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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, and if you’re not convinced to do so yet, consider reading this very popular post on on the subject. 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.


  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!

  10. I never knew that a thick layer of gravel can burn tender roots below. My sister just bought a home with a large yard. Gravel seems like something that could help her have a low maintenance area by reducing the weeding she’ll have to do.

  11. Afton, thanks for writing in. Gravel does “seem” like a weeding solution, but in our experience it doesn’t do a bit of good surpassing weeds.

  12. Bethany Taft says:

    Not sure if my first comment posted/went through…
    I am a school garden coordinator. We just removed all our gravel from in between our beds since it was weed seed infested. Now we are wondering what to put down in between the beds (it’s a large garden, 35+ raised beds). We laid “10 year” plastic down, but a month in I can already tell it won’t stand the test of time. I am reticent to put gravel in again since that just starts the cycle over (as you mention). What do you suggest?

  13. Bethany,

    Site unseen it’s tough to know. You might try putting down arborist chips: http://gardenmentors.com/garden-help/gardening-guidelines/arborist-chip-mulch/

  14. It was nice how you informed the readers that since weeds were strong, they won’t be suppressed easily by gravel and will still push through the permeable pebble. For me, that isn’t really a problem because my husband is quite strict when it comes to the maintenance of the garden that he loves so much. What’s important is that we choose the right landscaping supplies that will help boost the aesthetic appeal of the garden. Thanks for sharing. We’ll begin the landscaping process next week. Hopefully, we have everything we need by then. Thanks.

  15. Wow, I did not know that there was so much to be taken into consideration when choosing gravel for a garden. However, I do like the advice you give about avoiding the placement of landscape fabric beneath the gravel. After all, that stuff is quite slippery and, if you’re not careful, you could hurt yourself.

  16. Thanks for chiming in Callum. From the link you provided, it looks like you sell crushed stone. Hopefully, this article will help you as you’re helping clients make the best garden gravel choice to meet their needs.

  17. Laura Alber says:

    I have a very large unlandscaped backyard (0.2 acres) that I have to spray several times a year to suppress weeds. I was thinking of weed barrier and mulch but now that I’ve read your blog I think this will be a major and expensive mistake.
    Here are the issues:
    1. Seed Bank – weeds were not suppressed the first year of developing the property and now the seed bank is in the hundreds of thousands (argh).

    2. Planned Landscaping – we may very well never landscape since it is where my mother lives and her life expectancy is 5-10 years. We need to think about the fact it will be landscaped sometime in the future.

    3. Annual Maintenance – all of the maintenance falls on me – a lot of time spent trying to suppress weeds (we have winter between November – March, April.

    Any ideas? I have a small area at home that I’ve put more than 6-inches of chips. The weeding is extremely easy but there is a big difference between 120 sqft and 8700 sqft.

    If wood chips are put down will this be problematic when installing a proper landscape?

    Thanks! Laura

  18. I like how you mentioned that you’ll want to choose gravel with more angle is you are using it for a pathway, as the angles with give more security and help you not fall. My yard is in utter bedlam right now, so I’ve been wanting to landscape it. Because gravel is heavy, I don’t think I’d be able to transport it myself. Do you have any tips for getting it delivered?

  19. Laura,

    It sounds like you may need to bring in a professional to help you with your specific challenges on site. Wood chips are very helpful in the short and longer term. Good luck!

  20. Taylor, Thanks for writing in. We notice your email is a trucking company. Maybe you could hire someone there to help you haul. Or, contact a bulk yard. Usually they will offer delivery for a fee. Good luck.

  21. Elaine says:

    How do you fix this problem if you have already made this costly mistake and laid down weed barrier and gravel/river rock? Looked wonderful the first year in a lavender field, this year is a disaster and overwhelmed with weeds. How can I fix this? Moving all the rock to get to the weed barrier will be a nightmare.

  22. Elaine, Sorry to say, removing the rocks and barrier is likely the best longterm solution. We’ve been there & it is no fun at all!

  23. Judy says:

    We had a greenhouse installed and a landscape fabric was put down for the flooring. What would be best to cover this?

  24. Judy, without a full understanding of your site and greenhouse, we’re unable to make specific recommendations for you. You might speak with your greenhouse installer to understand why they put down fabric and what they recommend. Or, you might bring in a garden consultant local to your area for an on-site assessment. Best of luck!

  25. Alemiss says:

    Just the article I needed. I bought a house that has about 15 yards of backyard. All grass.

    I hate grass, too much work to maintain and I want to make part of this space a half court basketball area. The rest will be pebbles etc.
    So what do you recommend I use for the area to be covered with pebbles and also the area for the half court basketball field? Thanks

  26. Alemiss, Thanks for writing in. Site unseen, we aren’t able to make specific recommendations such as you’re requesting. You might consider hiring a consultant local to your area to help you determine the best opportunities for your project. Good luck!

  27. Jesse Ford says:

    Thanks for mentioning that proper planning and installation can make gravel a great and inexpensive hardscape element. My wife wants to make a garden next month because she wants an extracurricular activity to do in warmer weather. I think it’s a good investment to shop for hardscape from a reputable company that has high-quality material for a long-lasting flower bed.

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