THERE is a wide range of plants that struggle without very well-drained soil, and creating a gravel garden is a great way to enjoy them. Plants from the Mediterranean, South Africa and California in the USA thrive in the light, stony conditions and are – by and large – very low maintenance. There is no need to water and minimal weeding; plus, the aromatic and silver-leaved plants that enjoy such dry soil tend to be more resistant to pests and disease. The only slog of a gravel border is its creation, and that can be started now.
Perhaps the best gravel garden in the UK is found at Beth Chatto’s Plants and Gardens in Elmstead, near Colchester, Essex. It was created by Beth out of a redundant car park in the early 1990s. Beneath thin topsoil, she found gravel and sand, so – being in a low-rainfall area – she decided to make a drought-resistant garden as an experiment to see what would survive. The plants that thrived (despite the Gravel Garden never being watered) include nepeta, euphorbia, stonecrop, sea holly, salvia, stipa, allium and verbascum.
In Cold Ashton, Wiltshire, Derry Watkins approached this gardening technique from the other end of the scale, starting out with heavy clay. Whereas Beth Chatto added compost, Derry didn’t need to. Derry created the gravel borders at her home and nursery (Special Plants) by removing the topsoil and putting down gravel. “Gravel is great for borderline hardy plants,” she says, “because it’s usually winter wet that kills them. Mediterranean plants hate having wet roots. Also, the rock conserves heat.” She put down 8in (20cm) of gravel, which didn’t need topping up for 23 years. “You don’t need to mix the gravel into the soil – just plonk it on top. Gravel is not cheap initially, but it’s low-maintenance in the long term!”
Do the groundwork now, then in spring plant drought-resistant gems, such as yucca, rosemary, helichrysum and verbena in the gravel and the roots will find their way down to the soil. When they bloom happily above the attractive stone, demanding minimal TLC, it’s easy to understand why this no-water style of gardening is becoming so popular.
9 gravel-garden plants
3 for back of border
The Broussa mullein sends up pillars of yellow flowers above a rosette of downy silver leaves in July and August. Allow this biennial to set seed, if you want more plants. Likes full sun. H: 6½ft (2m).
Acacia baileyana ‘Purpurea’ AGM
This shrub has beautiful ferny purple-grey leaves and honey-scented yellow blooms. Replace every few years after frost damage and to control its size. Grow in sheltered full sun. H: 19½ft (6m).
Stipa gigantea AGM
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