Since last autumn we have had little or no rain. Apart from the occasional downpour that does little to revitalise the soil we’ve all been relying on regular watering in the garden since early Spring. And from today April 5th we’re getting a hosepipe ban in the South East of England.
All the evidence from the weather forecasters is that we are in for a real blazing summer so if you’re going away get prepared in advance and get ready for a heatwave. There are lots of things you can do and here are some top tips to keep your garden stunning through the heat without having to spend the entire Summer watering.
The best move is that if you are putting in new plants choose those suitable for long hot dry periods. This is good for the long term too as, contrary to what you might think, we seem to be getting less rain every summer. The Strawberry tree Arbutus unedo is a great example of a drought tolerant tree with lots of year round interest. It’s evergreen, has peeling bark, white flowers and winter ripe fruits – but don’t eat them, the name comes from the look of the fruit and not the taste!
Try lots of Mediterranean plants that love dry conditions. This includes many of the shrubby herbs such as Lavender, Sage and Rosemary. I love the purple sage Salvia purpurescens and the upright form of rosemary Rosmarinus ‘Miss Jessop’s Upright’ – great where space is limited. Mix these with Russian Sage Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Blue Spire’ and Jerusalem Sage Phlomis fruticosa (neither of which are real sages). I especially love Lavender and Russian Sage under Birch trees with the mix of blues and white of the stems.
Sun Roses and Rock Roses are also greatly underestimated probably because the name suggests a thorny shrub with too many associations with real roses. These are not ‘proper’ roses. The Sun Rose Cistus is a great all rounder for evergreen foliage, long lasting flowers and copes brilliantly in a drought. Varieties of the Rock Rose, Helianthemum can be treated like an alpine and will cover a metre of soil in no time at all, tumbling over walls and constantly flowering.
A family of plants that seems to be making a comeback are the Pines and some of the smaller Pines such as Pinus mugo ‘Pumillo’ are ideal especially in gravel gardens. Add to this the huge variety of grasses and herbaceous plants such as Acanthus, Convolvulus and Sea Holly Eryngium varieties and you have a huge selection of plants that will resist dry conditions.
But planting the right plant is only half the battle. What if you have a full garden and need to protect the borders from drought? Water is a precious commodity so start by conserving what’s already in the soil. How many times have you complained that the soil is just heavy clay and gets boggy in winter and cracks in the summer? What you need is to get some good organic compost into the soil to hold onto the water. Then use a mulch, bark chippings are especially good, to stop evaporation and over time, as it decomposes, add extra goodness to the soil.
And finally, don’t forget to water properly. Believe it or not you can water badly. I see lawns so wet that they rot off while plants in the borders are dying from drought. Make sure you water plants directly, at the base – there’s actually no substitute for hand watering. You can even buy watering pipes that get right down to tree roots, but failing that do what I do with new trees – upend an old plastic bottle with the end cut off. Dig it down next to the tree’s roots and fill the bottle up. The water gets straight to where it’s needed!
Let’s hope that we do have a stunning summer to lift the economic gloom as we stay home in our gardens. We want plenty of sun and lots of rain to get us through and lift the hosepipe ban. Use water wisely but get prepared now and you can sail through the heatwave without lifting a finger to water because all your plants will be happy and contented sitting in warm moist soil with a good mulch topping.
Andrew Fisher Tomlin designs and constructs gardens in London and overseas. You can contact him here.
Here are some top tips:
- Water correctly – get the water to the plant at the base near to the roots rather than just spraying over the foliage.
- Water at the right time – evening and very early morning before the sun is up are ideal.
- Recycle washing up water, a bowl of warm water for a tree can work wonders.
- Store water – get a water butt to store excess water when it does rain.
- Plant the right plants – those with silver and pale grey narrow foliage like Lavender, Rosemary and Perovskia are excellent, as are conifers and grasses.
- Plant in a waterwise way – close together to get a good root system going.
- Mulch with bark mulch to conserve water in the ground.
- Concentrate on a few large plant buys that you can easily look after rather than lots of small plants – save those for the autumn when they’ll establish more easily.
Remember, a few simple measures can make sure your garden looks as good as last year with less watering.