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Green Acre #373: Rock That!

Gravel gardens look good, but getting there is not half the fun. / iStock photo.

By Stephanie Cavanaugh

EVER HEAR of a gravel garden?

This is not a rock garden, where rocks of various sizes are artfully placed among the shrubbish in—usually—some attempt at a Japanese aesthetic. 

Gravel gardens are four- to six-inch-deep beds of gravel thickly stuck about with plants. They require no mulch or fertilizer; the gravel suppresses weeds and retains water. 

Once established, they’re pretty much self-sustaining, requiring 80% less work than your usual . . . um, dirt and plants, or so says garden writer Margaret Roach. She recently provided a lengthy screed on the subject in the New York Times, illustrated with a photo of an enchanting stone cottage nestled in a thriving grove of trees, flowers and ornamental grasses, nourished only by a gravel bed. 

Sounds great, right? Easy peasy. Okay, let’s go! First thing is you remove about six inches of topsoil and replace it with six inches of gravel.

Break out the backhoe. Already we’re in trouble. 

Not to worry, you can do it with buckets, said My Prince. That’s the way they dig out basements in the city.

Hoo, boy. Operative word here: You.* 

This would certainly not be Me. I would sit on the back porch and direct You and your buckets and . . . 

It’s not that complicated, Roach reassures: “The engineering is a little like building a raised bed—although you don’t have to actually raise it, but you do have to excavate the topsoil layer to make room for that four- or five-inch gravel base.”

She says nothing, by the way, about the condition of the soil beneath. One expects it has to be . . . Turned? Churned? Improved? Anyway, to continue . . . 

Then you must install a six-inch-tall border, “a perimeter barrier,” she calls it, to keep the rocks in. “…Curb stones, bricks, concrete pavers or even found stones.” My back, my back or,  rather, yours.  

Now that you’ve cleared that top layer of soil, bring in a dump truck full of gravel, “washed hard stone like granite or quartz, not limestone or sandstone,” and spread it over the bed(s) to the aforementioned depth of six inches. 

What kind of rake does one need for this?

Now we get to installing or reinstalling your plants, which should be set about a foot apart. Roach provides a lovely list of candidates, in this case native perennials, grasses and such. Make sure all the soil is removed from the roots before planting to avoid importing weeds. Now, “using gloved fingers, not trowels,” make holes for the plants and insert them. 

Oy, your poor fingers. 

The good part is that maintenance is pretty much confined to clean-up. In late fall, trim back herbaceous plants and remove the debris and fallen leaves and spent flowers: You don’t want to invite weeds. A leaf blower is suggested to get the crap that has dug itself in. 

Unless you have dogs. But Roach doesn’t get into that. 

On second thought. Let’s change the “first thing” to: Install a hot tub Your joints will thank me. Not mine. Mine will still be resting on the back porch with my coffee, feet propped up, leafing through the Sunday Times for something else to ruminate on. 


* I have no any intention or desire to make a gravel garden. As it happened, the article appeared in the Sunday New York Times, right above one of my favorite real estate features: what you can buy for something like 2 million bucks or so in Brooklyn (1,200-square-foot condo, with 55,000 square feet of amenities), Miami (1,932-square-foot 2 bedroom, 2 bath condo with park views), or Akron, Ohio (a 5,643-square-foot house with a 9-car garage on 19 acres). Wonder what it’s like to live in Akron? That was an aside.


One thought on “Green Acre #373: Rock That!

  1. Carol says:

    YES you can..such fun we would have!

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