Unravel the Gravel
The use of gravel or decorative stone as a ground cover in garden beds has become a popular choice in mid-western landscapes as busy homeowners search for a low-maintenance alternative to weeding. The "cleaner" look and lack of the natural odor typical of decomposing wood mulches are often mentioned as motivators in the decision to take the gravel road. Unfortunately, the results are often less than satisfying.
In order to inhibit the weeds which would quickly fill the generous air gaps in the gravel, landscape fabric is usually applied beneath, pinned to the ground with over-sized steel staples. Holes are then created as needed for plants to be installed. Additionally, an artificial border of some sort is needed to keep the gravel in the bed, and the turfgrass from invading the edge, causing a trimming nightmare. Generally made from plastic, aluminum, or steel, the look may be sharp at first, but the edge's aesthetic integrity quickly degrades. Heaved by frost and tree roots alike, the border is forced from the earth at random points, turning the "clean" alternative into the neighborhood eyesore. The product needs constant resetting, and often suffers lawn mower damage as well. The fabric itself can also become exposed in spots, but more concerning are the needle-like shoots of grassy weeds which eventually penetrate the small pores of the fabric, weaving a rug of weeds that is harder to remove than ever.
Gravel as groundcover in general is not conducive to proper plant health. The rocks gather so much heat from the sun they can literally cook tender plants. Anyone who has walked barefoot on a hot sand beach can relate. While mulch retains moisture, any water landing on the gravel will quickly be wasted from evaporation. The landscape fabric is an affront to nature, blocking both air and water interface with the soil, and creating a very difficult situation for plants to survive.
While natural decomposed hardwood bark mulches are preferred, with a spade edge refreshed twice yearly, there may be times when gravel is the proper choice, such as dry riverbeds for washout areas, and around pools and hot tubs. When choosing plants for these areas, try to avoid fleshy, herbaceous perennials and stick to woody, dought-tolerant species like Yarrow and False Indigo. Below, the Russian Sage is thriving, while one or more of the fragile Cranesbill in the same bed had to be replaced.
Of course, there are exceptions, and the impossible-to-kill fleshy monocots, like Daylily, Iris and Hosta can work as well. Whatever your situation, our experts can help with the solution.