Rock Landscaping Ideas: How To Use Rocks + Gravel


landscaping with rocks and gravel

Decorative gravel has a place in every yard as a way to add texture and color while serving a practical purpose.

Gravel helps keep weeds at bay, facilitate drainage in the yard, provide a suitable material for walkways and more.

Keep in mind that gravel can be a term used for pea-sized stones and larger river rocks but the good news is that either can be found at a local nursery or home improvement store.

Choosing the right gravel for your yard depends on design and purpose so we’ll address several varieties here.

Why Use Decorative Gravel

Durability: Perhaps the main reason why homeowners all over the world utilize gravel is for its durability. Gravel doesn’t discriminate against climate so whether you live in sunny San Diego or snowy Maine, it works. It’s commonly used for roads because it can survive the weight of multi-ton cars and trucks.

Design: Depending on the type of gravel used, it can add a contemporary or rustic look while even softening borders next to walkways and other hardscape. Gravel can come in a variety of gray, earth tones and even mauve. Plus, the crunchy sound heard while stepping on it adds a sensory bonus that a lot of homeowners like.

Flexibility: If exactly where you placed the gravel doesn’t strike your fancy after a while, it’s movable. That being said, the trade-off is that weather, kids, dogs and you can kick it out of place. But, if you put it in a planter as mulch, it’s easy to shift it around as plant preferences change, for example.

Drainage: Gravel has a tendency not to puddle, making it an excellent and relatively inexpensive choice for walkways and even roads, though keep in mind that puddles will form in heavy rains regardless of material used. Gravel placed on sloping ground is often used to guide rainwater into drains and creeks. French drains around homes in Southern California clay soil help wick moisture away from foundations and are also topped with gravel to guide rain water in.

Water Conservation: Gravel is often seen in low-water xeriscape yards as a decorative replacement for grass in addition to artificial turf and hardscape like pavers.

Mulch Replacement: This ties into the above theme of water conservation in which mulch is a key player for both insulating plants from wild temperature swings and preventing soil from drying out. Yards that are well mulched don’t need to be watered as often. Mulch also provides a nice finished look to any yard or planter.

Types of Decorative Gravel

Mexican beach pebbles: With their smooth, matte finish and blue-gray color tone, Mexican beach pebbles add interest to a yard in a variety of applications. They come as small as .5″ or as large as 5″ though many homeowners opt for a mix of sizes. It’s elegant and used to line planters, fountains and walkways or is even commonly placed between stepping stones and pavers. Cost can be an issue here as they do tend to be more expensive than your average gravel, but they are worth it. Definitely consider using these pebbles in zen gardens.

decomposed granite walkway

Decomposed granite:  Otherwise known as DG, decomposed granite is actually granite that has weathered down into smaller rocks and silt. It can compact rather tightly relative to other gravel types and is usually a tan color (sometimes it is grey or mauve) that lightens as the sun shines on it. Decomposed granite with a stabilizer should be added to spaces that receive high traffic such as patios and driveways. Over the years, DG will continue to decompose into the soil and require new layers to be added, however, this won’t break the bank. Just be careful as it can stick to shoes and is very difficult to yank weeds out of it.

Pea gravel: Yes, the rocks are about the size of a pea while also being rounded and smooth. Pea gravel is recommended for dog runs and pet-friendly yards. It’s pretty easy to walk on and comes in a nice range of mixed colors of tan, gray, white and brown. Be aware that wet pea gravel can stick to bare feet, should you be using it around a pool area, for example. It could also blow away if used in an area subject to high winds. There are also several types of pea gravel that also vary in price so make sure to do your homework before purchasing.

river rock landscaping

River Rock: These are typically bigger rocks (seen in the photo above) that are used to create drainage, line walkways or fill planters. They’re tumbled into a round shape too big to walk on as they are thicker and less stable than say Mexican beach pebbles. Homeowners often integrate river rock with mortar into home or fence facades, outdoor fireplaces and more to create a rustic look.

pink gravel with plant in a landscape

Lava Rock: Yes, these rocks are actually harvested from now inactive volcanoes. One eruption can produce enough lava to cover hundreds of miles of land. Lava rock also doesn’t weigh very much, meaning they can stretch the dollar a bit more should you need a a lot delivered. Lava rocks do not decompose, only requiring replacement as they are blown, washed or kicked away. Remember, lava rock is lightweight so the odds of this happening are higher than with other gravel.

Crushed granite rock:  Unlike the small size and fine texture that is sometimes associated with decomposed gravel, crushed granite rock is a little bit larger and much less smooth than say pea gravel. It’s used a lot to provide texture in cactus gardens or similar. The maintenance isn’t drastically different from pea gravel other than it’s less pleasant to step on because of potentially rough edges.

Tips for Landscaping with Gravel

While most gravel is inexpensive relative to alternative hardscape, delivery costs can be an issue because it’s heavy to transport. Though buying in bulk or by the yard is often more cost-effective than buying by the bag for larger installations even with delivery considerations (do the math). To prevent weeds, consider installing gravel on top of a durable, breathable landscape fabric that will suffocate weeds and allow rain to penetrate while keeping rocks from being mashed into the dirt as they are walked on. Be mindful that dark colors absorb sunlight and can be hot to the touch as well as whether or not wind or rainstorms might mess up your intricately-placed gravel design.

Your Turn…

What kind of gravel do you have in your yard? Have you been pleased with it?

Photo credit: top photo, xeriscape, Flickr/dpatricklewis; Flickr/Jeremy Levine Design; decomposed granite, Flickr/Pistils Landscape Design + Build; river rock, Flickr/stonescape; pink gravel, Flickr/mikecogh