There’s a certain appeal to gravel paths and patios. They somehow manage to at once be both casual and formally elegant. A gravel path says “let’s go somewhere, and you don’t need a tie to get there.” The thing is, a gravel path can be downright awful if not installed properly. Gravel can spill out and mix with adjacent grass and mulch. Weeds can overrun the gravel. Most importantly, a gravel path can be darn difficult to walk on if not constructed properly. If you’ve dismissed the idea of a gravel path because the last one you were on, it was like walking through the dunes at the beach – that was one bad apple. Here’s how to build a gravel path the right way.
Step One – Excavation
You can’t just dump a few wheelbarrows of gravel on the ground and call it a day. When we do a gravel path for a client project we dig down 4-6 inches. That lets us eliminate the sod and/or plant matter in the top few inches, and it allows us to create a cleanly defined shape for the path.
Step Two – The Prep
Once the path is excavated out, we run a plate compactor over the soil to give us a solid sub-base. We then cover the bottom with a woven geotextile fabric to keep the soil and the base layer separate – just like you would when starting a paver walk. For the sides, we usually recommend some sort of edging to keep the gravel separated from adjacent lawn areas or plant beds. Granite cobblestones are gorgeous but pricy; powdercoated aluminum edging is attractive yet unobtrusive and reasonably priced. I don’t love the plastic edging sold at the box stores as it never seems to hold up well and it does a lousy job of holding a true radius curve.
Step Three – The Base Layer
Do you know why a poorly installed pea gravel path (or patio, or driveway) feels like you’re slogging through beach sand? It’s because a lot of people have zero clue how to build a gravel path. Pea gravel is rounded and doesn’t interlock, so you really are moving the full depth of the path with every step. Even if we’re using an angular stone like ⅜” chip gravel (#8 stone) I still like to use a solid base.
For this base layer we use 21A (aka ¾” minus, aka ABC stone, aka crusher run). We spread it evenly, then run a plate compactor over it. This process is repeated until we’re within an inch to an inch and a half of the desired path height. The goal is to have a compacted, rock solid base you could run a car over.
Step Four – The Pretty Stuff
We finish off the pathway with our decorative stone of choice. That can be pea gravel, #8 stone, or whatever works for the look you’re trying to achieve. If we’re using an angular stone like ⅜” chip gravel (#8) and it’s going to be a high traffic area, we’ll run the compactor over it a few times. We don’t use the compactor with pea gravel because a rounded stone won’t compact or interlock. May as well try teaching the dog ballet for all the good it’ll do.
And that’s it! Yes, doing all this does make the process take longer, but you now have a rock solid gravel path that is easy to walk on and way less likely to have any sort of weed issues. Trust me, it’s totally worth it – now you know exactly how to build a gravel path. To see more of this project, check out the Culpeper Winery Landscape Design page!