Last Modified: April 6, 2024

Designing Small Gravel Gardens

the Essence of Design and Construction

Small shingle garden

By Ben Parrot - Landscape Gardener & Amateur Geologist


The addition of a gravel garden is a lovely way to renovate your outdoor space. Most of us have small areas in our gardens, possibly without much sun, that could benefit from the addition of a low-maintenance hardscape feature that adds natural beauty, improving the overall look and feel of the property.

One of the best things about a small gravel garden is that the possibilities are pretty much endless. Gravel garden ideas range from a harmonious blend of simplicity with nature to making a bold statement using combinations of contrasting colours in patterns. Not only does this flexibility create a wide scope for the incorporation of up-cycled garden 'items curious', but it also means that they can be created on any budget with any level of skill. The only limitation really is your imagination. Welcome to our introduction to the design of small gravel gardens. Let's get creative!

Additionally, be sure to check out our 'Pebble Picker' feature, located in the sidebar or menu. This tool facilitates effortless selection and browsing of various decorative aggregates based on colour and type.

Cotswold gravel garden border with shrubs

Key Takeaways

  • The importance of choosing a suitable location and garden aspect.
  • The beneficial habitat and nursery gravel gardens provides for fostering bio-diversity.
  • Plant selection and the benefits of gravel for popular flowering plants and herbs.
  • The major design aspects to consider when creating a plan.
Slate pebbles and succulent plant growing in a flint gravel garden

What's Behind the Small Gravel Garden Trend?

The gravel garden's increasing popularity in landscaping can be attributed to its potential to create serene and gorgeous spaces with little to no requirements, including space, provided it is planned and planted correctly. Small gravel gardens can be as little as a rockery, with carefully arranged rocks adding texture and depth to the overall design, or it can cover a much larger expanse.

In this section, we look at the different aspects of a small gravel garden and how it fits into the local environment.

A Habitat to Important Bio-diversity

When a generous layer of gravel or stone chippings is spread over the ground, not only does it prevent weed growth and help to retain moisture, but it creates a beneficial microcosm for the roots of plants over the long run. In addition, the gravel garden can become a life-giving habitat for various species of wildlife and insects, such as bees, butterflies and birds.

At the same time, the rough surface of gravel creates an unfriendly environment for slugs and snails, which effectively discourages these common garden pests without the use of harmful chemical pesticides or the so-called harmless pellets that the birds just can't resist! Some people may also be concerned that cats will use their gravel as a litter box, but this issue usually only occurs with tiny pea gravel. If they are a problem, opt for larger chippings ~20mm, which are like boulders to cats and too large for them to move aside.

A Nursery for Beautiful Plants

The gravelly environment is an excellent setting for autumn, winter, and spring bulbs. The heat absorbed and radiated by the rocks and pebbles encourages early growth and flowering of bulbs such as crocuses, daffodils and narcissus. Aromatic herbs, such as fennel, salvias, thymes, rosemary, catmint, lavenders, and dill, also benefit from being grown in gravel since the heat reflected off the stones helps to release their fragrant oils in summer. The use of groundcover plants also helps to prevent erosion and suppress weed growth.

Purple and pink garden plant. Jpg

A Bright Spark in a Dull Space

While the use of stony habitats is ideal in warmer climates, it also provides benefits for gardens and colder regions. On dismal winter days, traditional flower borders are mostly dead and uninteresting. However, the reflection of shiny stones in your gravel garden can brighten up the day, maximising the amount of sunlight your garden is able to harness. This is similar to how stones brighten the seashore, reflecting light bouncing from the ocean and directly from the sun. You can also use grey-to-silver leaved plants, like woolly verbascums, to increase the light reflection of your gravel garden.

Low-Maintenance - Although Nothing Good is Free

A gravel surface allows for a steady infiltration of rainwater into the soil rather than channelling it away wastefully into the drains during wet weather. This is more of a problem in paved gardens. Gravel is also a good option for busy homeowners and urban dwellers who have little time for gardening, as it can be a low-maintenance way to have a beautiful garden.

Gravel also provides an excellent seed bed. However, the ease with which plants seed themselves among the pebbles can be a disadvantage, and despite being generally low-maintenance, routine tasks such as dead-heading spent flowers and raking of the stones should be performed.

Now that we've sold you on the idea of how beautiful and manageable these little deserts in your outdoor space can be, we are going to touch on some of the design aspects that you should consider when planning small gardens with gravel.

Slate chippings and red granite gravel with brick edging

Need to work out how much gravel your project needs? Try our free gravel calculator.

The Fundamentals of Design

When planning a gravel garden, drawing inspiration from natural landscapes will often yield the most satisfying results. This is because the most successful gravel gardens tend to emulate, on a tiny scale, the randomness of nature's landscapes. For this reason, informal planting is quite common.

However, this does not mean that the gravel garden itself should not be planned out. It can be designed in a random way but is equally suited to geometrical shapes like circles, rectangles or even triangles. However it is designed, the stones will also need to be contained by some type of boundary in the form of edging. This could be a garden wall or fence. It could also be some prefabricated edging for gravel or stones from around the garden.

Let's take a look at the five main aspects to consider as we wind up our introduction to small gravel gardens:

Installing a garden with gravel
  1. 1
    Choose the Location: Choosing an open and reasonably level or slightly sloping site, away from complete shade or the drip of trees, will set your gravel garden up with the best chance of success. Address any site-specific challenges like slopes, poor drainage, exposure to winds, or coastal conditions. If you intend to make a decorative rock garden in an area without any sun, then that is a different topic for you to consider.
  2. 2
    Inspiration Sources: Visiting established gravel gardens, such as Beth Chatto's garden in Essex or the Delos Garden at Sissinghurst Castle Garden, can provide valuable insights. These gardens showcase how plants can thrive in gravel environments, offering a changing display of colour and texture through the seasons. However, there is a wealth of knowledge and ideas available online which can also be more suitable due to location issues et cetera.
  3. 3
    Functionality First: Determine the garden's purpose. Whether it's a welcoming small gravel front garden or a family living area in the back, consider the needs for seating, cooking, eating, and storage. Consider the gravel edging in accordance with the amount of traffic you have planned for the area. For larger gravel gardens, a pathway leading through the arrangements of vibrant plants and artfully arranged stones is a 'must-have' where space permits!
  4. 4
    Plant Selection: Choose plants that suit the soil type, sunlight availability and your personal taste. Consider ornamental grasses for movement and sound, crocosmia for summer colour, sedums for attracting bees and butterflies, species with long flowering periods, and small trees for height and structure.
  5. 5
    Creating a Planting Plan: A well-thought-out planting plan that considers the garden's conditions and your preferences can save time and yield a dazzling result. Using grid paper and making a skeleton plan will help in putting the plan to paper.
  6. 6
    Gravel Selection:  Consider how the gravel looks when wet and dry. In the UK, there is a wide variety of gravel and stone chippings to choose from, catering to different styles ranging from traditional to contemporary, sleek, or rustic looks. 

Did you know that we have built a website where you can find every type of decorative aggregate available in the UK. This makes it possible to create just about anything you can imagine. All you need is a starting colour or type of stone, and Outdoor Aggregates can provide you with a variety of options to match and help you find the best price. If you haven't clicked on it yet, the colour picker in the sidebar is our aggregate-matching technology. You can use it to specify your preferences before it shows you stones and other aggregates that are similar or match your preferences. You can then mix and match everything on the website. Give it a try!

House sparrow sitting on grey quart chippings


In summary, a small gravel garden can offer a wonderful combination of beauty, cost-effectiveness and low maintenance, making it suitable for the modern lifestyle. With our introduction to the concept and philosophy of gravel gardening, you can I'll let your imagination run wild within the framework set out above. This should help you to get going through the difficult design and ideation phase and set you up nicely to tackle some small garden gravel ideas, which we feature in a separate article. Until then, have fun getting creative.

River rocks and oyster shingle


How do I design a small gravel garden?

Start by selecting the garden's location. Plan your garden layout, considering paths, seating areas, and focal points. Then choose a gravel type and colour that complements your outdoor space. Incorporate varying sizes of rocks and plants that thrive in gravelly soil. 

What are some low-maintenance plants for planting in gravel?

Low-maintenance plants for gravel gardens include drought-tolerant species like sedum, lavender, sea thrift and various succulents and alpines. These plants love well-draining soil and require minimal watering. Spring blooming bulbs like crocuses, daffodils and narcissus will flower early and thrive.

What type of gravel should I use for my garden feature?

For any gravel feature choose a type based on colour, texture, shape and size that suits your design's theme. Pea gravel is popular for its small size and smooth texture, while larger boulders can add an interesting landscape feel.

How do I prepare the soil for my project?

Prepare the soil for a gravel garden by removing perennial weeds and roots. Ensure the soil is well-draining; amend it with compost for plantings where necessary. Install a weed barrier like landscape fabric before adding gravel to minimize maintenance.

What kind of edging can be used?

Options for edging in a small gravel garden include natural stones, metal or rubber edging, brick, or wooden borders. The choice depends on the garden's style and the level of formality desired.

How do I prevent weeds from growing in my gravel garden?

To prevent weeds, lay a weed barrier like landscape fabric under the gravel. Regularly remove any weeds that do appear, and consider using a pre-emergent herbicide if necessary.

We have every type of gravel available to choose from in the UK. Check them out!

About the author 

Ben Parrot is a landscape gardener and amateur geologist. He is the founder of Outdoor Aggregates, with the mission to create the first encyclopaedia for decorative aggregates. From natural stone through to decorative bark, these aggregates are critical to garden and landscape design, universally.

The problem: There isn't any place where all the different types of decorative landscaping materials and construction aggregates can be found, nor are the specifications of each type readily available. So, enriched by his extensive experience, and inspired by the timeless elegance and raw beauty of stone and rock, etched by nature's artistry over millennia, Outdoor Aggregates was born.