A gravel lawn and a stone path in front of a modern looking house
(Image credit: KatarzynaBialasiewicz)

Much debate surrounds the sustainability of the home lawn. Turf grass requires mowing, watering, and fertilizing, as well as pest and weed management. The high nitrogen needs of grass create a run-off problem that contaminates wild waters. The mechanical chores may increase greenhouse gases and create noise pollution. Chemical applications to keep those dandelions out, and develop green, healthy grass may poison the earth and the wildlife in it. With such detriments, it may seem like replacing grass with gravel is a good idea. When you change lawn to gravel, you may miss sinking bare toes in the lush greenery, but you can save money, time, and the environment.

The suburban dream home is always pictured with a golf course-worthy green lawn. Especially in America, turf grass is a standard around many homes. But using gravel for yard decor is becoming increasingly popular, as gardeners seek to simplify chores and develop a more sustainable landscape. Any web search turns up tons of gravel front yard ideas that will provide curb appeal and simplicity. And if you can't stand the thought of such an austere front yard, consider splitting the difference by installing a backyard landscape with gravel.

Pros and Cons of Gravel Landscapes

Gravel and rocks are inorganic additions to the garden. Such items are fairly easy to acquire and require no maintenance after installation. They don't need watering, fertilizing, pest measures, or really any other maintenance. They also help funnel water in a directed way, removing excess moisture from around the home. Gravel is a great part of the rain garden or xeriscape concept. Gravel is also a mulch, conserving moisture around plant roots, and holding soil in place. But is gravel all it's cracked up to be?

Gravel will also harness solar energy, making the rock hot and potentially cooking the roots of plants that might live in it. Even with a weed barrier under the material, weeds will still spring up, requiring tedious weeding. Gravel and rock are heavy materials, requiring some effort to install. And rock is inorganic, meaning it doesn't support beneficial organisms or enhance soil health.

Should You Change the Lawn to Gravel?

Changing your lawn to gravel all depends upon your personal aesthetic, goals for the landscape, and even your hardiness zone. Hot areas will lead to extremely warm rocks, which are bad for plant roots and the occasional barefoot foray. The heat reflected from the rocks can actually heat up the home, reducing energy effectiveness. Dried leaves and dust accumulate among the gravel area, making it unappealing and requiring removal. This material will also allow weed seeds blown in to germinate and thrive. But, in certain regions, a rock or gravel alternative to the lawn can make sense. The question is determined by the trade off in maintenance, the cost of installation, and your vision for the landscape around the home.

How to Use Gravel Instead of Grass

If there is existing grass, the first issue is the removal of the sod. This can be done by digging it out, poisoning it, or letting it suffocate under thick, black plastic. The quickest and least toxic way is mechanical removal.

Once the area is cleared, consider using weed barrier fabric under the gravel. These fabrics are inexpensive and will help control some weeds, although inevitably those stoic plants will come through.

Once the site is prepared, select your gravel. There are many types available such as crushed, river, cobble, and even composite varieties. Besides variations in color and size, each has distinct benefits. Consider using locally sourced gravel to keep costs down and minimize the carbon footprint. Choose plants that are native to the region when possible. These will still offer diversity and beauty, but combined with adaptability and ease of care.

Bonnie L. Grant

Bonnie Grant is a professional landscaper with a Certification in Urban Gardening. She has been gardening and writing for 15 years. A former professional chef, she has a passion for edible landscaping.