Gravel gardens have been around a long time yet with a few well-known exceptions (Denmans, Beth Chatto and more recently, Olivier Filippi), never really make it into the mainstream of garden design. I suspect that for some designers, there is insufficient structure to satisfy, yet that is actually one of the main benefits. This makes them low-impact, from a carbon perspective, and naturally adaptive, with the kind of planting they use.
I have been designing such gardens for the past twenty plus years, and a part of my own garden is gravel, on the area of an old driveway; it’s the part I enjoy the most. Unlike perennial borders, there is structure all year round and I often wander around in the depths of winter, enjoying the shapes and forms, or the scent of rosemary (sorry to say, now officially Salvia). It’s like you’ve brought a little bit of the Mediterranean into the garden. Plants self-seed around and it’s always a bit different every year. It’s a style also eminently suitable for the arid regions of the Middle-East, whether xeriscaped, or not.
Not everywhere is suitable for a gravel garden and the obvious criteria of sun exposure and poor(ish), free-draining soil are a must. Whilst drainage and soil structure can be altered, aspect cannot. The other factor, frost/cold exposure is actually not such a barrier, although it will limit the plant choice a bit.
Some years ago I was tasked with turning an old farmyard on the South coast of England into such a garden. The compacted rubble was on average 50cm deep, so we loosened and/or removed about 400 tons and replaced a similar amount of topsoil into slightly contoured mounds. As it was a farm, the soil was already available stacked on site and there was somewhere to remove the rubble to. We then rotovated 50cm of gravel into the mounded soil to improve drainage and planted with a range of “Mediterranean” plants. Most were from this region, with some Australian/New Zealand species, most notably Phormium (which I probably wouldn’t use today). We also built a stream and water feature, using 30 tons of boulders (glacial, so not strictly true to theme).
If I were doing this today, I’d leave even more of the rubble in place and blind the soil in over it. Over time I have come to realise that such conditions are an advantage, and expected by many Mediterranean plants.
We used a drip irrigation system for the first year of establishment, which was then switched off in the second year. A 50mm deep dressing of 20mm diameter marine shingle covered everything, including the paths, which were left from the original, compacted sub-base.
I tracked this garden for a few years until the property changed hands and learnt some valuable lessons (as you always do), such as don’t put too many larger growing shrubs in, as the openness of the spatial structure becomes compromised. Whilst they are good at establishing initial structure, be prepared to remove some of them as the garden matures. Some, like the Cotinus and Tamarix, were meant to be coppiced every few years, but didn’t have this done. Some perennials work better than others and low mounding shrubs are what make the predominant visual structure of the site.
This last two pictures, plus the header, are a part of my own gravel garden, created over an old driveway, where I constantly experiment with new plants and slowly expand it all.
Gravel gardening has much to offer and is an appropriate approach for our time, being of low carbon footprint and using plants that are adaptive and generally tough. Have a go, or get me to help…!
The other side of work I undertake in the Middle-East region (other than tree consultancy) is planting design, for creating new landscapes always brings me a special joy. When they are in public spaces, I love the chance it gives to interact (albeit remotely) with many people in place, over time and hopefully, enhance their enjoyment of that place. In the public realm, what that place is, is being questioned and challenged in the light of urbanisation and climate change. Ecology and environment are driving design as never before.
I am about to start working on a collaborative project in Saudi Arabia. It will involve the specification of many trees, shrubs and groundcovers and I get to find out just how many locally-sourced big specimens I can find that are of acceptable quality. Much of this will come down to the application of formative pruning in the nursery and I’ll be on the lookout for the best available in the region. I suspect I’ll be sourcing a lot from neigbouring UAE, simply because of familiarity of sources. Quality remains a challenge, though.
My most pressing concern I have is how to improve on irrigation techniques, which are traditionally massed surface drip lines onto marginally improved sand. This is inefficient and wasteful and I shall be looking at the use of moisture retention mediums and sub-surface irrigation. I believe most watering of landscapes in arid climates could be cut by half, just by more efficient application and retention, in the right place. The picture above shows typical wastage in a Dubai suburban landscape.
Whilst urban planting requires urban plants, I will also be looking at the use of more climate-adaptive species, which I think is important in an era of climate crisis; the Middle-East is going to struggle to cope with every degree of temperature increase. The use of more desert-adapted planting is not new, and not applicable everywhere but I believe there is much scope for experimentation and new thinking.
For me, planting design is about building communities, layering types of plants together in harmonious associations that fit. I don’t mind grouping plants together that come from different geographical regions, but they have to come from a similar ecological niche. Such design is so much more than just nice foliage contrasts and I believe the results can be subtle, but profound.
Landscape must, of course, fit our purpose but I believe we tend to pursue this end to the exclusion of everything else. Nature is the basis of landscape, and so too is ecology, ecosystem and planet. We should not divorce our landscapes from this reality; rather, they should always seek to remind us of these connections. So yes, in town centres and urban streets, we have our eco-bling landscapes; vibrant places, exotic, heady, purfumed, exciting. Nature at it’s most unbelievably flamboyant (cue pic: delonix, the flamboyant tree). Elsewhere, we need more grounded landscapes, more real, more connected to place.
I love this tree, it is everything I have described above, pure eco-bling. Yet it is not appropriate everywhere and because it has become a part of the standard landscape palette, I belive it is overused, and used in places where other species would be more appropriate. I think there are many trees and shrubs that could be used in the region that haven’t been tried yet, from East Africa, for example. The climate there may be more equatorial and more varied but it is not so remote or different as that of some exotics imported from sub-tropical climates (the Delonix mentioned above is from Madagascar, again not too dissimilar).
I think planting design in the Middle-East faces a whole new range of
challenges and opportunities. The changing climate will force new
thinking, to match the new development and the new understanding that is
emerging of our intimate relationship with nature. I’m hoping to
contribute towards that new expression and understanding.