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Ditch concrete and lawns

My Boxing Day garden massacre

My urge to cultivate every last bit of soil, plus Christmas dinner overload spurred me into action on Boxing Day 2012. Armed with a rusty sledgehammer, an old spade and a manic expression, the garden overhaul began. Death to paving slabs, turf and any attempt at reason.

Autumn and winter are the best times to decide what you need from your garden. Before the garden makeover started in December 2012, I had a very wonky lawn, a leftover from when the kids were little and the drive was solid concrete.

Throughout winter and spring 2013, I dug up the lawn and laid reclaimed brick-edged gravel paths through the main body of the garden.

Long border path
By August 2013, the long border path had settled in

That autumn, the driveway was redone, with a wavy brick path through gravel, followed by a new raised bed and heavy trelliswork fence.

So what’s so great about gravel? Here are five good reasons to use it…

  1. It’s cheap (especially composite/pea gravel).
  2. Plant-friendly (great place for planting pockets/Mediterranean plants).
  3. Porous (so rainwater can naturally percolate through to the water table).
  4. You don’t need planning permission for a large area, unlike an impermeable surface (concrete). Getting it from a local quarry cuts down your carbon footprint.
  5. It’s easy to lay.

I used 10-20mm pea gravel, a mix of rounded grey, beige and brown stones, which change colour when wet. The cheapest way to buy it is in bulk, usually as a loose load (where it’s dumped on your drive or the street).

You have to live on the flat and have the area has to be accessible to a large lorry. Also, it helps if your garden is flat and you have a wheelbarrow.

As I have none of these, I opted for delivery in 20kg poly sacks, slightly more expensive, but they are moveable.

You can also buy aggregates in bulk bags.  I did a vague sum and ordered 50 bags – a tonne, for £102, with free delivery. It seemed like an awful lot – I eventually needed two tonnes for the path.

Laying gravel

Laying aggregates is simple, but don’t forget to use a weed proof, permeable membrane. This allows water to seep through and drain away but inhibits unwanted weeds.

Gravel path
The same path in September 2015 – changing all the time

Rampant self-seeders like lady’s mantle, Californian poppies and geraniums will grow quite happily in gravel and soften hard edges.

  1. Remove weeds and large stones, then compact the soil.
  2. Lay a weed proof, permeable membrane over the area of the path in large sections. This allows water to seep through and drain away but inhibits unwanted weeds.
  3. Pin sections down with metal fleece pegs.
  4. Secure the membrane under your path edging (I used reclaimed bricks).
  5. Empty gravel sacks, spreading it evenly with a rake – aim for a depth of 4-5cm. Spray with a hose on shower setting to settle the dust.

Turfing the lawn

Manicured lawns have nothing of use to pollinators.

widening bed
Marking the widened bed with a hose, February 2013

I appeal to the silent majority who hate mowing, edging and scarifying to turf your turf. Unless it’s a meadow, and therefore highly diverse, it’s almost a monoculture.

The technique to remove it is simple – mark out and loosen chunks (turves) with an edger or spade.

I’d suggest the latter, as my edger snapped after 30 minutes, then overturn each turve to knock off as much loose soil as possible.

Stack them grass side to grass side, cover with black polythene and in a year, you’ll have excellent loam which can be reused.

Once the area is clear of grass, you need to enrich the soil with compost, even something like spent tomato bags and add fertiliser – blood, fish and bone, or Growmore.