Choosing Your Garden Gravel

September 23, 2016

There are many garden gravels to choose from and many applications for gravel in the garden. Making a poor material selection can be both dangerous and ugly. Fortunately, with proper planning and installation, gravel can be a wonderful and relatively inexpensive hardscape material.

garden gravel side-by-side

On the left: angular 5/8s minus gravel. On the right: round decorative pebbles.

Why do you need gravel?
Trying to suppress weeds in a planting area? Creating a walkway, patio or driveway? Creating a decorative dry stream bed? Or something else?

angular garden gravel walk

Walk ——> on a pathway made of compacted, angular gravel.

A common challenge is simply selecting the right gravel for the right application.

If you’ve ever visited a stone yard, you’ve probably fallen in love with many colorful gravels on display. The problem with many of these gravels is their shape. While using round stones in mixed sizes is ideal for creating a decorative dry stream bed, these stones simply do not compact into a safe, hard surface for pathways and patios. Soft mixes of pea gravel, round pebbles or even semi-angular pebbles with tumbled edges will turn into ankle-twisting walkways that neither a wheelchair nor a wheelbarrow can traverse.

Mixed pink round pebbles

Colorful round pebbles may look nice at the garden center, but they aren’t nice to walk on. Landscape fabric beneath them makes for an additional rolling, ankle-twisting, falling hazard.

Instead, opt for something a little less showy for your walkways. Truly angular rock with lots of fines will compact into a solid path that also drains. These gravels are usually referred to by the size of the largest partical in the mix: 5/8s-minus or 1/4″ minus are two popular options for walking paths.

angular gravel in formal garden

Even a formal garden looks & sounds great with crunchy, compacted angular gravel like this.

These are also used as an ideal base material for permeable stone patios and paths. In fact, in most applications they work better than sand, which is also a bunch of tiny, round particles that don’t compact well.

What about gravel to suppress weeds?

Many believe that covering a planting area with decorative rock will keep weeds from growing. But, weeds are tough and will easily push right through a permeable pebble or gravel layer.

Landscape fabric & garden gravel renovation project

The soil beneath multiple layers of landscape fabric & a thick covering of stones is hot, dry & hard as a rock. It’s going to take a while to rejuvenate this bed. Once the pebbles & fabric are removed, covering the bare soil with fresh arborist chips will help suppress weeds, give the bed a finished look, allow moisture to pass through the soil & invite soil microbes to return the this rock-hard garden bed.

Too, a thick layer of stone placed over a planting bed may raise temperatures enough to burn tender plant roots below. While flame weeding over stone may be possible in some situations, running a flame weeder around plants may burn and even kill your garden.

Should I put landscape fabric under my gravel?

Covering the earth with landscape fabric and topping it with gravel path or patio is just asking for a twisted ankle or worse injury. That fabric is slippery. Stone on top just gets more slippery. Angular gravel that should compact into a safer walking layer, won’t tighten up over fabric. And round pebbles will roll worse than ever on that slick surface. Plus, in the wet season, water may end up pooling or sheeting in runoff streams when it can’t readily pass through fabric to the soil below.

Landscape gravel & fabric clean up project

Cleaning up a bed filled with trashy landscape fabric and dangerous round rock is hard work. Plus, it may take many months for the soil to rejuvenate. Once all of the slippery, rolling hazards are removed from this bed, it will be possible to safely walk & plant in this area again.

Adding a layer (or overlapping layers) of landscape fabric between your garden bed soil and a topping layer of gravel isn’t going to do you any weeding favors in the long run. That fabric layer will eventually pop up through the stone and look like trash flags on your garden floor. And, the fabric will inhibit moisture from flowing into the soil, which can stunt or kill your plants and the living eco-system within the soil itself. Plant roots will readily grow between overlapping layers of any fabric as they attempt to find access to moisture above ground. As they weave their way through the layers, roots may become kinked and otherwise caught in a messy entanglement that’s hard to later remedy.

So, do it right in the first place. Skip the fabric. Avoid the lure of colorful round pebbles. Install functional paths that will weather the test of time and mulches that will encourage rather than suppress the complex life beneath your feet.

9 Comments

  1. Bob says:

    I have a small area that doesn’t get walked on, corner of home and in front of privacy fence, that I want to remove sod and put down a huge boulder, surrounded with gravel, area 8×10. After I dig out sod, can I use landscape fabric, topped with gravel, or cardboard, or?

  2. Bob, you could put down any of these things. I suggest you read the entire article, which gets into gravel over landscape fabric as well & why we don’t recommend gravel over fabric. Cardboard might make a better choice, but site unseen it’s hard to make a full assessment. Good luck!

  3. Irene says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I have a garden centre area of which I plant only few small trees. Would it be good idea to surpress weed in between those plants by applying sand and pebbles, without weed mat for sure?

  4. Irene,

    Thanks for writing in. It’s difficult to make a recommendation without knowing your garden. That being said, it is very unlikely that sand and pebbles will suppress weeds between your plants.

  5. Burt Silver says:

    Thanks for the tips on making a gravel garden! My wife and I love the idea of putting a gravel garden in our backyard, but we haven’t been sure where to start. I like that you mentioned that your walkways should be made of less showy gravel so they can provide a better walking surface. We will keep that in mind!

  6. Kay Pannozza says:

    I have a small area at the back of my yard that is used for our pet cemetery. Will be putting down crushed stone (rock) to dress up the area. What if anything can be put down to keep the grass and weeds from growing under them? The area is not walked on. Thank you for any help or suggestions.

  7. Kay, Nature’s going to win in the end and weeds manage to find a way to grow even in rock. As soil, fall detritus and other things land into the gravel, that adds to the growing medium for any seeds that make their way in. So, unfortunately, we don’t have a silver bullet to keep weeds from growing in gravel. Fortunately, most things that grow in gravel do so slowly. Just stay on top of the clean up!

  8. Aniela McGuinness says:

    Hi Garden Mentors,

    You have some wonderful articles but this one and the one on landscaping fabric left me wondering.

    I will be “Skip the fabric. Avoid the lure of colorful round pebbles.” BUT what do you suggest as functional paths that will weather the test of time and HOW do you install them?

    Below the 3 inches of angular gravel, do I just compact the existing soil? I understand that weeds are inevitable but I want to keep the gravel and dirt from becoming a muddy mess.

    What are your suggestions?

  9. Aniela,

    Thanks for your comments & questions. In many situations, compacting existing soil below angular gravel will work. But not always. If you are working on dense sand or have standing water or are on a rock ledge (just a couple of the many “for instances”), you might have to do something else. Best bet: bring in a pro to evaluate your situation if you aren’t entirely sure. Best of luck!

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