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Choosing Your Garden Gravel

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Choosing the right garden gravel doesn’t have to be difficult.

There are many kinds of garden gravel 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 rock.

Select the right garden 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 stone 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

Too, a thick layer of stone placed over a planting bed may raise temperatures. And that mayburn tender plant roots below. While flame weeding over stone may be possible , running a flame weeder around plants may burn and kill your garden.

Should I put landscape fabric under my garden gravel?

Covering the earth with landscape fabric and topping it with gravel path or patio is just asking for a twisted ankle or worse. 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.

Still struggling with your garden gravel decisions?

If you need more help choosing your garden gravel or making your way through other gardening challenges, sign up now to be notified just as soon as our next enrollment period opens. That way you’ll be first in line to get in on our best deals on our best programs. Plus, we’ll be sure to get you lots of bonus gardening tips along the way (for free).

41 comments on “Choosing Your Garden Gravel

  1. Elaine on

    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.

  2. Judy on

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

  3. Garden Mentors on

    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!

  4. Alemiss on

    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

  5. Garden Mentors on

    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!

  6. Jesse Ford on

    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.

  7. Jeanie on

    So there is quite a large area of my property that has hard clay soil that 2 inch river rock was laid over. It’s a boarder for the whole back yard between the turf and the fence. There are a few plants/trees with rings, but rock on clay everywhere else. I don’t think I have it in me to try and remove/get rid of all this rock. . plus when I dig down there seems to be rock plastered in clay in places. I think there was weed barrier at some point and it was removed. Do I sell the house after weeding? What is going to happen with rocks on top of clay soil?

  8. Garden Mentors on

    Jeanie, sorry you’ve got this to deal with. You’ll have to decide about selling or not. What happens to the rocks on clay over time can vary based on all sorts of environmental factors, so site unseen, it’s impossible for us to make a guess. You might consider hiring a local professional for assistance evaluating your specific opportunities. Good luck!

  9. Ben Harding on

    Thanks so much for your tips on gravel. We are hoping to put down gravel on heavy London clay. should I be mixing in something else (sand?) before applying the gravel. And what sort of depth (of both) should I aim for?

    Lastly, the plot (front garden) is east facing and a big chunk is shaded by a Japanese maple, so not particularly ‘Mediterranean’. Is gravel the right choice in the first place?!

    Many thanks

  10. Garden Mentors on

    Ben, I’m glad our garden gravel post proved helpful. Unfortunately, we can’t make specific recommendations site unseen. However, mixing sand and clay may result in concrete! And, site unseen, it’s tough to know if the gravel you’re choosing will pair with your overall garden design. If you’d like to learn more about garden design, we have lots of information that may prove helpful in our Academy: https://gardenmentors.com/course/garden-design-course/ . Good luck!

  11. Jonathan on

    Thanks for the great info! I was planning to place fabric down but this has convinced me not to. How much stone is too much when speaking of the heat? I was planning on 4 inches thick. And just to be clear fabric is not good for the reasons listed in the article but there are no other options. Are you arguing that the best way is to just pick the weeds by hand when they inevitably push through the rock?

  12. Garden Mentors on

    Jonathon, Thanks for writing in. How much stone you choose for your application can have several impacting factors. So there isn’t just one answer. And, as for dealing with weeds in gravel, you also have lots of options. Hand weeding and many other methods will work too.

  13. D.K. on

    I have a huge garden with azaleas and rhododendrons in my backyard that gets shade in the morning and partial sun in the afternoon. The garden is sloping due to erosion so we are going to build tiered beds with brick boarders. Can you suggest how to build up this garden and what plants might have deeper roots to stop some of the sloping and erosion? Also mulch so close to a home foundation doesn’t that invite termites and ants infestation? Appreciate your insight.

  14. Garden Mentors on

    DK, Thanks for writing in. You’ve got a lot of projects going in your garden. Given the amount of specific, detailed and complicated issues you’re looking to solve, it would probably be a good idea to bring in a garden consultant in your area to help you address them. Best of luck!

  15. Jimmy Jones on

    My yard is 18 inches of sand which won’t compact. I added 6 inches of gravel on top without landscape fabric but it all disappeared over winter. Could I use woven burlap below the gravel to prevent the gravel from disappearing again?

  16. Garden Mentors on

    Jimmy, Thanks for writing in. Odds are if you put down burlap, you may end up having other issues like many of the ones that happen when you layer landscape fabric under gravel. Plus, over time, the burlap is likely to decompose. And as it does this, gravel will slip through to the sand below anyway. So, another medium in place of gravel might be a better option for you. Or planning to replenish gravel regularly might be what your situation calls for. Site unseen, it’s tough to make specific recommendations. But hopefully these thoughts help. Good luck! Keep in touch and let us know what you decide to do and how it works out.

  17. Butan Bert on

    Thanks for an informative article. But I’m not seeing that you’re offering an alternative to weed barrier. What do you recommend instead for weed suppression?

  18. Debra on

    We are in Portland, Oregon where it rains all winter and the soil in our yard is heavy clay. The gravel paths installed in the past failed after a few years as the gravel sank into the winter mud and moles pushed up through it in the summer, helping that process along. Laying additional gravel eventually raised the surface past the height of the restraining border and surrounding lawn, but we were still walking on mud in the winter and looking at caked mud in the summer. All that has been removed, at great effort and expense, down to the original level. We were planning on installing 1/4″ compacted gravel on those paths with geotextile and mole mesh underneath to prevent the gravel from sinking when the soil turns to mud, and also stop the moles from pushing up through it. You make a strong case for not using landscape fabric, but I would like to know if you have an alternative solution for keeping the gravel from sinking. A permeable walkway is preferable in my books to concrete side walks or even sidewalk blocks but maybe gravel walks are just not a good solution in this setting. Thanks for any thoughts.

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