Saturday, 8 January 2022

In praise of shingle. or: How To Avoid Mowing Grass

I love shingle in the garden: you can walk on it all year round without getting wet ankles, it looks great in the rain, it's not damaged by frost and snow, and it holds and reflects both heat and light from the sun, allowing us to grow plants which might struggle in heavy damp soil. 

It's ideal for very tiny gardens, like mine (left - taken in early summer) where a lawn would be more trouble than it is worth: and it's perfect for those odd corners close to the house, where maybe there is too much shade for grass to grow, or where you have to walk across it frequently. 

Sometimes a rather dark, dank and unlovely corner can be transformed into a Mediterranean style courtyard, especially if you can paint the surrounding brickwork in a warm colour.

And if you want a contemporary look, you can't beat a neat, hard-edged geometric shape of lawn, with a sweep of shingle all around it.

OK you can't easily walk on it in bare feet, but it's easy enough to include a few plain stepping stones at strategic points: in my own tiny back garden, as you can see in the previous photo, I have no lawn at all, just shingle, and in summer I do a sort of barefoot adult hop-scotch to get across to my bird feeder. 

You can see my stepping stones in this photo, right: I leap gracefully from one to the other, which gives endless amusement to Noisy, the cat - not my cat, by the way - who lounges on my decking in attitudes of exhaustion while I attend to the birds, for her entertainment.

Shingle does not mean not having any plants - far from it. 

Planting through the shingle is really easy, you just rake back a good wide area down to the membrane, then use a knife or old scissors to cut two slits in a cross, in the membrane. After loosening the soil, insert the plant through the slits, fold or trim back enough membrane to give it room to spread, then rake the shingle back in place. Instant perfection!

Virtually any clumping grass looks good when planted through shingle, and it lends itself to styling: add some rounded rocks and a couple of dwarf bamboo and you have the minimalist Japanese look: or fling in a large piece of driftwood and some airy Verbena bonariensis to create a mini-Jarman look (you know, that chap who created a garden on the shingle banks of Dungeness). 


In my garden, I have a row of bright red tulips along the back fence, which push their way through the shingle each year, round about April time: simple, but elegant, and gives me a splash of colour while I'm waiting for everything else along that fence to start growing.


It is a particularly good background for Black Mondo, Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens' which is one of my favourite small plants, but which can easily be lost against the dark soil of a bed or border. 


Against shingle, it looks fantastic all year round, and even better when wetted and shiny.


And if you're not quite sure what sort of “look” you want, you can put the plants in pots, which has the huge advantage that you can move them around, to get the best dramatic effect, to change the colour combinations, or to give each pot a turn in the “best” spot.

Pots on shingle look very natural somehow: maybe it's the way you can scrunch them down into the depth of the shingle a little, so that they are part of it, rather than standing over it. Talking of being natural, it's far from being a barren desert: shingle is not like solid concrete or tarmac - it forms a matrix with thousands of tiny gaps, allowing air and water to mix, and allowing small invertebrates free passage. I am always amazed at how many worms I find in my shingle - and considering that my front yard has no lawn, no beds, no bare soil at all, just shingle and a concrete path, it is home to worms, common newts, great crested newts, several frogs (who eat the slugs), visiting hedgehogs, and even a grass snake. Not bad for such a tiny area!

And although you might think that laying shingle is cruelty to the soil, it's not: the rain permeates gently through the membrane, and whenever I change my mind and dig up a new area for a temporary bed, the soil is less compressed than you would think, and is full of worms and raring to go.

And best of all - no more grass to mow! 


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