When the son of friends began using his mother’s cellphone to photograph the ground at a Sunday lunch in the garden, we grown-ups laughed. “Look at Leon.” But when Leon’s mother began looking at her son’s photographs, then showed them to me, Leon had the last laugh. There, frame after frame, were abstract compositions of mesmerizing beauty. Were Leon’s downward-looking portraits to have a title, it might have been: “Dappled Sunlight on Gravel and Fallen Leaves.”
Gravel is so much more than a way to cover up dirt. As Leon noticed, its ability to catch light makes the garden floor a dancing field of shadows. Gravel also transforms the way heat, coolness and water are retained. Then, as powerfully as anything, gravel brings music to the garden. There is nothing at once so pleasant and intriguing as the sound of footfall on gravel. For the plants grown in and around gravel, these seemingly aesthetic qualities are biological. In the right situation, gravel is ideal for dry gardening.
Before praising gravel further, it must be admitted that gravel is not a pain-free choice for the conservationist. One need only visit Irwindale, home of most of the gravel that went into Southern California’s road system, to see that gravel production requires chewing up some rocky place. But the stillness and durability of gravel make it an indispensable tool in Southern California’s transition away from lawn as a default ground cover.
The first and most obvious place to apply gravel is on trafficked areas between planting beds. Unlike grass, gravel does not require watering and is easily weeded (though it shouldn’t need weeding if it’s not watered). Unlike wood chips, gravel doesn’t break down and get tracked into the house by the vacuum cleaner canisterful. Pea gravel and its many colored equivalents come with softened edges, making it safe underfoot for dogs.
Another place simply begging for gravel is where hedges typically run around a home’s footings. Builders slap in foundation hedges for insta-coziness, but, contrary to the storybook ideal of the plant-clad home, abutting the foundation is not a good place for plants or irrigation. It courts dry rot, termites and varmints. Gravel gives an elegant, clean periphery.
Certain garden beds come to life when given gravel. The Mediterranean garden’s best loved standards of lavender, ceanothus and sage all do best in a rocky medium that approximates their native ranges. If you’ve never been able to grow lavender before, give it gravel mulch and go easy on the water. You’ll be weeding out feral volunteers within a year.
The most beautiful surprise in gravel gardening might be its benefit for citrus. Snails can be rehabilitated overnight from their addiction to the leaves of oranges, lemons and limes when forced to slither across at least 5 feet of rock to reach the trunk.
This brings us back to aesthetics. There might be something prettier than light bouncing off a gravel-covered bed to illuminate the underside of a ripening orange, but I haven’t seen it. At a guess, neither has Leon.
Green’s column on low-water gardening appears weekly on latimes.com/home. Click on “Dry Garden” in the category cloud.
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