A Gravel Garden For Free

Behind some outbuildings at the Old Forge is an oil tank and an expanse of gravel.  For three long years, I weeded that gravel until, a couple of years ago, I (finally) realised I was being stupid.  Instead of weeding, why not fill it with plants?  Drought resistant, hardy plants of course but there would be another stipulation.  The owners hadn’t asked me to do it, they didn’t know I was going to do it – I could hardly spend their money on planting up my own little project.  So, I would only use plants I already had, sow seeds I could collect and hopefully, please them with the result.

Gravel garden

This is the oil tank area a couple of months ago with new growth appearing.   During the summer of 2013, I shook opium poppy seed-heads about, as well as the seeds of Verbascum olympicum.

Gravel garden (6)

June 2015

I added some spindly valerian plants (Centranthus ruber) – salvaged from someone’s compost heap.

Gravel garden (5)

And they’re flourishing in these hot, dry conditions.

Gravel garden (8)

I planted several clumps of a variegated grass.  I’m afraid I don’t know the variety – it too was unloved in another garden.

Gravel garden (1)

Crocosmia went into the mix (there is always spare crocosmia in any garden I’ve ever worked in).  They’ll flower later.   Verbena bonariensis is here too (from an almost infinite supply of seedlings at the Priory).  They have just started flowering.

Gravel garden (10)

I left a wide path so that the oil-delivery man can get to the tank – with his large, sinuous hose.

Gravel garden (12)

The verbascum has been the only failure and that’s a shame; the towering yellow spikes would’ve looked grand.

Gravel garden (7)

The caterpillars of the Mullein moth have shredded my lovely plants.  I’ve picked off dozens but, as I’m only at the Old Forge once a week, I haven’t been able to clear them all.

Gravel garden (13)

Look what they’ve done to my should-be-stately plants.  I shan’t be using verbascum again.  All the plants here must be tough and more-or-less problem free.  Sorry verbascum – you just don’t make the grade.

Honeybees in Opium poppy (2)

The amount of insect interest in my ‘new garden’ has been fantastic.

Honeybees in Opium poppy (1)

I’ve seen four or five honeybees crammed into one poppy.

Red admiral butterfly  (2)

Butterflies, like this red admiral, love the valerian.

But the icing on my Bakewell tart is the Hummingbird hawk-moth.  I’ve seen them at the ‘Forge before feeding on lavender and V. bonariensis.  But now I can watch them flitting about and supping on valerian too.

Gravel garden (3)

I watered the plants (only once a week, obviously) whilst they got established but otherwise they fend for themselves.  Below the three-inch deep gravel is very poor soil – mostly lumps of chalk actually.  I do a little weeding and thinning; and pull up the poppies after they’ve seeded.

Gravel garden (9)

It is still a little sparse but I have some ideas for more plants and something to fill the forthcoming ‘verbascum gaps.’   But I’ll only use stock or seed I already have or can scavenge.  Because what I really like about my little gravel garden is … it didn’t cost a penny.


67 thoughts on “A Gravel Garden For Free

  1. Pingback: Aberdeen Update | My Aberdeen Garden

    • Hi Sara, I don’t have mullein moth at the Priory so my verbascums there are fine. But I suspect it is just a matter of time before they seek me out – rather like lily beetle gave me a couple of years’ grace before appearing. I’ve reached the point where the latter are beginning to make me think whether to grow lilies at all. Hateful things. D


      • I had one or two glorious years of Verbascums before those stripy blighters arrived and decimated them. Fortunately they don’t seem to have found my V.phoeniceum; I’ll be really sad if that is munched too!
        I fortunately don’t grow lilies because they’re poisonous to cats – and their pollen brings my husband out in huge allergies too – just as well or I’m sure that would be another critter to drive me to despair!


  2. Great to have discovered this excellent post and Intereting website. Gravel gardening the minimal way is a prime topic for me. Shame about the verbascum, for spires maybe try linaria, though they’d still be in the same colour spectrum. How about adding some grasses?


  3. I hope the oil-delivery man appreciates his new flowery access route, it is beautiful and an incentive to try and work with even those difficult parts in the garden. It has made me think about some really stony dry areas I have. I’ll be following the progress of your gravel garden with interest and see what else you magic up to add as all those plants do very well here. Amelia


    • I think the oil-man mostly comes during the cold months when the gravel is simply … gravel. I’m very tardy with my responses to these comments but now a week later the verbascums don’t look as bad as I feared. Today was the hottest July day ever in the UK so I did cheat a bit and gave some of the plants a good soaking. Dave


  4. would love know the reaction of your client?

    Our new garden has lots of hungry bees and I like to see that they enjoy poppies, as I’m spreading the inherited seedlings of Californian orange and Flanders red.


    • Hullo Diana, erm good question. The client hasn’t actually mentioned it … yet. But we’ll just suppose they’re happy, or at least hope. I’m going to cheat, I’ve decided. I’ll sow Californian poppies about the gravel and hang the expense. They’ll look great. Dave


  5. I think your mystery grass looks like Variegated Ribbon Grass (Phalaris arundinacea var. Picta)… Also, really nice photos of the insects! It must be so rewarding to have made something beautiful from nothing.


    • Hullo Emily, tick and gold star for you. Thank you for identifying my grass. I used to dislike variegated plants but I’m softening in old age. I really like the ribbon grass (if a little surprised it seems so happy in such harsh conditions). Dave.


    • Hi, yes they are all purple. Must have been the seed I scattered (though I didn’t think they necessarily came true). Most of the opium poppies elsewhere in the garden are red or pink. D


  6. Welcome to the club! I have been preaching about the potential of gravel gardens for years and blog about them frequently.
    The ones that have most potential are the ones that DO NOT overlay plastic (which is popular – and effective too for none gardeners who just want an unchanging weed free garden)


    • I do dislike weed suppressant fabric, Roger. The previous owners of the Old Forge put it down with gay abandon and however much I try and hide it, the rabbits or weather soon uncovers it again. Frankly I’d rather have weeds than black plastic peeking out all over the place! Dave


  7. That’s really turned out rather well – are the owners pleased? I wish you could tell us what that grass is – it’s too small for Arundo donax, too narrow for an Astelia, wrong colour for a Miscanthus. Any guesses to quash my curiosity?


    • No guesses from me, Caro but Emily above seems to have nailed the grass id as Phalaris arundinacea var. Picta. Certainly looks like it from the pictures online. I worry how it’s going to fair in this very hot, very dry weather. I guess I’ll soon find out! Dave


  8. If you can get hold of a romneya it will do splendidly in these conditions. Take root cuttings in February when plant is dormant, baby along until they are established.


  9. I’ve been harbouring a desire to create a gravel garden for a year or two now. I don’t have space for one in the garden though. Wondering about a very large planter though, something like a cattle feeding trough. Yours is fab. Drat those mullein caterpillars though. I love verbascums and they were all over Chelsea this year but I don’t really have the right soil conditions for them so I’ve resisted. Mullein moth doesn’t make me think I should give in to temptation. Californian Poppies would look amazing in your gravel. You need to get over to Derek Jarman’s place for a spot of research. 😉 Have a lovely weekend. Lou


    • Funny you should mention cattle troughs, Lou. There are two at the Old Forge, neither of which I’ve properly used (these are the very long water troughs). One has potatoes in it! But I’ve been meaning to plant them up with something a little more interesting. And yes to Californian poppies (but nope still haven’t visited Dungeness). Weekend was great thanks – apart from breaking down on the M25 and consequently missing RHS Hampton Court. D


      • Ooo! I like the sound of those troughs. They’d look fabulous planted with Dianthus carthusianorum, Verbena rigida and Californian poopies. Sorry, I’m coveting your troughs!
        Sorry to hear you missed Hampton Court. I didn’t go either. I didn’t get around to applying for my pass. In the end I had too much to do at the allotment, so probably just as well I didn’t go. Hope you’ve had some rain there. We’ve had a good amount but the sun is out again – perfect growing conditions. Have a good weekend. Lou


        • I’ve never had my troughs coveted before, Lou – so thank you. I feel quite special,. Good planting scheme idea too. Sad about Hampton Court – that’s two passes this year I haven’t been able to use. Oh well, next year! Not nearly enough rain here – it hasn’t been the easiest of gardening years. Happy weekend to you too. D


  10. You are so resourceful and a great plants man. I enjoyed this blog tremendously.
    The gravel garden looks fantastic and I am sure the man filling the oil tank would be enjoying the sights as well on all of his visits.


  11. I agree with Rej. It is amazing what colour can be achieved in a gravel gardens. I love California poppies in them. Would Hollyhocks provide you with the statuesque plants you wish for?


    • Good thought on the Californian poppies, Brian. Would it be cheating so very much for me to buy a couple of packets? Probably. I do grow them but haven’t tried to collect seed before. Time to start. I love hollyhocks but I’ve given up – the rust depresses me too much. Dave


  12. It’s wonderful, Dave. Valerian is one of my favorite indestructible plants — still blooming here after a week of 100F weather (which is more than can be said of me). Would something like a yellow baptisia work in place of the mullein?


    • I’m sure you still are blooming, Stacy – if quietly. Thanks for the tip. Not a plant I know at all but I never know which plant I might be asked to remove from a garden. Jim especially is always coming home with ‘stuff’ he couldn’t bear to throw out at the owner’s insistence. D

      Liked by 1 person

    • It should work – so long as there is ‘something’ for the roots to grow into. The gravel has been there for several years so will have some nutrients broken down amongst it. D


  13. I’m looking forward to the crocosmia and verbena in bloom together, that will be a show! Hope it makes up for your verbascum troubles.
    The forge is starting to get interesting.


    • Hi Frank, it was only recently that I realised that I had quite a lot to write about and show at the Old Forge – it has always been overshadowed by the Priory, at least in my mind. More to come! Dave


  14. Your shots of the hummingbird Hawk Moth are wonderful – I’ve seen a couple of these moths in my garden recently but couldn’t identify them – until now! Many thanks! Sue.


  15. Great ideas for a gravel garden. I didn’t know you could grow so much without much soil. I have a very dry raised bed with poor soil round the side of the house. (Lots of tree roots from a neighbours hedge make it difficult to grow things) so I might pinch a few ideas. Only problem is your garden seems to be predominantly purple and my other half doesn’t like purple!


    • There is a white valerian if that is of any help, Annette. And as others have suggested, you might try Californian poppies instead of opium poppies. The verbascum of course would’ve been yellow and the crocosmia will be orange. Dave


      • Thanks for the ideas Dave, I am certainly thinking about creating some sort of dry garden, maybe with some large rocks and some slate chips. I think I will pass on the Crocosmia, though, as I had a very bad time digging some out last year – my fault as I had left it about 20 years! Thanks for following my blog,too – I hope you will enjoy some of my articles as much as I enjoy yours. They are a bit few and far between sometimes as we are away quite a lot, but I have a few ready to write.


        • Crocosmia-phobia, eh? I know exactly what you mean. I’ve planted up an old bed at the Priory and am forever pulling up the sprouting crocosmia bulbs I missed when clearing it. There’s a lot. I used it in this gravel simply because I had loads to hand and it was free. (The only one I truly like is Lucifer). The frequency of some blogger’s posts never ceases to amaze me. I usually struggle to get four out a month – and at the moment I have absolutely no idea what my next post will be about. D

          Liked by 1 person

  16. We’ve just bought a second home in Norfolk and I plan on making the small garden very low maintenance as we won’t be there all the time. You have given me some great ideas and I would be interested to learn what you replace the munched verbascum with?! Do you think all these plants would work just as well with small pebbles rather than gravel? Thank you once again for a wonderful blog!


    • Hello Claire, I was thinking of introducing golden oats (Stipa gigantea) – I have some spare at the Priory – and also king’s spear (Asphodeline lutea). A couple of people here have suggested Californian poppies which I shall also add. Pebbles should be fine, I think – so long as they’re not too large. Otherwise your plants’ roots will be trying to grow in air pockets! Good luck and I’m pleased you like my blog. Dave


  17. It’s always frustrating when asked by the customer to “remove” a perfectly good plant. This creation is a wonderful solution! You are showing commitment and vision for what clearly is a passion. Brilliant! Thank for this.


    • That is so true. And not only for me but for every gardener I’ve ever known. “You want me to dig that up? Really? And burn it/throw it on the compost? Really?” The good side is that I’ve had some brilliant free plants! Dave


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