The Gravel Garden

Poor, dry soil is the bane of many an otherwise well-designed garden. It could be that you live on what was once a sandy river wash, or it is possible that your developer substituted a heap of gravely mix for your original topsoil. Such things do happen. And while one option for growning plants is to remove the old soil and start with a new load of fill, another option is to start a collection of plants that is actually adapted to growing in terrible dry and rocky soil conditions. Not to be confused with invasive WEEDS, which might also fit that bill, we are talking about desirable ornamental plants from around the world. A number of native plants will fit this bill, and can be used exclusively if desired. For a more diverse garden, we can look to non-native species found naturally in such conditions around the world, avoiding any that have invasive tendencies.

The concept of the gravel garden was helped to popularity by Beth Chatto in Essex, the driest part of England. She inherited a dry gravely parking lot in the 1990's and decided to see if she could grow a garden there with minimal ammendment of the soil and no additional watering. What she ended up with was an interesting, diverse, and world-famous garden.

All of the plants chosen are drought tolerant and can do well in poor soil. Some have nitrogen fixing nodules on their roots which helps them as well as surrounding plants get enough nutrients. For this reason, the gravel garden requires little help once it gets established. Though it might seem counter-intuitive to add more gravel, an added layer of gravel acts as a mulch, helping conserver water, cool the soil, and block weeds.

The principles of the gravel garden are essentially those of Xeriscaping, which was developed in the western states, and is more commonly known and practiced in places such as Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and California. Xeriscaping tends to focus more on hot dry climates, while the gravel garden was born in a cooler more northerly climate. It is mostly a matter of emphasis.

The Northeast, in fact, in not suited to all of the "standard" Xeriscape or gravel garden plants. We have colder winters than California, New Mexico, or Essex and recieve more rainfall on average, both of which will affect the types of that can grow here. Its also important to consider sun and shade and wind patterns. Shady dry areas are especially tough spots. Most of the plants which will grow well in poor dry soil also perfer sun. It is also important that plants requiring more moisture not be included in the design. If you start watering your gravel garden to save the more tender plants, then you will be weakening the drought tolerant ones. With the right consideration, even a patch of the poorest soil can be home to a vibrant and thriving garden.

Some drought tolerant native shrubs which will do well in this area include

Some native perennials for the NE gravel garden include