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Gravel: good-looking and water-efficient, it deserves more respect.

GRAVEL: good-looking and water-efficient, it deserves more respect

Gravel is the Rodney Dangerfield of the garden: it just gets no respect.

All too often, it gets chosen only for utilitarian roles, such as a quick surface for a driveway. It gets dumped in place between 2-by-4s, rolled down, and driven over. And forgotten.

Yet gravel--sold in a range of natural colors, shapes, and sizes--can work with many landscape designs, as our pictures suggest.

And these days especially, with water restrictions in effect in many communities, it's worth a serious second thought as a replacement for the ubiquitous lawn.

At its best, gravel harmonizes with the plants, buildings, and other aspects of a garden's overall design--as it does in the traditional Japanese garden of raked gravel and boulder "islands" shown here. The other garden (top left and right) also shows a Japanese influence, particularly in its use of granite. Both feature the work of landscape architect Isabelle Green.

Like a lawn, gravel follows the shape of the land it covers--but it doesn't need mowing or watering. It often costs less than other hard ground covers, usually 50 cents to $2 a square foot. Poured concrete is typically twice as much, brick on sand up to 10 times as much.

Choosing stones for your garden

Gravel is collected or mined from deposits. If the surface of the rock has been naturally worn smooth by water, it's called "river stone." "Crushed rock" has been mechanically fractured, then graded to a uniform size. Frequently, gravels are named after the regions where they were quarried.

When making a choice, consider color, sheen, texture, and size. Take home samples as you would paint chips. Keep in mind that, like paint's, gravel's color becomes more intense over a large area.

Crushed rock compacts firmly for stable footing on paths and walkways, but its sharp edges may hurt bare feet. Smooth river rock feels better, but tends to roll underfoot. Small river stone ("pea gravel") is easiest to rake.

Cost can range from about $20 for a ton of local stone to well over $100 for a ton of specialty gravel. For example, Mexican pebbles, hand-collected from the beach at La Paz, can cost up to $400 a ton, depending on shape, color, and how far away from Mexico you live.

In general, prices vary depending on distance from quarry, scarcity, grade (uniformity and purity), shape (crushed rock usually costs more), cleanliness (washed stones cost more), quantity bought, and finally the bagging, if necessary.

Gravel from local quarries may blend best with your surroundings. But color or quality of a particular gravel may vary over time, even from the same supplier. Occasionally, quarries close; you may have to hunt to find a close equivalent.

Look for sources in the yellow pages under Building Materials, Garden Supplies, Landscape Equipment & Supplies, Rock, or Stone--Natural.

Making and maintaining your gravel ground cover

Laying gravel can be as simple as spreading a bagful of stones under the trash cans, or as involved as the steps shown here. Following these guidelines takes time, but they show the best way to be sure of creating a high-quality, permanent installation.

First, grade the soil as desired and install permanent edging if necessary. Then have the gravel delivered, along with a base material of decomposed granite or construction sand (both should be available from your supplier).

If materials are brought by dump truck, and safe access is possible, ask the driver to tailgate-spread them over the area instead of dumping them in one big heap on your driveway.

At the very least, you'll need a wheelbarrow and an iron rake to haul and spread everything. Spread gravel 2 to 3 inches deep. Coverage varies with size and weight, but generally figure you'll need 1 ton of rock to cover 100 square feet.

For weed control, some gardeners use plastic sheeting or perforated plastic under a layer of gravel. However, solid plastic sheets are not recommended, since they restrict movement of air and water into the soil. Perforated plastic allows air and water exchange, but can tear and eventually show through as gravel shifts.

Once installed, gravel requires little care.

If a particularly determined weed appears, pull or cut it away. With pea-size gravel, rake to remove fallen leaves or to maintain desired patterns. Use a leaf blower or vacuum to clean surfaces of larger gravels.

You may need to renew heavily trodden surfaces every few years.

Photo: Simple look of smooth green river stones provides natural accent to tan sandstone steppingstones and echoes color of surrounding plants. She's skipping toward a spreading English yew; to her left is Juniperus chinensis 'Procumbens'; behind is Ceanothus gloriosus

Photo: Sweeping expanse of raked gravel, a 2-inch-deep layer of cool gray rocks, represents water in this Japanese garden. Small, crushed stones like these hold shapes best (wave patterns are raked about six times a year). Marguerites bloom below deck at edge of design

Photo: Drip chain leads from rain gutter at house eaves to a buried drainpipe. Stone border (below) outlines basin in field of smooth, round stones; shrubs are Raphiolepis indica 'Clara'

Photo: How to put in gravel as a ground cover

1. Workers dump loads of decomposed gravel between 2-by-4 headers to create base. Headers rise 2 inches above graded surface

2. Spread granite base about an inch deep, then moisten

3. Roll moist granite base several times to smooth and compress it for more even settling

4. Spread gravel at least 2 inches deep, then roll to compress into place. Rolling also turns sharp edges down
COPYRIGHT 1988 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Apr 1, 1988
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