Planting for water conservation; gardening in drought conditions

By Andy McIndoe

Gardeners in many parts of the world have to deal with periods of drought. Yes, irrigation is a possibility, but many are faced with water shortages and there is increasing interest in planting for water conservation. Even in the UK we have to deal with periods of drought. Despite the fact it seemed to rain throughout spring the past few weeks have been hot and dry and gardens have certainly been feeling the heat.

The Dry Garden:  Here are a few of my tips for a good-looking garden that needs less watering.

1. Plant shrubs and perennials that enjoy dry conditions. Sun roses, cistus are compact evergreens that need little care and delight with a spectacular display of shimmering pink or white blooms in summer. Helianthemums are also a good choice. The Russian sage, Perovskia atriplicifolia is an underestimated plant. This one just loves hot, dry conditions and produces its bright blue flowers on branched stems in late summer. The foliage is silvery on the reverse of the leaves and the stems are silver-white. Convolvulus cneorum is a favourite dwarf shrub with silky silver leaves and white trumpet shaped flowers throughout the summer. It is for a patio pot and needs much less watering than many bedding plants, it flowers for longer too.

Perovskia 'Blue Spire'  (2)

Cistus 'Elma'

2. Think Mediterranean and aromatic: lavender, sage, thyme and rosemary all like hot dry conditions and produce aromatic foliage, great for summer barbecues. They produce their most aromatic foliage when grown on dry, poor soil and their flowers are attractive to bees, butterflies and pollinating insects. Also plants with felty or silver foliage are invariably drought resistant; Ballotta pseudodictamnus is a good example.

3. Palms and yuccas may look exotic and tender but some are tough customers that stand up to winter cold as well as summer drought. Chamaerops are the best palms for smaller gardens and are ideal in pots and striking when planted in gravel. Yuccas are surprisingly hardy and they make striking architectural garden plants.

Palm pot

The Old Vicarage

4. Do not waste water on the lawn, save it for flowers and vegetables. Grass does not die it just goes dormant in dry weather. The lawn may look parched and brown but it quickly recovers when rain comes. Set your mower higher: longer grass retains its green colour for longer. Consider clover as an alternative to, or addition to grass. It stays green even in hot dry weather.

Grass clippings as mulch 1

Grass left longer 2

5. In a small space consider gravel or stone chippings as an alternative to grass. Gravel looks attractive and is maintenance free: no mowing to do! Add interest with creeping thymes, sedums and sempervivums and dwarf bulbs for early spring colour.

6. Mulch flowerbeds and borders with a good depth of chipped bark or shredded prunings. This retains moisture and suppresses weeds at the same time. Apply it when the soil is moist and weed free, and use enough. A depth of 5 cm, 2 inches over the soil surface is needed for it to be effective. You can use grass clippings as mulch under large shrubs and hedges. This helps to improve the humus content of the soil and conserves water

7. Use loam-based compost in pots and containers. It holds water and nutrients more efficiently and plants are less liable to wilt. Cover the surface of the compost with gravel or decorative stone chippings. This looks good and helps to keep the compost cool and retains moisture. When choosing pots and containers choose large ones. These are more efficient at holding water and do not dry out as quickly. They are also more stable and less likely to blow over. Group pots together on the patio, this helps to shade the walls of the containers, keep them cool and prevent drying out.

8. Soil conditioning reaps rewards. Add plenty of organic matter: garden compost and well-rotted farmyard manure. This increases the humus content of the soil enabling it to hold water and nutrients more effectively. This is the basis of good planting and a healthy, thriving garden.

9. Plan ahead. Planting in the autumn rather than spring and summer enables the roots of plants to become established deep in the soil when water is more available. This means they will be more resistant to drought the following season.

10. When you water do it in the early morning or evening and get the water to the roots. If you only soak the soil surface every time you water the roots will stay there. Ideally you want to get the roots to go deep so it pays to put a piece of pipe into the ground when planting new trees and large shrubs. Water into the pipe and you’ll get the water below the roots rather than just wetting the soil surface.

I have a bit of an ulterior motive in writing this post. My garden is parched at the moment and desperately needs rain. Every time I write about drought it pours with rain; let’s see if it works. In the meantime I’d love your comments and suggestions on water conservation in the garden.

Andy McIndoe

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