Of course, stones, gravel and grit are per se not bad as design elements in the garden. – Photo: BGL
Nobody can say when exactly stone gardens started becoming popular. All of a sudden it became noticeable that more and more private green spaces were being replaced by grey gravel. However, resistance has been rising its head for some time already...
For example, the German Association of Garden, Landscape and Sports Construction (BGL) e.V. has been lobbying for green, biodiverse gardens in the scope of its PR work for many years. In the late summer of 2019, the initiative 'Save the front gardens', which was brought to life by the BGL in 2017 already, even received the PR Report Award in the category Content Strategy. The fact that the Industry Association of Landscape Gardeners, succeeded in triggering off a social debate on the theme (Front) Garden Design which in turn contributed towards living plants playing the main role in gardens again is what primarily convinced the jury.
Clean and low-maintenance?
The phenomenon is especially noticeable in development areas: Whereas in the past perennials, trees and hedges grew in front of most of the houses, today there are more and more areas that are totally sealed or which have been covered with grit and gravel, where at the most the odd evergreen box tree is found. In the scope of a GfK market research carried out in 2017 on behalf of the BGL, 80 percent of all gravel garden owners stated that the "low maintenance" aspect was the main reason for sealing the area. Particularly men (88 percent) were of the opinion that areas covered with stones or gravel were easy to keep clean long-term without a great amount of effort. Within the specialist circles, however, it has been well-known for a long time that this isn't the case. For instance, the NRW Nature and Environmental Protection Academy also warns about the high maintenance involved: "Organic material such as pollen, blossoms, sand, seeds and leaves fall in between the stones and rot away. A layer of humus forms and the first wild herbs start sprouting. Algae, moss and lichens settle. A discoloration occurs. The garden starts looking unsightly. The implementation of herbicides is forbidden and anyone who opts for the burner, will destroy the foil under the stones."
Today there are more and more areas in front of the houses that are totally sealed or which have been covered with grit and gravel. – Photo: BGL
Show positive effects of green gardens
The strategic approach of the BGL of opposing stone gardens doesn't aim to rage or polemise against the gravel deserts, but instead to deliver good arguments for the individual and diversified design of gardens and front yards. And there are many positive effects: For example green spaces have a positive influence on the microclimate in the living environment, because plants produce oxygen, consume carbon dioxide and bind particulate matter. Furthermore, they provide shade and cool the air by evaporating water via their leaves – as opposed to stones, which heat up strongly during the day and still emit heat even at night. A further advantage: Rainwater can seep into green areas better than into partly sealed areas. This is a decisive advantage, especially in the light of the strong downpours that we are experiencing more and more frequently, because it prevents the sewer systems from becoming overburdened and the flooding that results therefrom. And it shouldn't be forgotten that plants offer birds and insects important habitats and last, but not least leaves and blossoms contribute towards the entire streetscape appearing friendlier and more attractive. "We have triggered off a wide debate with the aid of press reports, social media activities, information sheets, events for media representatives and multipliers, journalist competitions, cooperations with the radio and TV as well as networking with other interest groups, which is having an impact," said Achim Kluge, Vice President of the BGL and Chairman of the Committee for PR Work. "We also hold many discussions within our profession. As an industry we are asserting ourselves so that the front yards and gardens become places that actually deserve these names again."
A dimension that shouldn't be underestimated
Obviously an individual garden or front yard is only a small area. Many house owners are thus not aware that their design decisions also affect the local climate. Indeed, this is however the case: Because the sum of the private green spaces in the city is a dimension that has to be taken seriously. For this reason, the gravel theme has in the meantime become an issue of regional and local politics that is hotly debated. Many communities have already started taking action in the matter and have laid down official regulations for the design of front gardens and have forbidden area sealing.
The German Association of Garden, Landscape and Sports Construction (BGL) is committed to green, species-rich gardens. – Photo: BGL
Thinking with nature
Of course, stones, gravel and grit are per se not bad as design elements in the garden. However, it depends how they are implemented. It is important that they don't play the main role and that they leave the plants sufficient room to grow and flourish. For example, one can definitely design gravel paths in a sustainable garden, make splash guard strips out of gravel alongside the wall of the house, build dry-stone walls or place boulders in-between the plants as eye-catchers. Also in the case of perennials, mulching with gravel or grit is by all means practical from an ecological and horticultural point of view. At the beginning the small stones take up a lot of the space, but they are gradually overgrown by the plants. "The current debate about gravel areas tends to lead to a generalised demonising of stones and gravel. One actually does the grey natural material injustice here," Kluge emphasised. "We plead for a cautious usage thereof, which takes nature in consideration rather than opposing it."