Transform a tricky slope with gravel and handsome Japanese plants, says Louisa Gilhooly
A GARDEN full of billowing, herbaceous borders is fine if you’ve got plenty of time on your hands, or staff. But, let’s face it, most of us haven’t the hours or energy for all that staking and deadheading. If you want a truly low maintenance garden, this Japanese-inspired gravel garden might provide an answer. We can
all take inspiration from the minimalism, calm and simplicity of this centuries-old Oriental style.
Giving your garden over to gravel not only looks stylish, it’s also cost effective. It’s easy to install and can offer environmental benefits – reducing flood risk and suppressing weeds. By planting the right
drought-tolerant plants you won’t need to water them as much – what’s not to like?
This design gives the illusion of water with a dry stream bed – essentially a shallow depression in the ground filled with gravel and pebbles. Although decorative, such a feature provides a practical solution to poor drainage too, by collecting rainwater and allowing it to percolate into the ground slowly. Creating a gentle curve in the stream bed gives a more natural appearance, with small pockets for ‘special interest’ planting.
Varying the size of the gravel and stones, and placing them as randomly as possible, makes for a less contrived look and adds drama in key locations. A group of large boulders can be placed to create an outcrop, perfect for showcasing special plants.
Choose a gravel colour to match the brickwork of your house or other hard landscape materials. Light-coloured gravel looks particularly good against render or white-painted brick, and grey gravel is handsome against brown, black and natural wood stains. You want the gravel colour to blend in rather than provide contrast, to create a serene backdrop for your plants.
You don’t need a lot of plants for this minimalist look, so keep to a simple planting palette of low-maintenance, high-impact specimens and repeat them throughout the garden. They’ll look all the better for being offset by a background of rocks, pebbles, gravel and paving.
Try to include subtle differences in texture, form and colour: bamboos and pine trees in soothing shades of green provide year-round interest, while seasonal colour comes from the ornamental apricot (Prunus mume ‘Beni-chidori’) and eye-catching Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Shin-deshojo’). Evergreen cloud-pruned trees provide a strong silhouette in winter, combining well with many perennials and grasses. A simple bowl of moss and a deer scarer (a bamboo pipe on a pivot that clacks as it drops when filled with water) provide a subtle finishing touch.
Use sound and movement Black bamboo Phyllostachys nigra provides height and makes a semi-transparent natural screen, introducing the elements of sound and movement. Plant in a pot if you’re worried about it spreading.
Hide the boundaries Dwarf conifers, such as Pinus mugo ‘Mops’, on the top terrace create a mini alpine woodland that disguises the furthest boundaries of the garden
Add a seating area A small seating terrace has been cut into the slope to give a new perspective on the planting below. A barrier of vertical oak sleepers offers a feeling of security when looking down.
Create a focal point Cloud-pruned topiary provides year-round interest – the tree’s foliage is trimmed using the ancient Japanese technique of niwaki.
Use colour accents Plants such as iris ‘Shaker’s Prayer’ and Acer palmatum ‘Shin-deshojo’ provide shots of colour, picked up by heuchera ‘Fireworks’, which leads the eye through the garden.
Introduce moss A large moss-filled bowl provides a simple, velvety focal point in verdant green.
Add a second sitting area A timber bench forms another sitting area that offers an alternative view of the garden.
Plant for seasonal colour Prunus mume ‘Beni-chidori’ (ornamental Japanese apricot) is a fabulous choice for adding a bright flash of pink blossom on grey mornings in the new year.
Go easy on the ornaments Too many Japanese ornaments can clutter up the garden, so go for one key piece such as this traditional deer scarer, or shishi odoshi, which adds a combination of beautiful sounds – a gentle water trickle and the occasional clack of bamboo.
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