Simple, elegant, and economical

Story and Photos By Nan K. Chase

Gravel walkways or paths never go out of style. A well-installed gravel path can last forever, bringing elegance to any garden. Even better, gravel is inexpensive, low maintenance, and available in variety of colors, sizes, and materials.

A curving pathway is attractive, and at 3 feet wide, it allows easy access to flowerbeds on both sides.

Ancient Romans laid gravel roadways across their empire and Japanese gardeners created beautiful gravel courtyards. Estates in Britain and Europe often had expanses of gravel in front, and colonial American homes also used gravel for paths and driveways. 

Cross-section of gravel walkway installation.

My love affair with gravel began a decade ago, after my husband and I built a new house in Asheville. Mud was everywhere, and after a year we realized the problem wouldn’t fix itself. Instead of lawn on our tiny lot – less than 1/10-acre – we had a series of rutted tracks circling the house where we pushed the wheelbarrow.

In this tight space, a gravel pathway lends definition. Perennial plants stay to the right, while rotating crops are to the left – as well as a young pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba).

The solution was gravel. We called in a landscape pro, and together we designed a pathway and then he got to work: clearing vegetation, removing soil to a depth of 6-8 inches, and then installing flexible steel edging and a protective layer of breathable landscape fabric. Finally, the ½-inch sharp crushed gravel – lots of it. And those walkways still look like they were just installed.

This S-shaped pathway makes a tiny front yard look much bigger. Keeping gravel pathways looking good is a snap: just occasionally use a soft rake to remove fallen debris.

Gravel walkways drain easily – all year and in all kinds of weather. An occasional pass with a soft rake keeps them looking tidy and any errant seedlings are easy to see and remove.

Gravel pathways look good even in winter, as well as providing safe footing on rainy and snowy days.

The Line Starts Here

Materials used for gravel “paving” include crushed seashells, tumbled glass pellets, ground pottery shards, and processed lava rock or sandstone. Typically, though, gardeners use small pebbles or crushed stone, since these are cheap and readily available (search the internet for quarries that can deliver dump truck loads). Buy gravel that is ¾-inch or smaller.

Count on gravel to create a sunny “patio” effect, as seen in this urban landscape. As long as it’s level, gravel is fine for placement of chunky patio furniture. Note the bricks used for edging.

The type of gravel to use is a personal choice, but often gardeners like gravel that matches the local soil, since it looks natural. Gardeners in cold climates sometimes use dark gravel, which helps speed up melting snow and ice; in hot regions some prefer lighter colors because it stays cooler. I much prefer the pleasant “crunch” of sharply ground stone to the annoying “squeak” of round pea gravel. You may disagree.

An imaginative – and confident – gardener substituted gravel for lawn. The entire yard is virtually maintenance-free.

When laying out a gravel path, see how many curves you can include. Curves gently guide the eye through the landscape and provide opportunities to create interesting planting beds.

The materials needed for laying a gravel pathway include shovels and rakes, metal strips or other sturdy edging, pounding tools … and a lot of gravel. Pictured here is “sharp” crushed gravel.

Edging can be anything strong enough to keep gravel contained: bricks, dressed stone, etc. More economical options include semi-rigid metal or heavy plastic strips that are anchored into the desired shape with big pins.

It’s important to clear away all small trees, roots, and other impediments to ensure a stable, level pathway. Here a landscaper removes a tree; notice the actual path is about 6-8 inches below grade.


A good source for design ideas with depictions of gravel “paving” is The Bartlett Book of Garden Elements by Michael Valentine Bartlett and Rose Love Bartlett. Check it out here on Amazon.

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