

    Answering these questions beforehand will make selecting the right plants much simpler when creating your gravel garden.

    Gravel gardens can be filled with color like this garden with flowers in shades of vibrant purple, yellow, and white.

    Best Plants for a Gravel Garden

    When selecting plants for a gravel garden, it’s essential to pick species that can flourish in the environment you create.

    Succulents and Cacti

    Succulents and cacti are an excellent choice because they require minimal maintenance due to their ability to store water in their leaves and stems. They also look beautiful when planted among stones or pebbles! These plants come in a wide variety of forms, sizes and hues, making it easy to create an eye-catching landscape design.

    Popular succulent varieties include:

    Aloe vera
    Jade plant (Crassula species)
    Hens-and-chicks (Sempervivum species)
    Echeveria
    Agave species
    Kalanchoe species
    Sedums (stonecrop)
    Yucca species

    Yucca and ice plants in a gravel garden covered in red lava rock.

    Each of these provide a range of green foliage hues with some even producing colorful blooms during specific periods. For more succulent options check out the Top Five Hardy Succulents.

    Cacti are also an excellent option; their spiny surfaces not only add interesting texture, but interesting plant forms as well. Cacti boast a tolerance to drought and a wide temperature range since they are naturally adapted to the extremes found in their native arid and desert climates.

    Ornamental Grasses

    Ornamental grasses are well-suited for gravel gardens as they provide movement and texture without taking up too much space. Swaying gracefully in the breeze, they create an inviting atmosphere that attracts birds and butterflies alike.

    A mix of ornamental grasses, russian sage, and red barberry shrubs create a nicely layered and textural effect in a gravel garden.

    Switch grass (Panicum virgatum) is one variety that does particularly well in rock gardens because it’s tolerant of dry conditions but still produces tall plumes during summer months which provide visual interest even after other flowering perennials have finished blooming . Another good option is blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens); this attractive evergreen perennial grows best in full sun but also tolerates partial shade making it ideal for areas where sunlight may be limited at times during day hours.
    If your location is on the shady side, Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra) is a popular choice for modern gravel gardens.

    Perennial and Annual Plants for Gravel Gardens

    Perennials such as daylilies (Hemerocallis hybrids) or daisies (Leucanthemum x superbum) make good choices for adding seasonal color while annuals, like petunias (Petunia hybrids) will bloom from spring until fall if given proper care.

    Vibrant pink daylilies and juniper shrub in a gravel garden.

    Perennials with shallow roots like baby’s breath (Gypsophila paniculata) or lavender cotton (Santolina chamaecyparissus) establish themselves quickly since the roots don’t have to travel far past the gravel to get to soil. However, because of their shallow root system, they can dry out faster than a deeply rooted plant.

    For annual flowers that bring bright colors to your gravel garden, you can opt for sunflowers (Helianthus annuus), cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus), or marigolds (Tagetes erecta).

    When picking perennials or annuals for a hot-climate gravel garden, consider Mediterranean herbs like lavender, rosemary, thyme, and sage. They are adapted to hot and dry conditions, making them suitable for gravel gardens.

    Native wildflowers are also often well-adapted to local climates and thrive in gravel gardens. They add vibrant colors and attract pollinators. Some suitable options include California poppies (Eschscholzia californica), Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), and sea thrift (Armeria maritima).

    A vibrant gravel garden next to a brick paved walkway planted with purple coneflowers, euphorbia, sedum, asters, and yarrow.

    Make sure to consult the plant tag before selecting a specific variety or browse our Plant Library to find plant species that will thrive in your particular area and Plant Hardiness Zone.

    Gravel Garden Fall Maintenance

    Once established, your gravel garden requires little maintenance. Depending on what flowers you choose, your plants may occasionally need deadheading through the summer to remove faded blooms. In regions with freezing winters, late fall cleanup is essential. You do not want to allow plant debris to accumulate and deteriorate in your gravel garden or you will eventually get a garden that is just as much soil as it is gravel. 

    Autumn in a gravel garden with plants turning brown and wilted as the temperatures start to fall.

    Plants will need to be cut back in late fall, once the foliage dies back. Tree leaves will need to be removed and prevented from building up. If you do find that soil is accumulating in your gravel garden over time, you can lightly rake to lift and remove debris. In worse cases use a soil sifter and clean gravel by placing scoops in the sifter and shaking it over a large bucket or wheelbarrow to separate the gravel from organic bits and soil, then replace the soil.   

    A gardener using a metal mesh placed over a wheelbarrow to create a sieve for cleaning soil from gravel.

    Take advantage of gravel’s reflective properties and illuminate your nighttime landscape with decorative lighting. Get creative ideas from our Guide to Lighting Your Garden.

    Decorative lighting can be used to illuminate gravel gardens. An attractive copper light is next to a hedgehog cactus plant in a gravel garden.

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