It is precisely because of the gravel that maintenance is drastically reduced. This is not just any top dressing – not a mulch layer, but a deliberate foundation four or five inches deep that the garden is planted in. That depth discourages weeds from gaining a foothold, while minimizing runoff and directing the available water to where the roots can use it.
Maintaining an existing gravel yard requires even less weekly attention than maintaining a lawn, which “as far as the animals in the yard might as well be a parking lot,” said Mr. Epping.
In 2018, he transformed the grassy area in front of his house into a water-rich gravel garden. And now he spends the time he once spent mowing watching bees, butterflies or a goldfinch nibbling on a Coreopsis seed head.
An inspiration chain
During visits to English Gardens over the years, Mr Epping had seen gravel gardening come to life, particularly in the transformed car park that welcomes visitors to the nursery and gardens created by Beth Chatto, in the county of Essex. The cottage in Dungeness that belonged to the artist Derek Jarman is another well-known example.
For a while, Mr. Epping hid all that away. It wasn’t until he saw a smaller version of Roy Diblik, at Northwind Perennial Farm in Burlington, Wisconsin, that he felt called to action. and mr. Diblik — inspired by the same images, as well as a visit to the garden of German designer Cassian Schmidt, Hermannshof — helped Mr. Epping to create Olbrich’s first gravel garden.
Several states further, Andrew Bunting, the vice president of public gardens and landscapes for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, had the same frames of reference, including Mr. Epping’s work. For years he had made regular visits to the gravel garden of Chanticleer Garden in Wayne, Pennsylvania, not far from his home in Swarthmore.
For him, the pandemic was the trigger that turned those inspirations into action.
Mr Bunting felt at home in what became his ‘Covid office’ in 2020, looking out at his ‘meadow-like front yard’ day after day, he said from his seat at the dining table. “I remember thinking, ‘This is tired; it has to be done again.’”