How to Create a Low-Maintenance Gravel Garden
Are you done pulling weeds? Try gravel gardening—a new technique that’s low-maintenance and Earth-friendly. Here's what a Wisconsin pro recommends.
Jeff Epping, horticulture director at Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, Wisconsin, quickly became a fan of gravel gardening after experimenting with the technique at work. So, when the city put in a new street and tore up his front lawn, Epping decided it was the perfect time to plant a gravel garden. He stripped his lawn, laid a heavy layer of gravel and planted about 225 plants. Now in its third year, not much of the gravel shows other than in early spring; instead, you'll see an impressive meadow of flowering perennials and grasses, plus an abundance of pollinating bees and butterflies.
"The neighbors thought I was crazy at first, and now they stop by with lots of positive questions," Epping says. He's happy to oblige identifying butterflies and their favorite nectar plants, explaining how the gravel layer works as a weed barrier and listing his top plant choices for this garden style.
What's a Gravel Garden?
When Epping talks gravel gardening, he begins with a definition. "What makes gravel gardens unique is their 4- to 5-inch layer of washed gravel which makes it pretty tough for weed seeds to germinate," he says. He also preaches timing-saving virtues like no mulching, no irrigation after establishment and no mowing as well as environmental benefits like feeding pollinators, conserving water and eliminating fertilizers.
Epping saw his first gravel garden when he toured legendary garden designer Beth Chatto's garden on a trip to England. He was enamored with how she converted a gravel parking lot into a beautiful drought-tolerant garden that still looked great 25 years later.
Epping returned to Olbrich and decided to try a gravel garden in a spot that had always been a challenge.
He reached out to plantsman Roy Diblik, who was experimenting with his own gravel garden (left) at Northwind Perennial Farm in Burlington, Wisconsin, and invited him to lay out one (right) together. Epping has since added three more gravel gardens at Olbrich, planted his own home gravel garden, designed a 3-acre garden atop an underground parking garage in Verona, Wisconsin, and now teaches gravel gardening to others around the country.
What Should You Plant?
Tough prairie plants are a natural choice. When selecting plants for a gravel garden, the enduring garden principle of putting the right plant in the right place clearly fits. Epping says only a select palette of plants will thrive in this "lean and mean environment." "Many of the plants are native prairie plants known for their deep roots and drought tolerance."
Among his top choices for sunny locations are lance-leaf coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata above left), pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida in center), calamint (Calamintha nepeta ssp. nepeta on right), butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata), gayfeather (Liatris cylindracea), sea lavender (Limonium latifolium), 'Bradbury's bee balm (Monarda bradburiana) and summer beauty allium (Allium lusitanicum 'Summer Beauty').
He also likes to mix in grasses like prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis—above left), Autumn moor grass (Sesleria autumnalis—center) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium —right).For shade areas, try Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pensylvanica), tussock sedge (Carex bromoides), barrenwort (Epimedium) and bigleaf aster (Eurybia macrophylla).
So, How Do You Get Started?
For beginners, Epping suggests starting with a gravel garden border in a dry, sunny spot along a driveway, sidewalk, south side of a home or front curb, like Epping's garden pictured here. First, remove all existing plants and grasses. Next, enclose the space with a border of stones or pavers stacked at least six inches high. Add ¼- to 3/8-inch quartzite or granite chip gravel and spread for a consistent 4- to 5-inch layer throughout. Purchase plants in 3.5- to 4-inch pots and arrange them spaced 12 to 15 inches apart.
Before inserting plants, shake off excess potting soil in a bucket. Dig a hole in the gravel, taking care not to stir up soil below the gravel. Insert the plant and cover with gravel, making sure the plant's crown is even or just below the surface of the gravel layer.
Once planted, water the new plants thoroughly, then monitor and water regularly—typically daily for the first couple of weeks—then throughout that first season as the plants need it depending upon the weather. "Initially you need to water the heck out of them until they develop roots," says Epping. In the second season, he says the plants should only need watering during drought periods. By the third year, plants should thrive without any extra watering.
"The idea is the garden will sustain itself for the long haul with whatever Mother Nature provides," says Epping.