If you live near the sea, or in a windy, dry area, then a beach or gravel garden might be the perfect choice for you. If you choose the right plants, they will thrive with little or no water, and not be bothered by salt winds.
However, there are a few important details to consider when designing and building your beach or gravel garden, and in choosing the right plants.
What’s a beach or gravel garden?
I’m using these terms interchangeably, but what we really mean is planting through shingle or gravel, and choosing plants which like a hot, dry climate. A beach garden might have plants which are more suited to a coastal environment, or include ‘found’ items such as driftwood to give it a coastal feel. (Or it might, literally, be on the beach…)
A good place to start for beach garden inspiration is Derek Jarman’s garden at Prospect Cottage in Dungeness.
Probably the most famous gravel garden was created by Beth Chatto. Beth Chatto was a pioneer in the principle of ‘right plant, right place’ – ie matching the needs of plants to their environment. She built her gravel garden over a disused carpark and it is never watered.
I’ve collected a few photos to inspire you on a Beach and Gravel Garden Pinterest Board.
Is a beach or gravel garden right for your garden?
Most of the plants typically used in gravel or beach gardens prefer sandy soil with low fertility. If your garden is chalky, then there are a few plants you need to avoid (acid-loving) but otherwise this type of garden will work well. You also need an area where it’s sunny most or all of the day.
If you’ve got clay soil or a shady garden it’s probably better to choose a different style.
Key things to think about:
Landscaping fabric: traditional advice is to lay down a landscaping fabric over the soil, cut crosses in the fabric in order to plant and then cover the fabric with gravel or shingle. Generally, I’m not a great fan of landscaping fabric. Healthy soil is a living, breathing thing, teeming with organisms in a complex and interconnected web. Sealing it off from the environment with a layer of fabric effectively suffocates it.
However, as the types of plants we’re choosing generally prefer a low fertile soil, this is probably less important than in other types of planting. And I do appreciate that using landscape fabric reduces weeding and maintenance! A compromise could be to use a membrane in areas you don’t intend to plant.
Gravel, shingle and stones: when choosing your gravel or shingle, make sure you know the material and any effect it could have on pH and the type of plants you want to use. (Ie, limestone chippings will make the soil more alkaline). If you have a problem with cats using your garden as a litter tray, choose larger stones. Using different sizes of stones creates a more naturalistic and dynamic effect. There’s a bit more information about choosing the right sort of gravel and stones here.
Maintenance: generally, beach and gravel gardens are lower maintenance than other styles of garden, so it’s a good choice if you’re short of time. You’ll still have some weeding and annual tasks though!
Choosing your plants:
There are a surprising number of plants which will do well in this type of garden. In fact, there are so many that it’s worth thinking about a theme: grasses, or Mediterranean plants, for example, so you don’t end up with a cluttered looking garden with something of everything.
Grasses are fantastic for this type of garden. When choosing, make sure you check the ultimate size – as some can get bigger than you might expect!
To get you started, I’ve saved examples of some of Beth Chatto’s favourite gravel garden plants on a Pinterest Board.