The Ultimate Guide to Selecting and Using Decorative Gravel

We've all argued over who's turn it is to mow the lawn, fought with our lawnmowers when they conveniently decide to break down halfway through, and cursed when the hot weather starts killing our grass.

So it's clear that there are plenty of reasons you may be thinking of switching to decorative gravel to revamp your garden and unshackle yourself from the monotony of lawn maintenance.

Replace high-maintenance lawn with gravel

And with the doom and gloom of local lockdowns casting a long shadow, instead of going to the bar for a Saturday afternoon with your friends you should have plenty of time to spend on exciting adult things... like, yes you guessed it, laying gravel chippings.

With that in mind, here's our ultimate guide to selecting and using the right decorative gravel. It's sure to make your garden transformation as easy as falling off a log (or at least a bit easier than battling with your lawnmower).

Five ways you can use decorative gravel

Introducing gravel to your garden is the simplest way to create an attractive, dynamic landscape that requires little to no maintenance.

In fact, there are so many benefits to using gravel that you'll wish you made the switch years ago!

Driveways and paths

Decorative aggregates are a natural way to reduce the risk of flooding in your garden, since gravel allows water to run through into the ground and, in turn, helps surface water drain away quickly. Gravel can therefore help protect your home from flooding and leave your garden puddle free.

So, gravel driveways and paths are a fantastic alternative to paved and brick surfaces, which tend to be impermeable and can increase your home's risk of flooding.

Gravel also looks far more natural than paved paths and driveways, suiting many garden landscapes better.

Water features

Water features such as ponds, fountains and waterfalls are sure to enhance your garden.

Water adds a flowing dimension to any landscape project and the soothing sound of the water creates a calming environment to relax in.

Stones and pebbles work wonderfully when creating a pond, making the bottom of the pond look natural, mirroring that of a river bottom.

With a combination of rocks, slate and gravel you can make interesting water features to suit your garden. A simple search for "diy water features" on Pinterest brings up endless pages of ideas.

Decorative borders and edges

Borders can really bring together the perfect landscape garden, creating a professional and tidy finish.

Gravel is also a great material to use to fill the gaps along the edge of your patio or garden wall.

Designing a garden

Weed suppression

It's you versus the pesky weeds in your garden and you're losing badly. It's currently 3-1 to the weeds. They've sprouted by the geraniums, moved in with the pansies and are taking over the driveway.

Are you sick of spending money on weed killers that you have to reapply regularly and aren't always the potent killer that they're advertised to be?

Using decorative gravel to landscape areas of your garden will help keep the weeds at bay, without using weed killer that appears to be more harmful to garden fauna and pets than the weeds themselves.

Laying a landscaping fabric before adding gravel on top will create a barrier that stops weeds from growing up through the aggregate.

Keep reading to follow our step-by-step guide to laying gravel and arm yourself with the knowledge you need to conquer the resident weeds in your back garden.

Security

Feeling safe in your house is paramount. Gravel driveways and paths can boost the security of your house as any time someone walks around outside you'll hear the distinctive crunch.

And, so, burglars may be deterred by the noise, decreasing the chances of thieves entering your home.

Gravel 101

Choosing the right type of gravel for your project can be a minefield, with all kinds of factors such as size, shape and colour to think about. However, this easy-to-follow breakdown has you covered...

For driveways

Size:

It's important that the gravel is comfortable to walk on and stable, with little movement underfoot.

Opt for a medium sized gravel around 20mm, which is less likely to get stuck in tyres or shoes than smaller sized gravel. A 20mm gravel will also provide a fairly smooth surface for your four legged friend's paws.

Factors such as weight need to be considered, as your choice of gravel needs to withstand the heft of a vehicle. For some driveways it may be best to avoid slate, as this material can eventually break into dust under heavy loads.

Car parked on golden gravel driveway

If your garden is on a slope then loose gravel would be rather impractical as it may eventually work its way down to the bottom. In this scenario, resin bound gravel may be more suitable as it's immovable. This material works by applying gravel with resin to totally set the particles in place, creating a completely level surface. You'll be left with a no-mess drive, whilst still retaining the permeable quality of loose gravel.

Shape:

When using loose gravel, try to pick an angular shaped material rather than rounded aggregate, since angular chippings (such as Cotswold buff stone) will interlock to form a stable surface underfoot.

Colour:

Choosing gravel that will compliment the aesthetic of your house will create a driveway which flows effortlessly.

For gravel that will match most British architecture, 20mm golden gravel is a great option. Including a variety of warm and cool colours, golden gravel's earthy tones are sure to compliment your garden, creating a natural looking driveway.

Or, if you want a driveway with gravel of more or less the same colour/shade, 20mm Cotswold buff is an ideal option, leaving a clean and crisp neutral look.

If your driveway gets a lot of shade you may want to choose limestone gravel or white marble chips. This type of aggregate will be pale in colour, working to brighten your garden as white naturally reflects light.

White marble sparkles in the sun and creates a stylish aesthetic, but due to the chippings being round in shape you may need a border around your drive to hold them in place.

The reality is, you can choose from a huge variety of coloured stones to create your perfect driveway from golden to midnight black - the possibilities are endless.

For paths

Size:

When it comes to pathways you don't want to pick a gravel that is too small (under 10mm) as it will get stuck in the sole of your shoes and it may also encourage cats to mistake your brand new gravel path for a litter tray! Anything over 20mm can be difficult to walk on, especially when the path is in regular use.

Instead, 10-14mm gravel is generally the most suitable. The smaller and finer the gravel, the softer the surface underfoot.

Golden gravel path

If your pathway is on sloped ground then you need to consider how the gravel will cope with movement during rainy and windy weather conditions. Larger sized gravel such as 40mm slate chippings flatten out uneven ground, establishing a path that's easy to walk on with little movement.

Shape:

As with driveways, angular shaped gravel won't displace easily when used on a high traffic path. However, if your path is more for aesthetic than practical use, aggregate such as pea gravel with its rounded form would be fine, as long as you implement a border to keep the gravel in place.

Colour:

Marble chips are ideal if you want to turn your garden path into more of an eye-catching feature than just a walkway, as the marble will glitter in the sun and bring an elegant touch to your garden.

For an understated pathway with natural tones, there's a whole range of choices from Cotswold chippings to moonstone gravel chippings.

For ponds

Size:

Creating a natural looking substrate in your garden pond can be achieved easily by using the right aggregates.

For aesthetic purposes, stick to gravel ranging between 20 to 28mm. Also, this size is big enough to ensure sediment is trapped between the pebbles and works well to weigh down the pond's liner.

Gravel can actually make maintaining your pond easier, as gravel filtration is a process used to clean and purify water. The right sized gravel for this purpose is anything between 9mm to 20mm.

Shape:

For gravel filtration you must use a rounded pebble over one of an angular shape. Pea gravel is the ideal choice as it's rounded in shape and works to trap debris, stopping it from floating around and becoming unsightly.

The gravel substrate will also provide a home for beneficial bacteria which will in turn help keep your fish happy and healthy by breaking down organic sludge.

Colour:

As long as you've done your research and ensured the gravel type is safe for your fish and won't alter the pH of the water (limestone often does), then the colour is entirely up to you.

For garden borders and edges

Size:

In terms of sizing, it's completely down to personal preference and depends on the gap you are filling. Since borders and edges aren't likely to be walked over, factors such as comfort aren't as important.

Although, bear in mind that very fine gravel will move around more and therefore may require more upkeep.

Shape:

Simply for ease of maintenance, using angular shaped gravel may be preferable as it stays in place better than rounded gravel.

Colour:

For the ultimate chic look, plum slate chippings will make your borders and edges the best in the neighbourhood. Slate is guaranteed to look classy and sophisticated, and becomes more vibrant when wet.

Grey slate border in garden

White marble as a border will highlight plants beautifully, adding a bright touch.

For a pretty, colourful border, opt for Staffordshire pink gravel which features a mix of pinks, greys and whites.

Or you may prefer a rustic, woodland feel to your garden, which can be achieved by using ornamental bark.

It's clear that you have the opportunity to get creative when designing borders and edges in your garden!

For weed suppression

Size:

When adding gravel to a flower bed to suppress weeds, a 10mm pea gravel works well to facilitate drainage and will also protect the soil from erosion.

Pea gravel will also absorb the sun's heat and retain it in the soil for longer, so only choose plants that will thrive in warmer conditions, such as succulents.

Slate can also be used to suppress weeds but due to its size and form, allows more air to pass through the aggregate and won't heat the soil in the same way.

Colour:

Neutral coloured gravel will highlight your plants vibrant colours, with plum slate a great contrast to green leaves.

Time to get stuck in...

Whether you're a DIY enthusiast or a complete beginner, you'll be able to transform your garden following these easy steps!

Clean your gravel

For your gravel to look its best, it's important that you clean it to get rid of any dirt and dust before using it. It's also important to thoroughly clean any aggregate that you intend to use as a pond substrate.

To do this you'll need a wheelbarrow, a drill, a shovel, a hosepipe and some geotextile fabric (this is reusable).

  1. Drill holes (with a drill bit smaller than the gravel you're using) into the bottom of the wheelbarrow so it serves as a strainer for the water.
  2. Add some of the gravel to the wheelbarrow using a shovel. Be careful not to over fill it, as it will make the cleaning process less effective.
  3. Rinse the gravel to get rid of any dirt or dust, moving the gravel back and forth using a shovel (you may need a second pair of hands!)
  4. Lay your geotextile fabric on a flat surface and tip the contents of the wheelbarrow onto it, spreading the gravel out evenly so it will dry quicker.

Within a few hours the gravel should be dry and ready to use!

DIY gravel driveway

1. Prepare the surface

Laying gravel straight onto an existing surface will likely result in the gravel moving around and looking messy in no time.

Instead you need a flat and level base to work with, which means you are going to have to grab a shovel and get digging.

Preparing driveway before laying gravel

You'll want to avoid cutting through important cables or pipes, so hire a cable and pipe locator if you have any doubt about what's under the surface. If cables or pipes are found then be extra careful when excavating around them.

Remove old driveway materials such as block paving and concrete slabs, and any grass and weeds that have established will also need to go.

Or if you want to save yourself the backache you can hire a tradesman to dig your drive at a reasonable price.

It's recommended that you excavate to around 200mm depth.

To make life easy, hire a skip to remove the waste material.

2. Lay the sub-base

Laying a sub-base is one of the most important parts of the process as it prevents the decorative gravel from sinking, providing a solid foundation and also preventing those pesky weeds from growing up through your gravel.

Between the surface and the sub-base you will need to lay down a geotextile membrane to cover the whole drive, which will stop the sub-base material from mixing with the original ground. To secure the membrane in place use membrane pegs.

Next lay your sub-base material, a common option is DT Type 3 (MOT) which is crushed, permeable rock around 40mm in size.

You should lay the sub-base in separate thin layers as this will help it withstand the weight of vehicles. Between each layer, the base should be compacted with a whacker plate or a pedestrian roller (which you'll need to hire or borrow) to achieve a level surface and consistent depth. Your sub-base should be around 150mm deep.

Gravel driveway cross-section

4. Add gravel grids

For a no-mess finish, add a ground reinforcement grid or gravel grid before you lay the gravel. These grids interlock for easy installation and prevent gravel from moving around too much when your driveway is driven on.

Gravel grid to prevent messy driveway

5. Lay the gravel

Now for the icing on the cake - the gravel!

There's no need for the gravel to be super deep since it is for purely decorative purposes (there's a clue in the name). A maximum depth of 50mm is recommended.

Tip your freshly washed gravel onto your driveway and use a rake to spread it evenly before using the whacker plate or pedestrian roller to compact the gravel, which will ensure it maintains its shape.

6. Grab a cup of tea, sit back and admire your hard work!

The general process is pretty much the same for pathways; however, you get to be creative when deciding on the shape of your garden path.

Creating a gravel border requires a lot less work - simply clear a flat surface, removing any plants in the process. Add the membrane by securing it with pegs, and then lay your chosen gravel.

Maintaining your gravel

The beauty of gravel areas is that they do not require mowing or watering and very rarely need de-weeding if you've used a geotextile membrane underneath the aggregate.

Occasionally raking your driveway to remove leaves and maintain a level surface will ensure your driveway always looks at its best.

You may find that over time that the weight of your car has caused tyre tracks and hollows in the gravel. This can be easily fixed by topping with fresh gravel every few years.

With the right maintenance you can expect gravel or slate-covered surfaces to last a lifetime.