Pea gravel is a small, rounded type of rock gravel. The uniformly-sized, smooth pebbles are used as hardscaping material for gravel patios and walkways. Let’s look at what pea gravel is and the many ways it can be used in your landscaping plan.
What is Pea Gravel?
Pea gravel is small, rounded pebbles. Also referred to as pea stone or pea pebbles, each little rock of pea gravel is just a bit bigger than a pea (think green frozen peas). Pea gravel perhaps looks more like really large peas, like edamame or something of that size. The colour of the pea gravel depends on the colour(s) of the parent rock material.
What makes pea gravel so different then other types of gravel is that each stone is smooth and rounded (not chipped and jagged). Pea gravel is collected from nature in an area where flowing water once gently rounded each stone. The natural weathering process of the stream bed creates a smooth texture that is lovely to walk on. Think of pea gravel as mini river rock.
What is Pea Gravel Used For?
Pea gravel is used in landscaping as a hardscaping surface material for well-travelled areas like patios, walkways, and playgrounds. It can also be used as a decorative mulch around plants or structures like raised beds.
Landscaping with Pea Gravel
Pea gravel is used in landscaping for paths, patios, and other areas with foot traffic, as well as a decorative (and functional) mulch. Here are some pea gravel landscaping ideas to help you add this lovely hardscaping material to your yard.
Pea Gravel Patio
Pea gravel is a lovely landscaping material for a patio base. It has a classic look, while also draining water well. And you’ll get that satisfying “crunch” as you walk across it.
To do a pea gravel patio right, it is incredibly important to prepare a strong structural base layer. The crushed rock immediately beneath the pea gravel should be well compacted (ideally with a machine) to help it support the weight of patio furniture, strollers, and even foot traffic. The pea gravel should be a decorative sprinkling over the structural base (not a 6″ deep layer that turns your patio into a ball pit of marbles).
Pea Gravel Garden Paths
Pea gravel paths are a classic landscape design feature. They can be designed of pea gravel alone or with pea gravel between pavers or flagstones. Like the patio described above, pea gravel paths require a structural base layer of compacted crushed rock.
Pea Gravel Driveway
A gravel driveway is essentially a larger iteration of a pea gravel path or patio, plus some added requirements to support cars and trucks. But like the patio, it doesn’t make sense to use pea gravel alone. A strong structural foundation base layer is critical for a driveway. Don’t make a pea gravel driveway without first laying a structural base layer of compacted crush.
Pea Gravel Garden
Garden design includes pea gravel surfaces in many different styles of gardens. It’s generally used as a surface covering in areas where weeds are to be discouraged or where foot traffic is expected. As above, pea gravel on garden paths and access areas does require a structural support base layer of compacted crushed rock.
Pea gravel is also used in gardens for drainage. Water drains through plain pea gravel quite quickly (as opposed to fine sediment like clay, which takes forever to drain). In areas where drainage is a problem, pea gravel reservoirs are sometimes constructed to encourage drainage away from plants so that the roots of the plants have adequate access to oxygen (plants can drown without oxygen at their roots!).
“Since one of the most common causes of disease in peppers is fungal infection of the roots caused by poor drainage, it makes sense to have optimum drainage in the garden. Some gardeners, those with soils high in clay or who live in locations with a high water table, actually go to the trouble of creating a scree for drainage. Screes are thick layers of crushed rock (or gravel) and sand that are constructed beneath the garden to drain water from the plant roots.”The Complete Chile Pepper Book: A Gardener’s Guide to Choosing, Growing, Preserving, and Cooking, by Dave DeWitt & Paul W. Bosland
Pea Gravel Mulch
Pea gravel also makes an awesome landscaping mulch. It can be a mass mulch in a Xeriscape garden or can be used around single specimen trees or other ornamental purposes. You can even use pea gravel as a mulch in flower gardens – particularly perennial flower gardens with native plants in areas with hot summers. The gravel mulch will help stabilize the soil temperature and hold water in the soil when things get really dry.
“Don’t try to stretch your mulch too far. Using too little mulch is like trying to paint with a dry brush. The end result isn’t worth much. Try to figure out beforehand how much mulch you are going to need. A 100-square-foot garden will need 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cubic yards of shredded bark, leaf mold, or gravel to make a mulch layer 4 inches deep. That’s eight to nine wheelbarrows of mulch. It’s always good to have extra mulch on hand to replace any that’s washed away or decayed, or to cover a newly spaded area. Almost invariably you will end up using more mulch than you thought you would. And you can always stockpile what you do not use.”How to Mulch: Save Water, Feed the Soil, and Suppress Weeds, by Stu Campbell and Jennifer Kujawski
Pros and Cons of Pea Gravel Landscaping
Here are some pros and cons for using pea gravel in your yard and garden landscaping:
Benefits of Pea Gravel
Pea gravel is generally a low-maintenance, inexpensive, well-draining surface choice. It has a natural appearance and versatile aesthetic. Pea gravel looks as at home around modern architecture as it does in cottage gardens. It’s also quite easy to find locally and to install! All it needs is a quick rake now and then to keep the stones in place.
Drawbacks of Pea Gravel
While pea gravel is highly ornamental and smooth to walk on, it doesn’t provide the same structural support as a properly prepared base of compacted crushed stone. Just imagine your wheelbarrow sinking down into a pile of marbles. Pea gravel performs best when its used either between structural paving stones or on top of a properly-compacted base.
Pea gravel does have a tendency to stray from its original position. It really does need some kind of edging to keep it in place if it runs alongside a lawn. Weed trimmers and lawnmowers can toss stray pea gravel (leading to broken windows, et cetera).
Even foot traffic can displace pea gravel eventually, leading to some landscapers using stepping stones in addition to the pea gravel itself. And if you live in a snowy area, be prepared to clean up the stray gravel each spring. You may also need a fresh batch every couple years to keep things in tip top shape.
Pea Gravel Cost
Standard bulk pea gravel generally costs about $50 per cubic yard when purchased in bulk at a landscape supplier. Pea gravel sold at a garden centre is generally more expensive – up to $100 per cubic yard – but there are more choices available. Garden centres may stock pea gravel of varying sizes and colours to suit your landscape design.
If you’re buying a yard or two of pea gravel, it generally needs to be transported in a heavy-duty utility trailer. Many garden centres will deliver. You may also be able to buy a more-easily transported 5-gallon bucket of about $15 bucks worth of gravel. Smaller amounts of pea gravel are sold in bags. An average 0.5 cubic foot bag of pea gravel costs about $5 per bag.
How to Clean Pea Gravel
When pea gravel arrives in bulk (and sometimes even in bags), it is generally quite dusty. You may wish to give the pile a bit of a rinse to get some of the dust off before placing it. This will also help you get a good idea what the gravel looks like (once it has dried).
Pea gravel generally still looks dusty after initial placement. Spray it with the garden hose or wait for some rain to let the true colour of the rock shine though. Once the initial dust has settled down between the rocks, the pea gravel will generally stay quite acceptable just with rainwater washing it off.
To keep the surface tidy, pick up and remove any stray leaves or branches and give the surface a quick raking now and then. Toss any stray stones back to their spot. But in general, pea gravel is very low maintenance!
How to Keep Pea Gravel In Place
Most of the battle for keeping pea gravel in place can be won by installing a hard edging material. The photo above shows a pea gravel and paver pathway with a cedar edging. This edging is simply a 2″x6″ cedar board sunk into the ground to separate the lawn from the pea gravel path.
The photo below uses a poured concrete edging. While this is quite a bit of work, it does match the paving stones well and almost widens the width of the path (which is great because those ornamental grasses are always creeping inwards!).
Despite all your efforts to keep the pea gravel in place, some of it will sink, stray, or get permanently borrowed. A touch-up with fresh pea gravel every few years will keep things uniform and looking sharp. Do try to get the same type of pea gravel if you can! While you can rake it in with the previous batch, its always easier just to get the same type.