While many of us strive to perfect our lawns, for others turf can be a serious turn off. When Carolyn Dunster, the north London-based author behind the book Urban Flowers: Creating abundance in a small city garden, realized that her son was old enough to play football at the local park rather than in the family garden, she took her chance and stripped away all the grass. And then replaced it with a beautiful gravel garden in which she can grow myriad annuals and perennials.

“I do not miss the lawn a single bit,” says Carolyn. “It was the bane of my life as it never looked as green and verdant as I wanted it to. It provided a safe space for my children to play on when they were little but I am much happier, as a designer, with the way my garden looks now.” Read on to find out how to turn a garden over to gravel.

Photography by Nicholas Hodgson.

gravel garden London Carolyn Dunster by Nicholas Hodgson
Above: Removing the existing turf and roots by hand was the biggest job—although, Dunster says, it’s a job two people can easily accomplish over a weekend. She then dug out the brick borders that had edged the original flower beds and leveled out any dips with sharp sand.

Before turning her attention to the 600-foot garden behind the house, Carolyn, a florist and garden designer, had already seen how effective laying gravel could be because she’d done the same thing in her beautiful front garden.

gravel garden London Carol Dunster echinacea by Nicholas Hodgson
Above: Pink echinacea blooms in the gravel garden. For more tips on how to grow and care for echinacea, see Gardening 101: Coneflowers.

All the gravel had to be brought through a side access, so Carolyn ordered it in builders’ bags that were more easily transported. She simply laid it on top of the bare earth to a depth of 3 centimeters (approximately 1 inch). “I purposely did not put down a membrane as I wanted to plant directly into the bare soil below and give my flowers the best chance of setting seed,” explains Carolyn. “My plan was to do away with any formal beds so that I have a profusion of flowers and shrubs growing in what looks like a totally natural setting.”

gravel garden Carol Dunster London nicotiana by Nicholas Hodgson
Above: Nicotiana blooms against the house.

Carolyn is convinced that the gravel speeds up the germination of annuals, and she also plants successively in spring and autumn to ensure a constant supply of flowers. She grows masses of self-seeding annuals including love-in-the-mist, cornflowers, scabious, nicotiana, Queen Anne’s lace, poppies, and cosmos along with biennials such as antirrhinums, honesty, and sweet rocket.  She also collects seed to resow, but encourages self-seeding wherever possible.

gravel garden Carolyn Dunster London outdoor cafe dining table chairs by Nicholas Hodgson
Above: “My aim is to achieve the right mix of colors and shapes to make  hand-tied bunches that look as if they have just been picked for my floristry work,” adds Carolyn, who works on a bespoke basis at Urban Flowers.

There are also long-flowering perennials including astrantia, penstemon, verbena bonariensis, monarda and red valerian.  And so far there aren’t any plants that have not flourished in the gravel; even the existing evergreens that were left from the old garden are happy sitting in the gravel.

gravel gardening Carolyn Dunster galvanized watering cans by Nicholas Hodgson
Above: There’s no irrigation but Carolyn will water with a hose if there’s no rain for more than a week.

The benefits to gravel are numerous. “I think it sets all my plants off beautifully and adds a textural dimension. There are no ugly spaces of bare earth left when the flowers have gone over and I don’t find it difficult to look after. The key is to recognize your seedlings so that you can remove them if they are weeds or in the wrong place. The gravel also provides extra protection for the roots over the winter.”

Above: Roses in bloom.

Carolyn also notes that since turning over her garden to flowers, the space is now a haven for wildlife with bees, butterflies, and other pollinating insects as well as the birds that follow them.

gravel garden Carolyn Dunster London by Nicholas Hodgson
Above: “I advise all my clients to dig up their small city lawns and replace them with gravel,” says Carolyn. “It is cheap, attractive, better for the environment than paving slabs as it allows the rain water to sink through, and best of all it means you get loads of flowering plants for free if you allow them to self-seed.”

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