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In praise of shingle

  • In praise of shingle
  • In praise of shingle
  • In praise of shingle
  • In praise of shingle
  • In praise of shingle

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, where a lawn would be more trouble than it is worth: and it's ideal 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, 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.

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: simple, but elegant.

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) 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!

Comments (9)

  1. Grower


    I love reading your posts it's been snowing on and off all day here in Stockport so no gardening at the moment

  2. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    Thanks, Cal, you're very kind! It's snowing here this morning in jolly South Oxfordshire: not very much depth, but annoying persistence. I went out first thing, and swept my neighbours' paths (I'm the youngest person around here, by a couple of decades) and by the time I'd finished, they were all lightly snowed over again!

    No gardening for me all week, alas (bread and cheese, bread and cheese...) but it's a chance to catch up on some research, and make a few plans/proposals for "my" gardens, ready for when I can back to work in them.

  3. Grower


    It looks set to be around for the next few days ...... oh joy

  4. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    Indeed! Luckily for me, I have plenty of other work to do at home: I'm giving two talks next week to local gardening clubs so it's been a chance to refresh my presentation notes for them: and I am amused-but-slightly-vexed that I have published 29 ebooks now - when a nice round 30 (or "more than 30") would sound so much better. So I'm determined to get another one published before the week ends!

  5. Grower


    please tell me more about your ebooks

  6. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    Certainly - here's a link to my Author Page at Amazon.

    They are mostly botany field guides, along with a handful of books about various aspects of gardening. Anyone with an Amazon Prime account can read them for free!

  7. Grower


    I'll have a look thank you

  8. Grower


    your garden looks lovely 🌸

  9. Grower

    Rachel the Gardener

    Aww, thanks, Rebecca - it's small but cute!

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