My husband had always wanted a path on the side of our
house. The side yard was dappled shade, growing a thin layer of grass in summer
that faded to mud in winter. But instead of letting him call an expensive
contractor, I decided to take on the task of installing a path myself.
I thought a lot about the
choice of materials. While
concrete was appealing because of its permanence, I was reluctant to pave more
earth and create more runoff. Flagstone--while beautiful--was too expensive and
time intensive. Leveling and cutting the shards of varying thickness would be
difficult for me. Bricks or pavers were appealing, but I had a three by
forty-foot walkway to cover and I would need more people to help haul and
level. I liked the woodland look of bark but the area was dark in winter, and
bark would retain moisture and absorb light. I wanted something natural looking
that was bright, smooth, had good drainage and was easy to work with. So I
decided on gravel.
When people think of gravel, they think of the depressing
gray rocks used to create driveways or the sloshing sound of pea gravel in
Japanese gardens. However, building a gravel path doesn't have to be a
depressing or slippery experience. I've found that a gravel path can be a
simple, inexpensive, and beautiful way to showcase plants while moving a person
from point A to point B. You just need to remember one thing: go fine.
Planning the Path
Before starting a path, consider the width and shape of
the path, the edging to hold in the gravel, and the gravel itself. Narrow paths
are functional, but feel so enclosed that one psychologically wants to move
quickly along it. Wider paths feel more spacious and therefore invite you to
stroll leisurely. In city side yards, it's difficult to find the space, but
I've found in my own yard and in clients' yards, a two-and-a-half foot wide
path feels comfortable enough to linger.
While a straight path is a functional choice, it doesn't
offer any natural beauty or mystery. Even the slightest curve in a path helps
soften the view and feel more peaceful. Curves sort of mimic the relaxation one
feels when looking at the ebb and flow of the ocean. So if you can recreate
that rhythm in a path, you're already one step closer to a restful retreat. The
best way to create those curves is to lay out garden hoses where you want the
edges and then trace their contours in the dirt with a stick or lime dust.
It's important to excavate
the soil two to three inches
down and create a pocket in which the gravel can sit. Still, dirt can shift
into the path and rock can shift into the soil. Therefore, one needs edging to
hold in the material--unless the natural look of gravel beside soil is
preferred. Edging can be as cheap as the black plastic you find at hardware
stores or blocks of granite found at the rockery. When working with gravel
though, it's best to line the path with something sturdy such as bricks, large
stones, pavers turned on edge, or even pre-made concrete borders.
What Size of Gravel?
are several sizes of gravel and choosing the right
one is critical to the beauty and functionality of the path. First, many people
are unaware of the difference between crushed rock and round gravel. Gravel can
be either rocks that are mined (or tumbled) with rounded edges, or mechanically
crushed to make sharp angular edges. The former will always slip under car
wheels or feet because its edges will slip off one another. Crushed rock,
however, locks together for a more compact surface. If the size is too large
though, it'll still be quite movable.
Oftentimes people will order gravel in bulk from their
local nursery or soils dealer. The rocks are usually basalt, and anywhere from
three-quarters of an inch to one and one-half inches in size. Later, after
tires have rolled over the area or feet have crossed it thousands of times, the
gravel separates, bare dirt appears, and weeds sprout. So when building a
surface that needs to be hard, compact and weed-less, not only use crushed
rock, but one that's ground to about one-quarter inch or less.
My favorite choice is "three-eighths
granite" (though red lava rock, terra cotta, river rock, black pebble, and
marble chips are also available). This native stone is crushed to
3three-eighths of an inch and finer. The finer rock, or the "minus,"
is a mix of particles down to the size of dust. And it's this mix that creates
the solid, smooth surface. As the gravel settles, the smaller particles act
like a glue, filling in the tiny pockets of air that the edges of the larger
pieces create. The result is a surface almost as hard as concrete, but as water
permeable as soil.
Once you've decided on a path shape and
process is fairly straightforward. First, buy the gravel in bulk from a
rockery, which is usually inexpensive. Prices range from about $50 to $75 a
ton, depending on the rock. The masons at rockeries know a lot about rock as
opposed to nursery help or soil dealers. If you own a truck, you can get a load
of gravel yourself but rockeries will also deliver for a fee. To build the
path, lay out the weedblock in the excavated pocket to discourage whatever roots
or seeds may be hiding in the soil, making sure to overlap the pieces. Then set
the edging atop the weedblock wherever possible just to ensure there are no
weeds popping up through the cracks between the bricks.
Because I use a crushed granite with dust,
I don't use a
base of sand. Many masons however would suggest a base of two inches of sand.
I've never had a drainage problem in the paths I've installed. So after the
weedblock is down, I go straight to shoveling the gravel into a sturdy
wheelbarrow and dumping it on the path, starting from the furthest point out
and moving inward. One note about dumping gravel: either use landscape pins to
secure the fabric to the ground or scatter small amounts of gravel on the area
on which you're about to unload. Then the weedblock won't fold and twist under
the weight of the rock.
After every couple of wheelbarrow loads, rake out the gravel
and level it. Often it makes sense to create a hump in the middle, like a city
street, as foot traffic in the center could otherwise create a depression.
Ideally you want the path to be two to three inches thick. After the spreading
is finished, spray the path with a hose to work the finer pieces downward and
compact the material. As the dust washes down, the larger speckled gravel
appears. The white rock combined with black specks creates the illusion of a
silvery blue color from a distance. In a shady area, it reflects light
considerably and at twilight, it utterly glows in the dark.
After the path is in, the fun of planting
that first side yard path I installed, I planted blue grasses and hostas whose
steely blue tones call out the blue tones of the granite. The icy blue flowers
of Hydrangea macrophylla 'Variegata' blend harmoniously with the light color
while the dark glossiness of Helleborus orientalis and Viburnum tinus pop
against it. I love both the gorgeous highlights and the contrasts, but most of
all I love how something so simple and so effective can also be so beautiful.
My husband likes it because it's a kind of permeable concrete. Whatever the
reason, it works for us.
Karen Hugg, COH, is the owner of Red Madrona Gardens, a garden design
and maintenance company. She lives in Seattle.