Do you have to dig a trench for gravel paths?
February 3, 2013 10:30 AM   Subscribe

We would like to install a gravel path in the front yard of our house from our concrete entryway to the street (a distance of about 35 feet not including curves), and have received conflicting advice about the need to dig a trench for the path. We were told by a nursery that we could use 4" metal edging, bury 2" of it (leaving 2'' above ground), add landscape fabric (after clearing the grass and weeds, though it's mostly dirt), then fill it in with 1.5" of gravel sitting above the ground, with no need for a trench. Everything we've read online says that you need to dig a trench, then bury the edge flush with the surface of the ground. On one side of the path will be gravel xeriscaping, but most of the path will be surrounded by the level yard. Will edging that sticks out 2 inches above the ground look bad or weird?

Also, if the edging and gravel sit above the ground, how do we deal with the ends of the path that hit the entryway and street, to keep the gravel from spilling over? Do we dig just in front of the ends so the gravel path slopes naturally down to the level of the entryway on one end and the street on the other end? We worry that not sloping the path and just putting an edge against the entryway and street might cause people to trip against the exposed edging as they step onto and off of the path.

It would be far, far easier not to have to dig the trench before installing the path, and considering the fact that we'll be adding gravel xeriscaping on a chunk of the yard against the path on one side, we'd probably have to dig that to the same level, requiring a ton of work. But we want to do it right, so if that's what needs to be done, we'll do it.
posted by odayoday to Home & Garden (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Not sure about looks, but something two inches above the lawn sounds like something a lot of people will trip over.
posted by freakazoid at 10:33 AM on February 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yes, the edging will be a trip hazard, and falling over the edging is likely to cause an unpleasant injury if you happen to land on the opposite edging.

Digging down 4" for a bit of edging really isn't difficult.
posted by pipeski at 10:39 AM on February 3, 2013

For looks, longevity, safety and maintenance, I'd go with the trench and flush edging. Yes, you could do it the other way but I don't think you'd be happy with it long-term and it won't look as nice and would be a pain to fix.
posted by amanda at 10:49 AM on February 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Typically you dig a "trench" to remove the topsoil because topsoil isn't a stable medium to build something on, even something as simple as a gravel walk. Topsoil is organic and will shift and decay and tend to settle unlike clay and/or gravel. If you are in an area of frost the topsoil will heave and within a few years will make your gravel path ugly looking.

So, yes, dig out the topsoil which may extend 6 inches deep and place your stone or gravel. It is still a good idea to put landscape fabric underneath. I like to use edging that sticks above the ground or gravel so that it lessens migration of stone into your lawn. Nothing is as big a pain in the butt as mowing lawn with the lawnmower kicking up stone all of the time. I prefer a more solid edging like brick or stone which will stand up better than metal edging especially when sticking up a few inches.
posted by JJ86 at 11:53 AM on February 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yes, dig a trench, but I would avoid the landscaping fabric- that's a shortcut that rarely pays off. Every client's garden that has this eventually gets lumps and bumps because there's no stable base, and then the landscaping fabric is exposed. It also doesn't keep weeds from growing on top of the fabric, and makes pulling those weeds now rooted in landscape fabric very difficult. In short, it's a great way to spend money and time on something that will have to be dug out and thrown away at some point. For a long lasting, well draining gravel path you should excavate; install 8" steel edging so that the top is at grade; roll/compact the existing soil; put down a 4"layer of base rock, roll it well; then add a 1" layer of the gravel. This does several things: creates a more stable base that resists heaving and lumpiness and feels sturdier underfoot, allows drainage that prevents soil particles building up and making a haven for weeds, and cuts down on costs of the expensive decorative pebbles or gravel, and only utilizes materials that can be reused (unlike landscape fabric).
posted by oneirodynia at 12:45 PM on February 3, 2013 [8 favorites]

Listen to oneirodynia; for garden projects that are supposed to last for years, it's always worth taking the time to do a proper job. It sucks at the time, but you know what sucks more? Having weed-filled, shitty path that looks decades-old after it's been in for a year. I know this, because we just bought a house where the owners cut very corner humanly possible on every upgrade they did. It's infuriating, ugly, and I'm gonna have to redo the bulk of them - including gravel paths and paving - myself because they did such a shitty job it's ugly and falling apart.
posted by smoke at 1:36 PM on February 3, 2013

Response by poster: Okay, we are also considering using a cedar plank walkway as a very low effort alternative. Do any of you have experience with something like this:
posted by odayoday at 1:55 PM on February 3, 2013

These are lovely, but a friend's elderly mother trod too close to the edge of one of the plank-type pathways and broke her arm. Again, another tripping hazard. If there's grass to one side, you will most likely have to use a weed eater to have it look good.
posted by BlueHorse at 4:08 PM on February 3, 2013

That would probably be okay if you think of it as an entirely temporary measure. You would still need to grade and roll the path so that the boards aren't stressed by being unevenly supported. If your yard gets muddy I'm not sure that 0.8 inches is going to keep your feet dry, but if you're not worried about that it seems fine. Keep in mind that a 17.5 inch wide path is very narrow, and considering the amount it's going to cost (minimum 200 dollars it looks like) I would see about getting some bids for the gravel path, in whole or in part. If you're going to be buying bulk gravel for xeriscaping it may make sense to hire someone to dig and lay the metal edging, and then combine base rock and gravel deliveries. Building a short gravel path is not rocket science, so you don't need a contractor, just a handyperson with great references and photos of their work.
posted by oneirodynia at 5:24 PM on February 3, 2013

Okay, we are also considering using a cedar plank walkway as a very low effort alternative. Do any of you have experience with something like this:

Unless you paint it every five years, be prepared to replace that walkway in 15 years.
posted by sebastienbailard at 7:58 PM on February 3, 2013

As a construction landscaper, my biggest tip would be to place a base of limestone sand into your trench, under whatever stepping stones you decide on. Pack down the sand, making a flat, tightly packed layer. This will keep your stones looking nice and new for many years to come.
posted by QueerAngel28 at 8:34 AM on February 4, 2013

Fortunately, gravel paths are a staple of This Old House and its offshoot, Ask This Old House.

Here is their guide in text form, and here is a video of the job excerpted from ATOH, featuring Master Landscaper Roger Cook.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:07 AM on February 4, 2013

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