At home we had a useless patch of lawn as a front garden. It was waterlogged in winter and bone dry in the summer. My husband and I would moan about whose turn it was to mow each week as it involved the onerous and strenuous task of lifting our heavy petrol mower from our elevated rear garden to ground level, which was to be honest a back breaking chore. I was always asking why were we mowing a useless ecologically devoid patch of lawn every week, wasting time and also fuel? This was a space that looked boring throughout the whole year and barely used. A change was in order.
This small space has now been developed to make our lives easier and I have worked with the conditions rather than trying to beat the ground into submission with how we want it to be. Now, the lawn has gone and a gravel garden is in its place. The reasons for this were three fold. Firstly, by getting rid of the lawn I was dramatically reducing the maintenance needs of the front garden. Mowing has now ceased and because there is a depth of 15cm of gravel on clay subsoil, the weeds are kept to a minimum. Since its development in spring, I have yet to weed the front garden, there are simply no weeds to be seen.
The second reason is that I wanted to increase the amount of foraging insects into the garden. A bland monotonous manicured lawn has no nectar value compared to a mosaic of aromatic drought tolerant species that freely flower over a long period of time. Throughout the spring, summer and autumn, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of pollinators visiting our garden that were not there previously. Garden pests have also declined. Gravel is not a substrate that molluscs like travelling over so there has been a reduction in both slugs and snails.
The last reason, and this was purely a selfish botanist wanting to grow unusual plants, was that the gravel garden has enabled me to grow plants that would ordinarily die over the winter due to heavy wet clay. Waterlogged roots in heavy clay soil leads to the death of those plants requiring free-draining substrates.
Nursery woman Derry Watkins of Special Plants explains: “It’s generally not the cold that kills tender and borderline plants but waterlogged soils.”
The ground now drains freely when we do have rainfall and although the garden has yet to go through its first winter, I am hopeful that many of the borderline species will survive due to good drainage.
Gardener friends have commented on various species I am growing in the gravel and it is easy for them to examine, take cuttings and collect seed of these plants by picking their way through the gravel spaces without fear of soil compaction. The garden certainly looks changed. There are different forms, sizes, textures, colours and flowers and it has developed considerably over the months. Despite the possibility that the garden will probably take about 5 years to mature, I am a patient gardener willing to wait and curious as to how it will evolve.
Plants that are now growing well in my gravel garden include:
Aquilegia skinneri ‘Tequila Sunrise’, Agastache ‘Black Adder’, Agastache ‘Summer Sunset’, Allium sphaerocephalon, Aloysia citrodora, Artemsisia absinthium, Calamintha nepeta, Convolvulus cneorum, Cynara scolymus, Daucus carota, Dianthus carthusianorum, Diascia personata ‘Hopleys’, Dierama pulcherrimum, Echeveria sp., Echium pininana, Eremurus x Isabel Reiter Hybrids, Erigeron karvinskianus, Erythrina cristus-galli, Euryops acraeus, Foeniculum vulgare ‘Bronze’, Iochroma australis, Kniphofia ‘Timothy’, Lavandula angustfolia ‘Rosea’, Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote’, Ligusticum lucidum spp. lucidum, Linaria purpurea ‘Canon Went’, Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’, Morina longifolia, Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’, Origanum ‘Herrenhausen’, Penstemon ‘Garnet’, Rhodohypoxis milloides, Romneya coulteri, Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Green Ginger’, Salvia ‘Cerro potosi’, Salvia ‘Emporer’, Salvia ‘Oceania’, Satureja Montana, Schizachrium scoparium ‘Prairie Blues’, Sisynchium ‘E.K Balls’, Stipa gigantea, Thymus camphoratus ‘Derry’, Verbascum bombyciferum ‘Polar Summer’, Verbascum olympicum and Verbena bonariensis.
Annuals that were grown from seed and transplanted into the garden include:
Eschscholzia californica ‘Alba’, Hordeum jubatum, Papaver rupifragum, Papaver ‘Mother of Pearl’ and Tragopogon crocifolius.
Species that I am growing from seed and will trial in the gravel garden:
Anenome pavonina, Asphodeline lutea, Asphodelus albus, Bouteloua gracilis, Cephalaria gigantea, Cichorium intybus, Cistus salviifolius, Echium russicum, Echium vulgare, Eucalyptus nicholii, Heptaptera triquetra, Hyssopus officinalis, Papaver somniferum ‘Ragged Robin’, Penstemon barbatus, Peucedanum verticillare, Salvia argentea ‘Silver’ and Scabiosa drakensbergensis.