Perhaps it was all that public television I watched as a child – the endless parade of British murder mysteries and historical dramas that somehow always managed to feature a large country house and garden, with what to me at least, growing up in this American land of concrete, was an intriguing novelty: an expansive gravel drive. Broad and flat, it swept majestically towards the house, heading not to some dinky garage, but rather to a grand, welcoming front entrance. The carriage (or Rolls, or Bentley) approached, the characters alighted, and suddenly amidst cries of “Cherrio old thing” and “Delighted, old chap” you heard that marvelously distinctive “crunch, crunch, crunch” of gravel underfoot, so different from the mundane thud produced by the modern hard paving I was accustomed to. To this day, I adore that sound, and find it one the most soothing on earth – a calming note which suggests that you’ve left behind, at least briefly, the tarmac-filled modern age and have entered slower-paced, more elegant world. From these rather round-about observations, you’ve probably already surmised that I’m a big fan of using gravel in the landscape, and fortunately I am not alone. Gravel, which provides a pleasant, natural surface so unlike the artificial harshness of asphalt and concrete, is once again returning to a prominent place in the American garden.
Here in my garden, one of the very first projects I did upon moving to my 1852 farmhouse 17 years ago was to rip out the buckling asphalt driveway and replace it with a gravel one. During this process, which lasted several days, more than a few of my new neighbors came up to me, and although they all very much admired the look, to a man they expressed concerns about the amount of maintenance involved with the new drive. Of course, this is the great bugaboo of gravel, and the principle reason why it fell from favor in the first place. Weeding and snow removal on gravel drives have somehow been mythologized into titanic chores. That simply isn’t true. While gravel does require extra maintenance (see below) this work is more than offset by both by its good looks, and even more importantly, by its lower installation cost: the average gravel drive is generally a third as expensive as hard paving. Given savings like these, the small amount of annual maintenance required is well worth the effort.
As for plowing, what most people fail to realize is that 9 times out of 10 when it snows, the ground, and gravel, are already frozen. This rock-hard mass can be plowed or shoveled just like hard paving. Occasionally however, we do get an early snow before the ground is cold, and then you simply have to remember to tell your plower or snowblower (or yourself) to raise their blade slightly off the surface, which is generally a good rule on gravel drives in any case. While slight amounts of gravel do shift around during plowing, this is easily addressed in the spring with a rake; in my almost two decades years experience with my own gravel drive, and in doing dozens of other drives for my clients, we have never really had much of a problem with snow removal.
There are however some issues about gravel you should understand before you consider it for your property. First of all, gravel lends a very country air to the landscape. It’s a loose informal surface, very much evocative of rural lanes and simpler times, and is not the best look for a dressy urban environment. (Ladies take note: gravel is murder on high heels for any distance more than a few feet!) It is also problematic on slopes with more than 20 degrees inclination, as gravity and traffic will rapidly carry the gravel down the hill. In such situations, hard paving is really the only option.
Secondly, gravel requires some type of edging to look well and avoid maintenance difficulties. Installing edging is really the secret to easy-care gravel walks and drives, and shouldn’t be considered optional, for without edging gravel will splay into adjoining areas. With edging in place however, this is not an issue. Personally I am a big fan of using large cobbles, (also sometimes called Belgian blocks) to contain the aggregate. The blend of stone with stone is extremely pleasing and works well in almost any setting. Steel edging is another option, as are tiles, bricks or river stones, or almost anything that will form a border to keep the gravel in its intended place. In terms of upkeep, gravel is fairly undemanding: and occasional raking to tidy the stones; occasional weeding in low traffic areas (Round-up works well for those so inclined.); plus the addition of new pea stone once every 4-5 years to refresh the surface. (That happens to be my assignment over this holiday weekend, and also what motivated this column: top-dressing the drive and paths new gravel, an exercise I find both strangely invigorating and soothing at the same time.)
It’s also important to remember that gravel comes in a very wide range of colors: your choice will have a dramatic effect on the final look of your landscape. Before you make any decisions, take a trip to your local stone yard and see what options are available in your area. Given its extreme weight, gravel is generally sourced locally, and the color palette available to you will depend on where you live. My personal favorite happens to be the tan and earth-hued gravels that are pretty widely obtainable; their warm tones seem to me to be the most sympathetic with the wide range of colors found in the garden. Grays, reds, browns and blacks are also possibilities; white is another option, though one I feel best avoided: white stone lends an extremely severe air to the landscape. Pay attention as well to the type of stone being offered: while crushed stone binds well and is required for the under layers, the rough jagged edges are visually hard on the eyes and even harder on the feet. Look for something called 3/8 inch river washed pea stone – the kind that has been tumbled naturally in river beds. It makes a smooth and pleasing upper surface.
Finally, make sure your walks and drives are well constructed: on more than one occasion I have seen so-called professional landscapers simply dig an excavation, pour six inches of gravel into the hole, and consider the walkway finished. This is no way to construct gravel walks and drives: as such they will be poorly drained, never firm up properly for heavy traffic, and be a nightmare to maintain. To build a proper gravel walk or drive, first the base should be excavated to the depth of 8 inches and then compacted; then the excavation is filled in succession with rough debris on the bottom to the depth of two or three inches, then with one-inch crushed stone to within an inch or two of the top of the edging, and thoroughly compacted again. Finally, an inch of river washed gravel is placed on the uppermost surface, compacted and raked level. (Any more than one or two inches of the pea stone will result is a mushy surface.) Built this way, your walk or drive will give decades of happy service, not to mention providing you with that merry little crunch, crunch, crunch, – congratulating you with every step on a great new addition to your garden.