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Archive for the ‘Sun-loving plants’ Category

It’s a bold step, deciding to ditch the lawn and opt for a gravel garden.  More and more gardeners are taking the plunge, thanks to the unpredictable weather patterns of the past few years.  Lawns seem to be alternately parched and flooded, so it’s no surprise that people are looking for alternatives.  The good news is that plants love growing in gravel; they self-seed easily and their roots enjoy the protection from scorching sunlight and frost which the stony surface provides.

Using gravel as a surface brings a new perspective to a space previously occupied by a ‘fitted carpet’ of lawn.  Instead of being defined by edges, the open space can blur into the planted areas, with plants no longer restricted by the line of turf and allowed to grow in a more naturalistic configuration.  Using the gravel as a mulch which bleeds into the borders makes the space appear bigger and can completely alter the way you perceive the garden, sparking new ideas and designs.

From a practical point of view, gravelling underneath tree canopies is to be avoided as the leaf/needle drop takes a lot of time and regular effort to clear away, so a sunny site is recommended.  The range of plants best complemented by gravel are generally sun-seekers; those which would, in their native forms, have grown in sharply-drained, stony soil.  Good candidates include Eryngiums, Ornamental Grasses, Sedums and the glaucous-leaved Euphorbias.

Bill and I removed our circular top lawn in the spring of 2012 and replaced it with Scottish cobbles, in grades of size from 20mm to small boulders.  We decided to make an island near the centre, of an irregular, long oval shape, set on the diagonal.  As the old lawn had been there for decades and was compacted, we dug out the island area and any others where planting would be taking place, mixing the soil with grit and our own compost before replacing it.

After laying a basic 8cm (3”) layer of 20mm gravel (at a rate of 3-4 25kg bags per sq m), we used the larger grades of stones to vaguely define the edges of planted areas, interspersing them with the occasional huge cobble as a ‘full stop’.  This offers a subtle visual clue as to where the paths are and where the planting begins.  We tried not to be too regimented at this stage but to allow a random element to take over, just as it would in nature.  We didn’t use a membrane underneath the gravel.  I find it tends to scuff up and poke out in an unsightly way and anyway, I’m always interested to see what self-seeds in my garden.  As it turns out, weeds haven’t been a problem.

I used the new layout to expand the former borders, lifting the existing Echinacea ‘White Swan’ and planting it further forwards, to punctuate the gravel.  Behind it, I used white, lacy Ammi majus, the tiny green bells of Nicotiana langsdorfii and soft, antique-buff spires of Verbascum ‘Cotswold Beauty’ and ‘Guinevere’.  Astrantia ‘Shaggy’, with it’s green-tinged white flowers, peeped through wands of Hystrix patula, the bottlebrush grass.  I grew Euphorbia oblongata for the first time, from seed, and it echoed the Nicotiana with its lime-green flowerheads all summer.  The plant choice was inspired by the recent trend in women’s fashion for ‘nude’ colours, lace and antique shades.  The entire scheme was threaded through with the ethereal grass, Stipa tenuissima, adding movement and continuity.

The new island bed was fairly low-key in its first year.  I planted several Eryngium variifolium and a Seseli gummiferum, an umbellifer which flowers in the most spectacular manner but takes a couple of years at least to work up the strength to do so.  This year, I’ll be adding a crowd of Lagurus ovatus (the cute, tactile Rabbit’s Tail Grass) and a metallic-leaved Hellebore, ‘Silver Dollar’.  Other areas on the edge of the gravel have been planted with sun lovers such as Sedum ‘Marchant’s Best Red’, the chocolate-scented Cosmos atrosanguineus and Libertia grandiflora.

The new gravel border, 2012.

The new gravel border, 2012.

The island bed in its infancy.

The island bed in its infancy.

Cosmos atrosanguineus by the wildlife pond.

Cosmos atrosanguineus by the wildlife pond.

I have found the switch to gravel liberating.  I feel a sense of freedom in my planting which didn’t exist before and, of course, I’m no longer obliged to go out there to mow the lawn every week.  Today we put our old lawnmower on the front drive with a ‘Free to Collector’ sign sellotaped on its handle.  By the end of the afternoon, it had disappeared.  Hurrah!

Photographs by Marianne Majerus

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