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    Why Gravel Gardens Are Better Than They Sound


    It is precisely because of the gravel that upkeep is so drastically reduced. This is no mere top-dressing — not a mulch layer, but a deliberate foundation four or five inches deep that the garden is planted into. That depth discourages weeds from finding a foothold, while minimizing runoff, directing available water to where roots can use it.

    Caring for an established gravel garden requires even less attention week to week than taking care of a lawn, which “might as well be a parking lot, as far as the garden’s creatures go,” Mr. Epping said.

    He turned the grassy stretch in front of his home into a water-wise gravel garden in 2018. And now the time he once spent mowing is devoted to watching bees, butterflies or a goldfinch nibbling at a Coreopsis seed head.

    On visits to English gardens over the years, Mr. Epping had seen gravel gardening brought to life, particularly in the transformed parking area that welcomes visitors to the nursery and gardens made by Beth Chatto, in the county of Essex. The cottage at Dungeness that belonged to the artist Derek Jarman is another well-known example.

    For a time, Mr. Epping filed all of that away. It wasn’t until he saw a smaller-scale version by Roy Diblik, at Northwind Perennial Farm in Burlington, Wis., that he felt called to action. And Mr. Diblik — inspired by the same images, as well as a visit to the German designer Cassian Schmidt’s garden, Hermannshof — helped Mr. Epping make Olbrich’s first gravel garden.

    Several states away, Andrew Bunting, the vice president of public gardens and landscapes for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, had the same frames of reference, including Mr. Epping’s work. He had enjoyed years of regular visits to the gravel garden at Chanticleer Garden in Wayne, Pa., not far from his Swarthmore home.

    For him, the trigger that turned those inspirations into action was the pandemic.

    Mr. Bunting found himself at home in 2020 in what became his “Covid office,” looking out at his “meadow-ish front garden” day after day, he said, from his seat at the dining table. “I remember thinking, ‘This is tired; it needs redoing.’”

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