Saturday, August 27, 2016

A Gravel Soapbox

To those who aim to have a "natural looking" garden/landscape/xeriscape/native garden/rock garden or any garden with gravel.

Here is a massive trick.
A feather you must stick in your hat.
Ever go hiking?  Mama nature rarely uses gravel.  
But we do, it's a valid thing for us to use in gardens.
But ol' Mama nature, when she does, it's never screened perfectly like our manufactured gravel, eh?

(Image: in the desert near Whitewater, CO. Basaltic gravel on a red clay, and habitat of the threatened hookless cactus: Sclerocactus glaucus)

The following three pictures are a gravel-topdressed xeric garden before the plants go in, near a paver path for reference.
Pure 1/2 inch screened gravel is a good base-layer; easy to dig/weed/hoe/look at.
But as flat as flat as boring can be.
Now, throw two handfuls of 1 inch gravel. Very unevenly.  It's heaviest on the lower left and hardly on the upper part at all.  Note that within the scope of the photo, the density of this 1-inch-screen gravel varies from nearly solid to none at all. Note that well.
Lastly, throw in three, yes, literally three pieces of a larger stone yet- 1 1/2 inch gravel.
And you have a dynamic, gently uneven and more "realistic" surface.

You could (and I will) add one or two golfball or softball-sized rocks of the same material, embedded  somewhere in there. (Easily done by simply stepping on it)

I learned this in art school.  When you painted an underpainting- you know, a brownish wash before you even start the portrait- it would be a dire mistake to start with it perfectly even across the whole canvas surface.  Mr. McCoy, our instructor, would always repeat the mantra:  to avoid equality in your composition; "Equals cancel out! Equals cancel out!"

He pointed out that painting a face with equal eyes gave them a creepy, dead stare.  It's true.

Now, for pictures of the overall landscape before and after what my coworker has termed "accent gravel:"

Just 1/2" gravel.
Now with "accent" gravels.
(That's Zinnia grandiflora and Oenothera macrocarpa (maybe) 'Silver Blade' photo-bombing the image and distracting you by being in bloom in August without irrigation)

The plants will be the active subject of this "art piece," but it helps, it really helps, to start with a proper canvas.
At the University of Texas El Paso; 
they've been doing gravel and "rip-rap" in the Southwest longer than we have and know how to do it. (Christine Ten Eyke design)

(Found a match! It was only 247 miles away. Getting a good match is important.)

Because it's a garish clash when they don't match, above. Like a minor-second interval in music. Being close, but not quite: it's worse than being further away.  

Now, this idea is not new. In Crevice garden history, the old school Czech masters would insist that one must create his own gravel to match the stone which the garden was made of- by breaking the unused stones down with a hammer- like a religious and repentant homage to nature's erosion: 

But I'm a lazy American and found a way for heavy equipment and the US dollar to do it for me so I can fake it.  

After all, in light of nature's stunning subtlety and elegance, we're all faking it.

You could take it farther:  If you used a different boulder/stone than the type of gravel. Pieces or gravel of that boulder's stone could be mixed/spread/faded or just lightly applied to the surrounding gravel to integrate the two elements- gravel and big stones.
Like so.

There is even more you could do.

Let's go beyond flat gravel.


Susan in the Pink Hat said...

1/2" rip rap of uniform size when applied to say, a crevice installation domesticates it somewhat. Might be better for the clipped hedges crowd than the unruliness of naturalism. Something for everyone.

David C. said...

Well-written, and I'm with you on mixing aggregate sizes unless budget dictates - it did on my 40 acre hospital project, then value engineered out.

Massing plants and low walls also domesticates mixing agg. sizes. But a few like an architect client just didn't get one of my designs that mixed agg. sizes, though he loved an entire hillside of 8" rip rap and not 1 plant, done without coordinating with me...figured.