By Julie Christensen
Forget the tiny plot of cement jutting off a 1950’s style home. Today’s homeowners are embracing outdoor living and building large patios and garden areas as an extension of their home’s space. Gravel makes an ideal choice for a patio. It has a soft, organic appearance and feel and costs less than half the price of stone or slate patios. You can find gravel for patios in bulk from landscaping supply firms, as well as home building centers. Select a gravel patio type based on your budget, the amount of foot traffic your yard receives and your gardening scheme.
Building a Gravel Patio
Gravel can make an attractive, long-lasting and economical material for patios or garden seating areas. Before you select a gravel material, though, you need to spend some time preparing the base. Typically, gravel patios are surrounded by an enclosure made of cement, stone or brick, or a combination of materials. The strongest enclosures have a base of cement, topped with decorative elements, such as slate or stone.
Once the enclosure’s complete, you’ll excavate the patio area, removing the topsoil so you’re left with the hardpan. This soil makes a sturdier base for your gravel patio than soft, spongy topsoil. When excavating, keep in mind that your gravel should be at least 4 inches deep from the bottom of the enclosure. Use square shovels and a level to ensure an even surface and install drainage pipes, if necessary.
The next step in making a gravel patio is installing a gravel base. Spread a layer of road rock over the patio surface, filling the area three-fourths full. Road rock, sometimes called road base, contains larger pieces of gravel that are angular in shape. Road rock is not only less expensive than other types of gravel, but the angular pieces lock together, forming a strong base for your patio. Most landscaping firms or contractors can supply this for you. After laying the foundation, tamp it down with a plate compactor, which is a small machine available for rental at rental supply stores.
Types of Decorative Gravel for Patios
Finally, it’s time to add the decorative gravel. You’ll find lots of choices available when it comes to color, ranging from tan to gold to rust. Keep in mind that darker colors retain heat, while lighter colors can sometimes look stark. For the most natural look, select a tan, gray or light brown gravel. You can also mix gravels for a custom look.
Another matter of personal preference is that of shape. Round gravel, such as pea gravel, has the most give and is the most comfortable to walk on. The gravel does shift some. You’ll notice footprints in your patio after you walk on it, and you’ll need to rake the gravel back into place and add more gravel from time to time.
Angular gravels, similar to road base, are less comfortable to walk on, but the rocks lock together, maintaining a neat, compacted form longer. Angular gravel is usually a better choice if you have kids and pets. Decomposed granite is a popular choice in this category. Lava rock and quartzite are also options.
Another option is decomposed gravel, which is gravel that has been broken down into very small pieces. It has a coarseness somewhere between that of sand and gravel. It is highly economical, comes in many shades and makes a soft paving surface. It can get mushy in areas with a lot of snow or rain, but it makes a durable choice for milder climates, especially when mixed with a liquid stabilizer product, prior to installation.
Building with Stones, Pavers or Bricks
Perhaps you’re dreaming of a patio made with stone, pavers or bricks, rather than gravel. These types of patios look complicated, but they’re actually simpler to build than a wooden deck. You can complete such a project in a weekend or two.
Just like a granite patio, a durable, attractive stone or brick patio starts with a strong, level foundation. You’ll excavate 4 to 8 inches of soil, depending on the thickness of your building materials and compact the soil with a plate compacter. The next step is to add a 4 inch base of crushed granite or stone. This material is fairly inexpensive and goes a long way. Spread 2 inches of crushed stone over the area and compact it. Follow with a second 2-inch layer of stone and compact it again.
This method, known as dry-lay, is super fast and allows water to drain quickly. It isn’t as durable as laying a concrete foundation, but it’s much simpler. You can also remove stones and bricks if you ever need to make repairs.
For more information on gravel, brick and stone patios, check out these sites:
50+ Landscaping Ideas with Stone from Sunset Magazine
Outdoor Patio Ideas from Julie Orr Design
Lay an Appealing Brick Patio from This Old House
Julie Christensen learned about gardening on her grandfather’s farm and mother’s vegetable garden in southern Idaho. Today, she lives and gardens on the high plains of Colorado. When she’s not digging in the dirt, Julie writes about food, education, parenting and gardening.