Gravel has been on my mind this week. My neighbours suddenly covered their lawn in black material and then put a thick layer of gravel on top. They have left the front hedge, albeit radically trimmed back. But there’s no trace of other greenery now, just the gravel.
I haven’t looked closely at the black layer which could be either weed control matting or plastic. But whatever it is, I took an instant dislike to it as I watched it being rolled out over the lawn. In the spirit of being curious rather than judgemental (quite hard, I’m finding but I decided to practice it during September), I decided to find out more about weed control matting and gravel.
The matting, or weed control membrane, is a controversial topic, much as artificial lawns are. (I prefer gravel to an artificial lawn). One gardener writes, ‘The concept that a membrane can be used to suppress weeds for long is not real. … If you want to lay a path or hard standing of aggregate that will not contain plants then it may work for a while.’ There are several writers, here’s another one, on the theme that the ability to control weeds using a membrane is a myth.
On the other hand, those in favour of the membranes are gung-ho about their efficacy, for example, ‘As experienced landscapers, we’ve used all kinds of weed suppression tactics over the years, and some of the best ways to suppress weed growth are by laying down weed control membrane or landscape fabric.’ The RHS offers the pros and cons of several methods of non-chemical weed control that includes various types of membrane/fabric.
I’m not convinced by the membranes for weed control and I’m wondering how long it will be before the clear gravel next door sports green growth. Then what will my neighbours do? I hope not completely pave over, as so many in my street have. Though I do get that they may not want a lawn. Maybe I’ll be able to convince them that they could have a lovely, low-maintenance, weed free, no-lawn garden that isn’t simply a bed of gravel or paving slabs.
Turning my curiosity to gravel, I realised I have a firm view on that too! When I’m running or cycling, I hate gravel. All my accidents and spills have been on gravel – skidding and falling off a bike on gravel is extremely painful, tripping on loose stones in larger gravel is horrendous. In my several close-up meetings with gravel I’ve sustained black eyes, skinned knees and elbows, damaged palms of my hands and suffered ego embarrassment. Fortunately, not yet, any broken bones, and I now dismount rather than cycle through gravel, and skirt round it when running (or I walk if running’s not possible). Meeting gravel going down an incline, even with careful walking and aided by a walking stick, can be disastrous as I’ve also discovered.
When I’m thinking about gardening, I quite like gravel (as long as it doesn’t have weed control membrane under it). I’ve been pondering the idea of establishing a gravel garden as they are good for dry conditions. The RHS says, ‘A gravel garden is a great option for a low maintenance garden. It also lends itself to Mediterranean-style drought-tolerant planting so things like lavender, euphorbias, Cistus, Santolina and Phlomis are ideal and provide plenty of nectar and pollen for visiting insects.’
Recently seeing Denmans Garden with its fantastic use of gravel and plantings has further inspired the gravel gardener emerging in me. I’m taking a garden design course and one of the first assignments is to choose our style of garden. For this, I’m researching Japanese gardens, which make extensive use of gravel. I’d like to desing a Japanese gravel garden that includes drought tolerant plants.
This research is taking me to finding out all the types of gravel available. (What I’ve been doing up to now is simply going to Wickes and buying one of their cut price bags of gravel. Cut price, because the bag has split and some of the gravel has gone. I got some the other day for 50p.)
I’ve been using gravel up to now for putting in the bottom of pots as drainage, without reference to what type it is. But now I find there’s a world of gravel: ‘Different-sized gravel is available: fine grades are 10mm or less, chunkier types are 20mm or more. Medium-grade gravels, particularly if angular in shape, are easier to walk on than smaller grades, rounded pea shingle or large cobbles. If cats frequent the garden, larger grades will deter unwanted activities.’
Look at any supplier of gravel and you’ll see a multitude of choice: Cotswold chippings, river pebbles, blue slate chippings, limestone chippings, white pebbles, and on and on: designing a Japanese drought-resistant gravel garden clearly involves careful consideration of the gravel type.
But not just a consideration of type of gravel. I’ve now found out that gravel, while ‘eco’ as far as plantings, water run-off, and gardens go, is not ‘eco’ in other respects. Sand, gravel and crushed stone are the most mined materials globally. Daniel T Cross, writing in Sustainability Times points out:
“they [sand, gravel, crushed stone] are an increasingly scarce resource because as much as 50 billion tons of these materials is extracted worldwide each year in countries such as Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.
The massive amounts of sand and gravel constantly removed from the environment means that grave damage is often inflicted on local ecosystems, especially in lower- and middle-income nations, according to an international team of scientists.
“The impact that sand and gravel mining have on the environment, conflicts with goals linked to the natural dynamics of ecosystems,” explains Mette Bendixen, an assistant professor in the department of Geography at McGill University in Canada who was a lead author of a study published in the journal One Earth.”
And beyond the mining of these materials is the carbon footprint of the bagging and transportation of them. I can’t find, for example, the estimated cost in terms of social and environmental impact (including carbon footprint) of a Wickes bag of decorative UK sourced Cotswold chippings, supplied in plastic packaging (nor specifically where this is sourced from).
What I did find, in my rummaging on the topic, is the website of Smiths Bletchington, who extract Cotswold chippings from their quarries around Oxfordshire, UK. Browsing the site, I found a fair bit of info and good words on sustainability and environment, including the mention of an environmental policy, but no hard numeric data.
So my relationship with gravel continues, I wonder where it will take me.
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