Redefining A Garden Bed-From Flat To Gravel

April 4, 2009 010 (2)
There is a space here that is the only bit of flat ground on the entire property. It once was the car park of the house next door that was torn down to build the garage. A year before the garage was built, while the main house was being renovated, in 2000, we lived in the little one bedroom cinder block house next door and parked our three cars on the piece of level graveled land.

Let us go back in time and space to the year 2003. The renovation on the main house is complete. The garage is finished, complete with living space upstairs and a deck on the back overlooking the gardens. The workmen are gone as is the heavy machinery. The pathways have been laid out. The fun begins.

Truckloads of compost had been spread over what had been the old driveway after the new circle drive had been paved. Lawn grass was planted in the lower part. A row of Arborvitae was planted for privacy and seperation from the back garden area. Ferngully can be seen in his magnificence in the background, giving shade to that corner. His demise was worthy of a post, one of our earliest, click here-Ferngully to view it. The row of Zebra grass was subsequently removed to extend the Arborvitae to the pathway from the driveway, one of those what were we thinking? moments.

A new garden bed is like a young child. Fresh, soft, smooth skin, an attitude like a sponge, ready to soak up everything and anything to begin a new life. A new garden bed has fresh, soft soil, and is ready to nourish and grow anything and everything planted in it. This space was once like such a child. Newly cleared, a load of good compost dumped and spread on it, flat, sunny, within easy reaching of the hose spigot, ready for planting, a gardener’s dream. It was amazing that first year. Poppy seeds from neighbor Mae were scattered over and raked in, just like the books and magazines describe. Water was applied faithfully and the sun shone brightly. It was a vision.

What a difference a year can make. Ignorant and naive, the next year we expected it to look just as before. It did not. There were some poppies that popped up but it was mostly weeds. The fresh, smooth beautiful compost had disappeared to reveal the sharp gravel underneath in what had once been a driveway. Ferngully was dismantled, leaving the trunk to stand sentinel over the garden for several more years.

The pretty little Forest Pansy Redbud did not leaf out and was replaced with Betula ‘Crimson Frost’ in 2004.

It has been seven years since that first euphoric poppy display. We have thrown every kind of plant imagineable into the space, hoping for anything to take hold and grow in those inhospitable conditions. A few things have survived, a couple have flourished. Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ was one of the first perennial plantings, three four inch pots were planted way too far apart. Each year they were divided and grouped closer together, forming the tall backdrop for the bed. An unknown yellow button mum was also planted early on. It thrives in the sunny spot and blooms without fail every November. These are the success stories to offset the heartbreak and loss of treasure with the myriad other plantings that have failed. Also, growing with abandon in every nook and cranny are native white asters of every sort and stripe. We have no idea the species names, they are all volunteers with various leaf forms. Asters with blue flowers were added one year, A. laevis ‘Blue Bird’, cordifolius, oblongifolius ‘October Skies’, paludosus var. hemisphericus (Tennessee aster), Jindai, and tataricus. (I am calling these Asters no matter who says differently).

Even though the conditions are all wrong, the toughest of the tough species daylily, Hemerocallis fulva thrives in the flat bed. Planted as the next ring of hell in front of the center circle of Karl at the back, the tall orange flowers and green strappy leaves are welcome to spread and seed to their heart’s desire there, and have done so. A few red H. ‘Pardon Me’ clumps were added just because they were extras and a spot was needed in which to stick them. They are actually too short, though they bloom anyway. The blue flowers are Lavendula ‘Provence’.

After years of annual seeds and cuttings being stuck into the mix, the quest for perennial plants that will grow in these conditions is upon us. Annuals have their place but the Fairegarden is about sustainability and ease of maintenance for an ever aging gardener. Besides, winter interest is of prime importance.

Perennial plantings in the mid-section that have survived for more than one season are Penstemon digitalis ‘Husker Red’, various other Penstemon ssp., Artemesia vulgaris ‘Oriental Limelight’, a horrible thug that needs to be eradicated, Iris germanica and Helictotrichon. Moving closer to the front edge these pioneers can be found: Stachys byzantina, Nepeta mussinii, various Dianthus grat. cultivars., volunteer Verbena bonariensis, volunteer Prunella and Perilla and Festuca glauca. And dandelions. And violets.

We are renaming this bed the Gravel Garden and have actually added more gravel to it, ala Beth Chatto’s English gardens. We are thinking of grouping the plants into swaths of one type all together. We are thinking of buying more plants. We did buy her book Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden-Drought-resistant planting through the year. After reading just the first chapter, I am energized and inspired. Move over, Piet, Beth is my new mentor. She writes that adding gravel mulch to gravel soil helps to hold in moisture and keeps weeds in check. Before adding the stone mulch, we did a detailed manicure and hope to keep the weeds at bay and the plantings groomed as they fill in and weave together. Some plants have already been moved into a more swath-like arrangement.

It may come as a surprise that we did buy more plants, however outrageous that may seem since the garden is already home to more varieties than can be counted. Just ask The Financier about the absurdity of it. Destination gravel bed: Achillea filipendulina ‘Cloth Of Gold’, Achillea filipendulina ‘Coronation Gold’, Tansy, Tanacetum vulgare , Santolina chamaecyparissus, Phlomis viscosa, Verbascum chaixii ‘Album’, Stipa barbatus seen at left, Asphodeline lutea, seen at right, and a little yellow flowered fernleaf daisy that we dug up along the side of the road. That sounds like a lot, but with only one of each, little impact can be seen as yet. These will be watched closely to make sure they settle in nicely. Some have already put on new growth with diligent watering and some rainfall. The gravel makes inspection oh so easy with the contrast of tan stones to green and grey leaves.

This is just the beginning. Reading the book, looking with new eyes at this space with the new name, waiting for ideas to enter the cerebral cortex will help the vision come to fruition. After we decide on what the vision might be, that is.


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31 Responses to Redefining A Garden Bed-From Flat To Gravel

  1. gardeningasylum says:

    Good morning Frances, that is a wonderful book and led to my gardening right into the gravel driveway here. I love that you are willing to keep going back to this space with new ideas, and inspired by la Chatto I’m sure success will be yours. Have you tried alpine eryngium there?

    Hi Cyndy, thanks. I am determined and rarely ever give up on anything, for good or ill! I am so enjoying the book and am glad you were inspired to do the same. I might have to share notes with you about your successes and failures! I saw she used the Eryngiums there. I might scatter some seed heads since there is already a large stand of alpinum up by the shed. What I really need are large leaves, she uses Bergenia. I have some of that but thought it needed shade. I am thinking of moving it to give it a whirl, what do you think?

  2. Edith Hope says:

    Dear Frances, It is always good to rearrange areas that are tired or lack the impact one is seeking. And, who better to advise on this gravel area but Beth Chatto. She always makes it seem easy but I know that as her East Anglian garden is extremely dry, she spends much time and effort on foundation preparation before she plants. I think that this is a good principle for any garden or border.

    Hi Edith, thanks. You are spot on with the rearranging. For a while we would make a new bed to satisfy the gardening itch once everything was planted up. Now it is time to rededorate, inside and out! No need to buy new stuff really, just use existing things in new ways and combinations. Ms. Chatto wrote of using heavy machinery to prepare her soil before planting. I do wish I could have done that, but did not, and will not ever. We have to work with what is. Onward! πŸ™‚

  3. Carol says:

    Yes, never be afraid to try again, to do more research, to consider other options in an area of the garden that just isn’t quite “there” yet. And please tell The Financier that there is no such thing as “enough” when it comes to plants!

    Hi Carol, thanks for the encouragement! Poor Financier, he knows there is no stopping me from buying plants! πŸ™‚

  4. Frances, a very interesting post, but I am most in love with your gravel at the moment. I just changed the paths in my Flora Glade from wood chips to stonedust, so, so very pale grey, not sure that I like it. But lovely tan gravel like this, that I would love.

    Hi Deborah, thanks. Your Flora Glade sounds so dreamy, I would love to see it someday! All the gravel here is the tan color but most of the main paths are a darker brown mixture. It is river rock from the Tennessee River. The packaged stuff is much lighter in color, too light for my taste but the plant material will cover most of it in time like happened in the knot garden.

  5. Les says:

    One of the beauties of the art form called gardening, is that we can change what we want to, and change it multiple times. You are fortunate to have a record of your efforts. Until recently I never had enough forethought to take before, during and after photos.

    Hi Les, thanks so much. I have very few records before the first digital camera was received in fall 2002. I did put all the photos on disc and now jump drives. There was a computer crash in 2006 that lost everything from January to June of that year. Heartbreaking! Yes, take lots of shots, and be sure to date them, I didn’t do that in the beginning! πŸ™‚

  6. Sylvia (England) says:

    Frances, I am a fan of Beth but it is her woodland books I love. Give me trees to garden under and I am happy! But a good gardener makes the very best of the situation available and you are certainly doing that. I think it can take a while to really understand each part of a garden. I am looking forward to lots more pictures of your gravel garden.

    Best wishes Sylvia (England)

    Hi Sylvia, thanks. I have her woodland book as well, but lack the woodland or even much shade to put her ideas to use. I don’t think I will ever understand the garden completely, no matter how much study it is given. It keeps changing! πŸ™‚

  7. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    It looks like you have a great start on your new vision. I can’t wait to see how it develops.

    Hi Lisa, thanks. Me too. I love seeing how things change over time and we have some good before shots. πŸ™‚

  8. Sylvia (England) says:

    Frances, I have seen bergenia’s growing, in several local gardens, in full sun and they flower really well. I think yours will be happy in the sun, South East England and Beth’s garden is dry and hot – for the UK.

    Best wishes Sylvia (again!)

    Hi Sylvia, thanks for that. In her book, Beth mentions the high temp of 86F. We get a whole lot hotter than that here and for most of the summer. I have two Bergenias, may move one to the gravel bed and see what happens.
    Warmest regards,

  9. Balisha says:

    Hi Frances…It’s so interesting for us “old gardeners” to follow a garden of trial and error. We don’t have the energy or “knees” anymore to do the hard work. I have enjoyed following you in your very interesting garden. Such beautiful photos…Balisha

    Hi Balisha, thanks, so nice to see you here. Physical limitations are definitely a part of the design process! Glad you have enjoyed this story. I have been working everyday in this bed for two weeks now, it gets a little better each day. πŸ™‚

  10. Donna says:

    Change is good. All gardens get tired over time, maybe not to others, but to ourselves. It is always fun to plant new varieties and watch them develop. Gravel is a wonderful mulch. I have a difficult time getting clients on board, but they are always delighted after installation. Rock beds and the Mediterranean plants love the addition of gravel. Our climate and soil conditions are not the best for them, but they love their gravel and amended bed.

    Hi Donna, thanks. I agree completely. It’s funny how people are resistant to the gravel mulch. I used it as a last resort in the knot garden to deter the squirrels from burying and looking for the walnuts. It worked in that case, but the thyme planted in those quadrants has been miraculous! I love the look of it and the plants love the moisture retention that the stones provide. All good.

  11. Frances, I do believe these are the best lines you’ve ever written, “A new garden bed is like a young child. Fresh, soft, smooth skin, an attitude like a sponge, ready to soak up everything and anything to begin a new life. A new garden bed has fresh, soft soil, and is ready to nourish and grow anything and everything planted in it.” They are almost poetic in their structure and meaning and oh so true. I can’t wait to see what the gravel garden brings in a season or two, and I loved this post.

    Oh Dee, you are the sweetest thing, thanks! Your own posts are always so beautifully written, I appreciate your kind words, it means a great deal to me. The gravel garden bed has already taught me many lessons, including humility in the face of nature’s power. We do what we can with what we’ve got. πŸ™‚

  12. Gail says:

    Dear Frances, What a delicious and nutritious post~Each photo and narrative deserves a comment. You given us much to enjoy, think about and learn from~ Thank goodness there’s other means of communication or I would be posting in your comment section. Seriously, my mind is going 100 miles an hour and it’s not just from Italian Roast coffee! Yes, indeed let’s call them asters~they will always be asters to me. I especially love the photo with grasses, daylilies and lavender. xxoogail

    Dear Gail, you are a sweetheart and good friend to be so encouraging! The remake of this bed has given me renewed vigah in the garden after a long hot and dry summer. Even the weather has changed, along with my outlook! πŸ™‚
    ps, asters forever!!!!

  13. That was a good read Frances. I will check out Beth’s book. I plan to redo my rock garden this winter and plan to add gravel to it as well.

    Thanks Helen, I appreciate your support! I am loving the book about the making of her gravel garden, even if I don’t have heavy machinery and regular staff, not to mention being in England. I admire that she also has a nursery of her own making there, to help support the garden. And to think that she is 87 years young! She looks marvelous too. πŸ™‚

  14. Rose says:

    As always, you are an inspiration, Frances! I’ve had this same experience in the short time I’ve been gardening–the vision of one year becomes a nightmare the next. It looks like you’ve gotten a great start on creating your new vision. I think I ought to check out Beth Chatto’s book.

    Hi Rose, thanks for that. One thing we have both learned is that the gardens are not static, they change every minute! Do look into Beth’s book. She is a very good writer. πŸ™‚

  15. Jenny B says:

    Outrageous to buy new plants? How outrageous! πŸ˜‰ Plants always whisper to me, “There is always room for one more”, as they hop into my cart at the nursery. Seriously though, I love seeing the progression of your bed as you search for a good working team of plants to survive those conditions. So much of gardening seems to be trial and error, and I think it keeps things fresh as one searches for those perfect pairings. Even when you find it, the garden never stays the same from one growing season to the next, and sometimes you are forced to look for another solution.

    How funny, Jenny! Thanks for dropping by. The search for the right plant combinations here is never ending, but we enjoy the process. It’s called gardening! HA πŸ™‚

  16. Valerie says:

    It is so interesting…the evolution of a garden. How as you gain confidence and try new things, change those that do not work out and find those that flourish. It is never ending but fun. We are having fun Frances.

    We are, Valerie. I wouldn’t have it any other way, would you? It is always changing, by the minute! πŸ™‚

  17. I admire you’re willingness to try something different. It makes sense to stop fighting the soil conditions and instead work with them.

    Hi MMD, thanks. It has taken years to try and figure out just what was wrong in this bed. Still don’t know if I have figured it out, but we are making an effort with it. We should give every bed a performance review! πŸ™‚

  18. I was going to say late summer just begs the gardener to edit, but then I remember I walk through the garden in all seasons with the editor’s eye! I also like the daylilies and lavender. And you know, the weeds can teach you what things grow well, or what colors will do well, or what kind of structure is needed.

    Hi Kathy, thanks for visiting. I agree, this time of year makes me feel ready for change, but the garden is eyed with change in mind every time it is perused! We leave some weeds in place, calling them wilflowers, and appreciate what they have to teach us about many things. The violets and clover, we have already learned their lessons! HA πŸ™‚

  19. Barbarapc says:

    I adore reading stories about a garden & gardener’s evolution – thank you Frances. I think you’ll be delighted with the gravel gardenresults. Beth’s message to me was – find the species adapted to the situation and you’ll be away to the races. Am enjoying “Dear Gardener and Friend” correspondence between Beth and Christopher Lloyd – the gravel garden, guests and rainfall figure large in the first few letters – a delightful read if you haven’t had a chance.

    Hi Barbara, you are so kind, thank you. The Chatto/Lloyd book is on my must have list and will be read soon! They are both gardeners that I much admire. I am already in love with the Gravel Garden, feeling better prepared to get the planting right, thanks to the advice of Ms. Chatto. I appreciate the recommendation! πŸ™‚

  20. Victoria says:

    Lovely post, Frances. I have bergenia in dry hot places, but it doesn’t do as well as it does in shade. What about Euphorbia characias subsp wulfenii? It doesn’t have big leaves, of course, but it creates wonderful architectural clumps and it’s as tough as old boots. Have you tried any of the perennial wallflowers, such as Erysimum bicolor ‘Bowles Mauve’?

    Hi Victoria, thanks and so nice to see you. It is quite a bit hotter here than in England, I was wondering what effect that would have on the Bergenia. Maybe a spot under something tall for some protection will be tried. So far I have resisted the urge to move them into the gravel garden even though it is on my to do list. I see Ms. Chatto mentions that Euphorbia a lot in the book, but have never come across any for sale. We do have Chameleon, another of her favorites. It is a thug, if a pretty one and won’t be allowed in the new bed. We do have that wallflower, consider it one of the best, but not perhaps for the gravel bed. Thanks for the recommendations! πŸ™‚

  21. Interesting series on the transition of your gravel space. We have a gravel parking area that is never used and I was set to transform it. However, I have faced the fact that I don’t want to enlarge my garden in terms of my age and the tending chores. I’ll enjoy your gravel garden stories instead!

    Hi Cameron, thanks. I perfectly understand your hesitation to make even more garden to take care of. I believe you have enough, if there is such a thing. πŸ™‚

  22. What a different direction of heading the problem head on. My property doesn’t lend itself to this situlation but I truly love the idea. More area to be “unattented”, or at least an easier method. Kaaren

    Hi Kaaren, thanks and welcome. Less maintenance is certainly an obtainable goal, and a worthy one!

  23. Eileen says:

    I really enjoyed looking at your rivers of plants and leaf man. That toffee carex is a favorite of mine and loooks spectacular in a large grouping.


    Hi Eileen, thanks, so nice to see you. I too love the bronze carex family and am hoping the new river will fill in to become a rushing stream. πŸ™‚

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  25. sequoiagardens says:

    In interesting post Frances; a true gardener’s post! I’ve never thought of bergenia as a shade plant, but rather one that copes with shade. I do find that they take long to establish properly, but I love them. Acanthus might do, but they can become thuggish and are quite tall compared to bergenia. Nicotiana alata (especially those close to species – get seed from old stock) make attractive rosettes of leaves before forming flower stalks of wonderfully scented flowers. When they get tatty, yank them out. I get two crops a year, so things change quickly. Verbascums do the same, but slowly, being biannuals. Eucomis (Pineapple Lily) is a perennial that will also work. In fact their rosettes of strappy leaves are often held close to the ground and are very attractive and space-filling: I posted extensively on them at Moosey’s once, here:

    Listen to me. I sound like an expert on using large-leaved plants when it is one of my biggest failings!

    Hi Jack, thanks. I appreciate your input and suggestions of large leaves. Some might work here. We did try Eucomis last year and it did not survive our wet, and colder than usual winter. That is a problem with our climate, very hot and dry in summer, and cold wet winters, even with the good drainage of the slope, the soil is still clay. Finding what will grow well here is the constant search. I have some Bergenia seedlings from a packet sown last winter in the greenhouse that might make it into the gravel garden once they get large enough, some but not all. I don’t want to lose my babies! I will check out your post, for I always love them. Uh oh, Jack, the link did not work!!! πŸ™‚

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