CO-Horts Blog

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

The drawbacks of converting to an all-gravel yard


Irene Shonle, Horticulture Agent, El Paso County

As both water prices and the average summer temperatures rise, many people are reconsidering their lawns.  At first blush, replacing your entire yard with landscape fabric covered with gravel can seem like a good solution- it seems both low maintenance and a way to save on your water bill. In fact, the all-gravel yard is sometimes touted as a ‘xeriscape’ yard- but really, it’s a “zero-scape” yard, and it may not be the solution you are looking for.

First, it’s not as maintenance-free as it may seem.  It can look pristine when first installed, but over time dirt will settle into the pores in the gravel, creating an ideal bed for weed seeds to blow in and germinate. These weeds are hard to pull, because their roots can go down into the fabric.  Because they are hard to pull (and even harder to hoe), this usually means committing to a yearly round (or two) of  herbicide treatment. Additionally, the gravel can shift over time, especially on slopes, exposing the landscape fabric which often frays and tatters. It can be also be difficult to remove leaves and other debris that blow onto the gravel.

Weeds growing in landscape fabric/gravel
Landscape fabric showing through the gravel


Landscape fabrics restrict water and air movement, reducing soil microbial health, and potentially affecting any remaining landscape plants. Over time, landscape fabric pores will trap dirt and other sediments, making them even less permeable. Poor permeability can contribute to excessive run-off in rainstorms.

If you rock your yard, but still have trees and shrubs, be aware that you may need to provide supplemental irrigation. Trees often derive much of their water needs from lawn watering – if no alternative water source is supplied to make up for that, the trees will suffer and potentially die.

All-rock yards also contribute to the urban heat island effect more than lawns because there is no evapotranspiration from the living plants.  Imagine how hot an entire neighborhood would get if all the front yards were rocked in. Imagine how such a place might feel industrial and a bit on the depressing side, rather than a welcoming place to live for people, birds and butterflies.

Another disadvantage is that rock mulch can be difficult to remove if you change your mind (or the next person who buys your house). The gravel is easier to install than to rake up and haul away.

As an alternative to rock, consider replacing your lawn with either a low-water turf alternative such as buffalo grass, or with low-water native plants that support pollinators and birds and increase curb appeal. 

Native plant xeriscape

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