At Lake Norman Sand & Gravel we work with hundreds of homeowners and business owners every year, each with a unique landscape setting, each with plans and ideas for improving their property. All of them have questions.
We find our customers make better choices once they have a good sense of how gravel actually works. It helps us and helps them to make the best choices for their property.
Stone, aggregate, gravel, rock, call it what you will, is an environmental material. It sits in the rain and wind and snow, and it usually gets walked on and maybe driven on all year. It sits right on dirt, which nourishes weeds and grass. Sometimes gravel sits on level ground, and sometimes not. Basically, gravel is an outdoor floor, and just like the floors in your home you want to install a floor that will stand up to years of use.
A cozy kitchen takes a different cover than a factory floor. Bathrooms want tile. Bedrooms like carpet. Patios need pavers or concrete or maybe a wooden deck. It works the same for your outdoor floor — you want a material that can handle the use it will get, whether that is a parking lot, a tea garden, a driveway or pavers around the pool.
How Will It Behave?
Your primary concern when picking landscaping materials for your property is, “How will it behave in this spot over the years?” How will weather, drainage and erosion degrade it? How tough is the traffic? Will it stay clean? Will it stay in place? Will weeds sprout through it? Can I use a leaf blower on it this fall? Is it going to be dusty? Does it need maintenance?
How a particular type of gravel behaves depends on what “mix” it is. Gravel is generally NOT a perfectly uniform product, nor is it meant to be. Gravel comes in different “mixes” to meet different outdoor uses. Decorative landscaping stone is more often carefully sorted for perfectly uniform size, color and shape but these are cosmetic gravel. Utilitarian landscaping and construction stone is mixed to meet exacting engineering standards to provide the best material for each different end use.
A Bucket Full of Marbles
The key thing in these gravel mixes is particle size. This affects how the gravel behaves around water and under traffic. Here’s how it works. Imagine sticking your hand into a bucket full of glass marbles. You’ll find it pretty easy to reach all the way down to the bottom because the marbles move aside. If you pour water on the marbles it runs right through. This is how large-sized gravel behaves. It does not compact much, nor does it hold up water.
Now fill your bucket of marbles with a mix of half sand and half marbles. Suddenly, it is very hard to get your hand very far into the mix. Water pools and runs off to the side before sinking in. The smaller particles of sand filled the empty spaces between the marbles, compacting everything and making it tougher to penetrate, making it more resistant to moisture and to pressure.
The different grades of gravel have different ratios of smaller particles in them to provide more or less of this compaction, to be more or less water-resistant and traffic-resistant. This is the primary consideration when picking landscaping stone for your property — “how will it behave on this spot under the weather and the traffic it will face?” Even where traffic is no consideration, water and drainage always is. Even a beautiful rock garden of purely decorative stones will typically have a base layer of well compacted utilitarian gravel underneath to control erosion.
How Will It Look?
Your second consideration is, “How will it look?” Gravel comes in many colors, types and sizes, but the basic distinctions are between rounded (or river rock) and crushed rock. Both types come in a wide variety of colors.
Rounded rock comes from gravel banks along river beds and is typically smooth and oval shaped. It can be quite colorful. Crushed rock is mechanically broken down, and is more angular and sharp. For this reason, it tends to compact better than rounded rock. Whether rounded or crushed, you can find just about any color of landscaping stone. Nowadays, you can even buy artificial stone in extremely consistent colors and patterns. Natural stone is, understandably, a much less expensive option.