Gravel is quick to lay and very popular. While it’s not the cheapest form of driveway material, at least for longer drives, the cost advantage isn’t that great on an ordinary domestic driveway, at least initially. In fact the cost difference is minimal and easily outweighed by the ease of laying and the classy look.
Long term cost of a gravel driveway
The real cost disadvantage comes over time, as even the best looked after gravel driveways will compact, spread out and thin, with bits escaping the confines of the driveway edging.
Over time tyre tracks will be ground into the gravel, heavy rain causes trenches to appear as the gravel is washed away, and of course weeds get a foothold. Eventually a top up of gravel is required, and that’s why, over time, gravel is more expensive than it first seems.
Care and maintenance
Regular care and maintenance will prevent these problems but what is required? We spoke to one homeowner who bought a house with a gravel driveway and asked him how people should care for them. Initially we began to wonder if it had been a good idea, but at least we found out what not to do!
Alistair Grain* owned a Victorian villa with a large lawn at the front. The drive went straight down the side of the lawn and past the side of the house, so was quite long, and regular maintenance was a bit of a chore. Over to Alistair.
Poor initial preparation
“I think the gravel had been laid a couple of years before we moved in,” he explained, “probably when the house was renovated, so it was already compacted in places. I suppose, knowing what I know now, it hadn’t been laid properly in the first place.”
The drive was long enough to fit about seven cars and Alistair discovered that there was no base at all, the earth had just been tamped down and gravel put on top. That meant that weeds only had to penetrate down through a few grains of gravel before finding nice juicy soil to get their roots into.Check out our article about how gravel size matters.
“It was the weeds that were the main problem,” Alistair said, “but it was made worse because I wouldn’t use weedkiller. I think it’s bad for the environment, insects and other small animals ingest it and their, eaten by birds, the birds get eaten by cats and other small animals, and so on. Also weedkiller doesn’t get the weeds out – they die but they’re still in the driveway!”
Problems with hand weeding gravel
So it was hand weeding for Alistair, but that was less than perfect too.
“Apart from anything else it was a pain, digging them out, so I didn’t do it often enough,” he admitted, “I’d do a big blitz about twice a year and if I did it once a month it would have been more controllable.”
“But the real problem was the lack of base or weed barrier. As I dug the weeds up lots of soil and little bits of gravel would come up. Obviously I’d shove it all back in the hole, but the gravel that came up was covered in earth, so I ended up with all these little patches of darker gravel.”
Wrong driveway camber
“The other problems were that the camber was too steep, there was too much of a hump in the middle, and I’d lay money there was no drainage at all, it just relied on water running off onto the lawn at the side,” Alistair complained. “It all meant that the action of car tyres push gravel down and out to the sides, so it gravel was thin on the top with gullies either side filled with loose gravel.”
In the end Alistair had to give in.
“When the time came to move on and sell the house it just looked awful,” he agreed, “there were bald patches, brown patches from getting weeds out and of course new weeds that settled easily in the soil covered gravel I’d unearthed.”
Alistair girded his loins and got a contractor in to spray weedkiller and then dumped tons of new gravel on top.
“I hated it,” Alistair whined, “and it cost a good couple of hundred quid, but it made the house look so much better and we know from all the telly programmes, kerb appeal is vital. The house sold quickly, so I suppose it was money well spent.
Alistair’s hints and tips
So, armed with all that knowledge from doing it wrong, what would Alistair say to others about the right way to care for and maintain a gravel driveway? We asked him for his top tips.
- Rake the gravel regularly, probably spring and autumn, to keep an even spread and break up any compacted gravel.
- Sweep or hoover off leaves and other organic matter every week in the autumn.
- Weed regularly, by hand if there’s a proper base between the gravel and the soil.
- If you have to use weedkiller, use the safest weedkiller you can find.
- Make sure there’s proper drainage and consider putting it in if not.
- If there’s no weed barrier, think about lifting the gravel and putting a proper base and barrier down, then relaying the gravel. You’ll probably need fresh gravel on top though.
So there you have it – learning from someone else’s mistakes could keep your classy gravel driveway from turning into a nightmare.
* name changed to protect the not-so-innocent