14 Gravel Garden Ideas for a Water-Wise Garden

A gravel garden can be a beautiful and practical option for landscapes in drought-prone areas. Gravel gardens, also known as xeriscapes, utilize drought-tolerant plants, efficient irrigation, and permeable gravel mulch to create an attractive, low-maintenance landscape.

Gravel gardens help to conserve water in several ways. The gravel mulch prevents evaporation from the soil surface, allowing more water to reach the plant roots. Gravel also allows rain and irrigation water to percolate down into the soil instead of running off the surface. Drought-resistant plants suitable for gravel gardens need less frequent watering once established.

If planned properly, gravel gardens can be just as appealing as traditional gardens but with a fraction of the water use. Here are 14 great gravel garden ideas to create a stylish, water-wise landscape:

Combine Gravel with Stepping Stones

Integrating stepping stones into the gravel creates visual interest and also designates key walking paths through the garden. The stones can be placed strategically to lead to seats or key garden features. Leave ample gravel space between the stones to allow rainwater to permeate into the garden bed.

Choose locally sourced stones that complement the gravel color. Irregular flagstones work well for informal designs, while cut stone can create a more formal look. Set the stones on a compacted gravel base and ensure they are level to prevent tripping.

Edge with Boulders

Lining the perimeter of your gravel garden with large boulders provides definition and structure. The boulders act as a border while also adding unique texture and form to the landscape.

Opt for rounded fieldstone or limestone boulders placed at least half their width into the ground around the edges. Repeat boulders sporadically through the center of the gravel garden as well. Keep the boulders close together, slightly touching each other.

Include Low-Growing Succulents

Succulents like sedum, aloe vera, echeveria, and sempervivum thrive in the fast-draining, low-nutrient gravel environment. These fleshy, low-growing succulents require very little supplemental water once established.

Plant succulents singly or grouped together for visual impact. Allow them to spread over time and fill in between gravel spaces. The succulents can spill over boulders or stepping stones to soften the edges.

Plant Drought-Tolerant Grasses

Ornamental grasses add movement and texture while remaining drought-hardy. Some water-wise grasses suitable for gravel gardens include feather reed grass, fescue, muhly grass, poverty grass, blue grama grass, and Mexican feather grass.

Plant grasses in masses or rows throughout the gravel garden for a contemporary, architectural look. Grasses can also help stabilize slopes and erosion-prone areas. Cut grasses back to a few inches above the gravel in late winter before new growth emerges.

Include Gravel “Creek Beds”

Dry creek beds lined with gravel make lovely landscape features. These winding gravel creek beds mimic nature’s dry streambeds and create decorative focal points, especially when flanked by ornamental grasses, boulders, and drought-tolerant shrubs.

Construct creek beds by digging long, meandering trenches and filling them with small, smooth gravel. Create gradual curves reminiscent of natural creeks and streams. Outline the creek beds with larger rocks and stones for definition.

Contrast Gravel with Architectural Specimens

For striking contrast, plant bold architectural specimens as accent points within the gravel garden. Succulents like agave and yucca work well, as do other architectural plants like cordyline, beschorneria, and phormium.

Place specimens singly or grouped in clusters throughout the gravel beds. Allow plenty of open gravel around the specimens to keep the look from becoming crowded or overgrown. Avoid specimens that will outgrow the space.

Mulch with River Rock and Pea Gravel

Mixing various sizes of gravel creates visual interest in the garden. Use small pea gravel or crushed rock around individual plants, which then contrasts nicely with a topdressing of larger river rocks and stones.

Keep the top layer gravel to around 1-2 inches deep. Use deeper 3-4 inch layers of the smaller gravel directly around plantings. This provides a neat, groomed finish while allowing water, air, and nutrients to penetrate into the soil.

Add Height with Raised Beds

Raised garden beds lend height and dimension, especially in flat or sloped landscapes. The beds can be edged with stone, brick, or concrete to match hardscaping materials. When filled with gravel and drought-tolerant plants, they become focal features.

Elevated beds provide excellent drainage for gravel garden plants. Add walkways between raised beds to allow easy access for maintenance. Limit raised beds to 4 feet wide or less to avoid excessive soil compression in the center of the bed.

Include Gravel Pathways

Gravel or crushed stone pathways wind nicely through ornamental plantings while remaining permeable. This allows rainwater to filter into the surrounding beds rather than shed off paved sidewalks or driveways.

Keep pathways at least 3-4 feet wide for comfortable walking and access. Level pathways prior to adding gravel to prevent twisting ankles in holes or depressions. Border pathways with steel edging or stones to contain the gravel.

Plant Around Boulders and Stones

Place interesting boulders, stones, and rock formations around the gravel garden. Dramatic vertical rocks make excellent specimen focal points. Plant drought-tolerant grasses, succulents, and groundcovers around the rocks for integration.

Select rocks that match or complement the gravel color. Partially bury rocks in the gravel so they appear naturally placed. Use the north side of large boulders to sit potted succulents for sheltered microclimates.

Include Water-Wise Shrubs

Shrubs anchor the gravel garden, provide privacy screening, and add foliage interest through the seasons. Some drought-hardy woody shrubs well-suited to gravel gardens include lavender, sage, rosemary, oleander, ceanothus, and dwarf conifers.

Space shrubs according to their mature spread size to avoid overcrowding. Prune regularly to keep growth tidy and compact. Place small shrubs in front of larger ones for layered landscape depth and prevent taller plants from shading smaller species.

Mulch Succulents with Pea Gravel

Succulents prefer fast-draining soils and appreciate a topdressing of pea gravel, crushed granite, or crushed marble. The small gravel helps prevent weeds and retains soil moisture at the plant’s roots.

Spread 1-2 inches of pea gravel over the soil around succulents, leaving a 1 inch space around the plant stem. Take care not to bury the succulent’s base in gravel. The tiny pebbles accentuate the succulents’ colorful foliage.

Plant in Drifts or Groups

Repeat plant selections in groups at intervals for a cohesive, natural look. For example, plant several lavender shrubs together, repeating that drift in one or two other areas of the gravel garden.

Grouping plants together reduces the number of species needed, making the landscape easier to maintain. Repeat key accent plants like agave and ornamental grasses for unity. Drifts of grasses and succulents mimic plants clustered in nature.

Include a Gravel Seating Area

Design a sitting space within the gravel garden to pause and enjoy the landscape. Use boulders, built-in benches, or stools as seating integrated into the gravel. Surround the space with beautiful drought-tolerant plants.

Situate the gravel seating in an inviting, peaceful spot out of the hot afternoon sun. Nestle it near water features, sculptures, or in view of the most striking plants for pleasant contemplation of your gravel oasis.

Transition from Lawn to Gravel

Rather than stark divisions between lawn and gravel, blend the two areas with transitional plantings. This creates a cohesive link between the two distinct garden textures and colors.

Plant low-growing succulents, sedum, thyme, or ornamental grasses along the gravel border. Allow these plants to mingle and overlap between the lawn and gravel. Position focal boulders straddling the transition to marry the two areas.


Switching to a gravel garden requires a shift of thinking away from the water-thirsty lawns and plantings common in many landscapes. With smart plant choices and efficient design, gravel gardens can be customized to suit any style. They provide texture, color, and visual interest while conserving precious water resources.

When planned properly using drought-tolerant plants adapted to local conditions, gravel gardens thrive on little supplemental irrigation once established. Their low-maintenance nature also makes them an excellent choice for time-pressed gardeners seeking a water-wise, sustainable landscape.

Frequently Asked Questions

What size gravel is best for planting beds?

For planting beds, a mixture of gravel sizes works best. Use 3/4 to 1 1/2 inch gravel as the base layer, then topdress with 1/4 to 1/2 inch gravel around individual plants. The larger gravel helps with drainage while the pea gravel gives beds a groomed finish.

How thick should the gravel layer be in garden beds?

Aim for 1-2 inches of gravel as the topdressing over soil in planting beds. Use deeper 3-4 inch layers for decorative pathways and dry creek beds which won’t have roots growing through. Too deep a gravel layer can inhibit water and air from penetrating down to plant roots.

Can you put gravel over weed barrier fabric?

Yes, weed barrier fabric can be layered below the gravel to reduce weed growth while still allowing water drainage. Use a breathable, permeable landscape fabric and overlap seams at least 6 inches. Cover fabric edges with borders or stones to prevent weeds from creeping in.

How often do you need to weed a gravel garden?

During the first couple years as plants establish, occasional weeding may be needed as seeds blow into the gravel. But a 3-4 inch layer of gravel mulch inhibits most weed seeds from taking root. Spot treat any persistent weeds with an herbicide or by hand weeding.

What is the best way to clean gravel beds?

Annual cleaning rejuvenates gravel gardens. Use a flat shovel to scoop off the top gravel layer. Rake any weeds from the underlying soil then replace the cleaned gravel topdressing. Supplement with fresh gravel annually to maintain an adequate depth for weed control.

Do gravel gardens require irrigation?

Well-designed gravel gardens need minimal irrigation beyond normal rainfall, thanks to the excellent drainage and drought-tolerant plants. Occasional deep watering the first 1-2 years helps establish plants. Drip irrigation under the gravel can provide efficient watering if needed.

How long do gravel gardens last?

A properly constructed gravel garden can last for decades. Use high quality landscape fabric and edging materials when installing. Expect to replenish gravel over time as some dissipates and settles. Division or replacement of overgrown plants may be needed after several years.

What plants are best for gravel gardens?

Drought-tolerant plants suited to fast-drainage excel in gravel gardens. These include succulents, ornamental grasses, herbs like lavender, native wildflowers, gravel-mulch roses, conifers, hardy shrubs like sage and ceanothus, and groundcover plants like sedum.

Should gravel gardens have borders or edging?

Borders help contain the gravel mulch and provide definition. Flagstone, steel, plastic, or masonry landscape edging keeps gravel tidy. Boulders or bricks also edge beds nicely. Leave openings for gravel to overflow into adjacent lawns or walkways if desired.

How do you remove grass before installing gravel beds?

Removing existing sod is hard work but important for preventing grass from infiltrating the gravel. Dig out sod by hand or use a sod cutter. Smother any remaining grass with cardboard or tarps before adding weed fabric and gravel. Or apply herbicide several times prior to new planting.