Down the gravel path with Stephen Orr

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The overused term “sustainability” has nearly lost its meaning, especially when it comes to gardening. For Stephen Orr, formerly garden editor of House & Garden and Domino magazines, sustainability can be described as “conscientious landscape design,” an approach that embodies locale, climate, plants, materials and community.

Orr wrote his new book, “Tomorrow’s Garden: Design and Inspiration for a New Age of Sustainable Gardening” [Rodale Books], to explore the vocabulary and visual expressions of gardens that can be sustained in the future.

He devoted a year away from his home bases — a New York City apartment and a lake cottage in the Catskills — to find gardens that not only reached a level of sustainability in plant choices, water usage and preservation of other resources, but that also looked delightful.


In a telephone interview from the New York offices of Martha Stewart Living magazine, where he is now the gardening editorial director, Orr said he wants to lure others down the same path.

“I want to do the right thing for the environment within the realm of our economic circumstances,” he said. “But at the same time, I want things to be beautiful.”

Orr tended his friend Barbara Farmer’s front and back yards in the San Fernando Valley during a couple of years with scant rain.

“At first, I thought, ‘Oh, I can grow bananas here,’ but then I realized, especially out in the Valley, that I couldn’t,” he said. “My consciousness was formed by working on Barbara’s garden.”

When asked to single out one design concept that most intrigued him while gathering images and conducting interviews for “Tomorrow’s Garden,” Orr responded: gravel. He devotes a full chapter to it.

“People don’t think much about where gravel comes from as a resource,” Orr said, yet gravel gardens are becoming increasingly popular. His book features gravel landscapes from Venice and Ojai to Austin, Texas, to Nantucket, Mass. We asked him to discuss gravel as a sustainable design material:


What appeals to you about the use of gravel?

It is such a great base for many styles, from traditional to modern. There are plenty of people in Los Angeles and San Francisco who have jumped on the bandwagon wanting to make low-water gardens, but I’m happy to see it catching on in other parts of the country. The California lifestyle is so amazing, with outdoor rooms, and they can be “floored” differently. One room could be floored with grass, another with stone pavers or gravel.

Designers praise gravel gardens as permeable and an alternative to lawns. How has your view of the material changed?

I was visiting nursery owner Flora Grubb in San Francisco, and she told me she often recommends gravel to customers. And then the question “Where does it come from?” came up. Our conversation opened my eyes to begin viewing gravel as a finite resource.

Where does it come from?

As with so many environmental choices, the decisions we make trying to do the right thing are complex and often somewhat overwhelming. In many cases, gravel does indeed come from local quarries. The Austin gardens in my book used local gravel. Those gardeners like how it matches the colors of the natural geology around them. But in other areas, its origin is a big question mark. Even after a lot of research, I found I still have a lot of questions about how responsibly gravel is mined. The EPA monitors gravel production, which is a huge industry mainly for construction and highway building. In comparison, gravel for gardening use is minor, but it’s still something to be conscious of.


What questions should homeowners be asking about the gravel they buy?

I suggest you approach it like having a local consciousness of food. Don’t buy bags of gravel if you don’t know where it comes from. It may be shipped longer distances than is environmentally responsible. Try instead to source the material close to home.

What type of gravel do you recommend?

There is a difference between “crushed stone,” which has sharper edges, and “pea gravel,” which is rounded. Some people prefer walking on the rounded pea gravel, but consider the environmental impact it takes to extract it from ancient streambeds formed by alluvial processes over millennia. Pea gravel isn’t a manufactured product. It’s not even a renewable resource. Many forward-thinking designers are switching to more jagged, crushed limestone or granite instead.

Any tips on how gravel should be installed?

One major thing I learned is that the depth of gravel is important. If it’s laid too deep, it’s like trudging through deep snow. Most of the designers I interviewed recommend you first put down a layer of “road base,” bigger pieces of crushed stone — an inch or two in length. Lay it very flat with a compactor and then place just a few inches of crushed gravel or pea gravel on top. This approach makes a very stable surface.


What are some of the interesting ways people use gravel?

I love the modern look of some of the gardens in my book. But I also really love gravel gardens with a more traditional influence where plants are encouraged to self-sow. I’m a plant nut. I come at gardening because I love plants. So to me, the space that contains the plant — the garden — is a frame to show them off. I love seeing volunteers like verbena or a spire of silver verbascum in the gravel. Or, I like to see gravel as the flooring for a spare space containing just a water feature.

Do you see gravel as the anti-lawn?

I like to see gravel and lawn used in combination. Just as a lot of us live without wall-to-wall carpet and instead have rugs with wood floors, I encourage people to think of their lawn as an area rug. Think about using it with an element of crushed rock, such as a flat area under a tree or where you need better drainage.

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