Ashridge Nurseries Blog & Recipes

Drought-Resistant Gardening Tips

When gardeners dream of summer, we imagine borders overflowing with lush vegetation and profuse blooms stretching as far as the eye can see.

But lack of rain, hot conditions and hosepipe bans are making it tougher to achieve this kind of abundance. Fortunately, good soil preparation, mulching and planting make it possible to create a garden that looks fabulous whatever the weather.

Here Comes the Rain…
When it rains heavily for prolonged periods, like last month, be ready to harvest as much water as possible. Rain butts and tanks come in all shapes and sizes: they can be mounted on walls, slimline versions can fit almost anywhere, and, in larger gardens, connected in groups and also stored underground. Plants prefer water without the chemical residues in tap water, and it's especially good to use it on acidic soil loving plants; rainwater is naturally on the acidic side, unlike tap water.

Rain Water Tank Rain water: it's free. Until they find a way to tax you for it.

Watering in the cool of the early morning and late evening reduces evaporation wastage, and an automatic drip irrigation system set to turn on at night is a great time saver - your most precious Earthly resource.

Well-prepared soil, with lots of organic matter, retains the most moisture, and excellent alternatives to peat, such as coconut coir, make a huge difference to dry soils. On that theme, Hugelkultur uses dead wood as a sort of slow-releasing nutrient-sponge foundation for raised beds or mounds.

Mulching with organic matter prevents water loss through evaporation and run-off from crusted soil, smothers weeds, and gradually releases nutrients. Beds and borders can be covered with a thick layer of mulch (5-7.5cm) anytime in spring when temperatures are on the rise and the soil is moist. The best materials include garden compost, leaf mould, well-rotted manure, bark chippings, and gravel deserves a mention too. It is generally fine to use fresh green stuff as well, if you have nothing else.

Mulching Mulch over the evidence before the police arrive in Spring

Sunny Border Stars
As my garden has become more prone to drought, I’ve focused on plants that need little, if any, watering. Mediterranean plants like Lavender, Rosemary, Thyme and Turkish Sage (Phlomis) are amongst my favourites. Lavender and Rosemary have needle-like leaves and oils coating the leaf surface, while the felted, silvery foliage of Turkish Sage reflects light and reduces transpiration. Other plants with silvery or glaucous leaves that require little water include Garden Pinks (Dianthus), Rose Campion (Lychnis coronaria), Cotton Lavender (Santolina) and Curry Plant (Helichrysum).

My gravel garden is awash with blooms and pollinating insects feasting on them in the summer, but I rarely water it after plants are established there. Russian Sage (Perovskia) forms an elegant blue backdrop with the spherical heads of Globe Thistle (Echinops) and the luscious orange spires of Verbascum ‘Clementine’ in the foreground. Rock Rose (Cistus), Stonecrop (Sedum) and Lamb’s Ear (Stachys) are also perfect for dry spots, with shrubs like California Lilac (Ceonothus), Mexican Orange (Choisya) and Smoke Bush (Cotinus) working well to create height at the back of gravel borders.

Globe Thistle (Echinops) Globe thistles (Echinops) and bees are old friends

Drought-Tolerant Pots
As a general rule, I’m reducing the amount of container displays in the garden, but I like to keep a few pots filled with plants that need minimal watering. Succulents like Echeveria, Aeonium and Sempervivum are stalwarts, and I love to add Mexican Fleabane (Erigeron karvinskianus) and different Saxifrages like ‘Pearly King’ and ‘Buttercream’ to my green roof, one of the drier areas in my garden.

Saxifrages ‘Buttercream’ Saxifrages ‘Buttercream’, looking darling as ever

Greater Quaking Grass (Briza maxima) self-seeds in my pots and copes well with dry conditions. I combine it with easy-to-grow annuals like Calendula, Love-in-a-Mist (Nigella) and the vivid orange flowers of Tithonia to create stunning, low-maintenance summer colour.

Coping with Dry Shade
It is essential to find the ‘right plant, right place’ for dry shade. I love Lily Turf (Liriope muscari) with its evergreen leaves and lilac-blue or white spikes of flower that light up darker areas from late summer through to the end of autumn. Geranium phaeum is also ideal for dry, shady areas. Its fabulous deep maroon flowers attract bees and other pollinating insects.

Japanese Anemone is another resilient plant that gives great colour from August to October. Thriving in semi-shade, it requires no watering in my garden. My favourite Anemone cultivars include the pure white flowers of ‘Honorine Jobert’ and the soft pinks of ‘Königin Charlotte’.

Königin Charlotte Japanese Anemone A Königin Charlotte Japanese anemone, showing off her latest tiara. Very nice, your majesty

Written by: Nic Wilson

6 thoughts on “Drought-Resistant Gardening Tips”

  • Noreen

    I have several no sun areas in my garden and your information has been very useful to me. Thank you

  • sally webster
    sally webster 1st June 2021 at 9:15 am

    super advice and my favourite plants recommended

  • yvonne masters
    yvonne masters 3rd June 2021 at 8:21 am

    I have sandy soil, would you please tell me what plants survive . I buy plants only to find they do not survive . I love roses but they don't seem to thrive. Most of the plants I have put in as plugs I've lost.
    Thank you.

    • Ashridge Nurseries
      Ashridge Nurseries 3rd June 2021 at 12:42 pm

      Hello Yvonne,

      That is a big topic for a blog comment, so here are my quick thoughts:

      1. Take ideas from success stories like Beth Chatto's gravel garden
      2. Look at plants that grow on the coast, which generally thrive on poor, sandy soils, especially plants that fix nitrogen.
      3. Rugosa roses are the toughest and most forgiving of poor soils. They are also the thorniest...
      4. To increase the range of plants you can use, improve your soil with organic matter and biochar to increase its fertility & moisture, and the ability to retain them long-term. Research hugelkultur and terra preta soil for more inspiration. You can simply dump organic matter on the ground every year and it will work its way down your light soil over time, but biochar has to be dug down to where it will be useful to feeding roots; that may be a lot of work, but you only have to do it once per ten thousand years or so, which isn't too bad.
      5. Consider raised beds full of beautifully rich compost, topsoil, manure and so on, and/or grow your favourite rose in a nice big terracotta pot with the bottom cut out, so that it can root down into the soil below. Over time, the worms & water will move the good soil from the pot down into the poor soil below, and you can top up the pot a little each year.

      Have fun! Your challenge is an opportunity to make something wonderful and learn loads in the process.

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