The recent dry spell has really made me think about the plants I am growing. The drought has taken its toll on a favourite tree in my garden. In truth, it has been many years since it performed at its best. This year, I’ll be lucky if there are any leaves left come autumn! I’m blaming my thin, silty soil and a lack of regular rainfall, coupled with hot, drying winds over the past few weeks.
This has had me pondering – do I take some softwood cuttings now to replace it if it dies? Or is it better to accept what nature has given me; to find plants that naturally cope well under drought conditions. After all, the Trachycarpus (Windmill Palm) growing close by is positively flourishing.
Preparing for dryer weather conditions
I’m a great believer in choosing the right plant for the right position. Why spend hours nurturing a moisture-loving plant that will never thrive on a dry soil? Unfortunately it’s far too easy to be led astray by a pretty flower in the garden centre. I’m sure I’m not the only one! So I’ve decided to let nature take its course and start planning for a more drought resilient garden…
Limit your plant choices
A good starting place is to look at what thrives in your garden already, and let these plants become the basis of your planting palette. This will often mean a smaller range of plants used in larger, bolder groups. Apart from being more in tune with the natural order of things, I find that planting in this way is often more attractive than a jumble of individual species, all fighting for attention.
Sempervivums (Houseleeks) are definitely ‘in’ this year. Mine seem to be flourishing since repotting them into a gritty soil mix, and ‘pups’ are popping up all over the place!
These resilient little plants are steeped in folklore! They have been used throughout history for medicinal purposes such as using the sap from their fleshy leaves to soothe burns and abrasions – an outdoor Aloe vera, if you like!
Sempervivums come in a surprising range of colours too, like T&M’s Chick Charms Collection which would look great inserted into the cracks in my garden walls.
Encourage the colonisers
Speaking of cracks in the walls, these Hart’s Tongue Ferns are definitely some of the top performers on my plot! One small plant that was introduced over a decade ago, and now they have colonised the length of the steep steps that descend to the bottom of my garden.
Another big coloniser is my garden is Trachystemon orientalis with its coarse, heart-shaped leaves and pretty Borage-like flowers in spring. This is a great performer for dry shade and creates dense ground cover. In very dry weather the leaves will flop, but generally there is little that upsets it.
It’s related to the white flowered Symphytum orientalis, another success story that’s growing in the thin, dry soil around the edge of my pond. Both are from the Boraginaceae family, and provide a valuable supply of nectar for pollinating insects in early spring. Clearly this is a group that is worth exploring in my new planting palette!
Stipa tenuissima does well for me too. This billowing grass adds movement to borders. It self-seeds freely but is always easy to manage.
Geranium phaeum and Bergenia cordifolia have really found their stride this year too. I planted a few Bergenia many years ago and they have finally bulked up to create a pleasing clump of glossy foliage, which makes excellent ground cover.
Plant drought tolerant species
There has been huge interest in drought tolerant species this year, particularly succulents such as Hylotelephium takesimense ‘Atlantis’ (known to most of us as Sedum). This showy plant was awarded the prestigious honour of RHS Chelsea Plant of the Year 2019 and it certainly is eye-catching.
There are plenty of other Sedum available too. Given a sunny spot with good drainage, they are always happy to tough it out at the front of my dry borders, attracting pollinating insects as an added bonus!
It’s not all ground cover perennials in my garden. Euonymus is another genus that thrives here. Deciduous Euonymus europaeus is best known as our native Spindle Tree. The curious pink fruits and vibrant autumn colour make it a lovely focal point in autumn. I’m always surprised at how well this tree copes – it seems to thrive on neglect!
For year round reliability, you can’t beat the variegated evergreen foliage of Euonymus japonicus ‘Ovatus Aureus’. This tough, resilient plant provides structure and colour throughout the winter months, tolerating the dry summer without issue.
Put the pretties in pots!
Of course, we all have to have a few delicate ‘pretties’ in our gardens, but I tend to grow mine in pots close to the house. Not only do I get to appreciate them more, but it also allows me to focus all my watering efforts in one place. As one pot fades, another fresh pot can take its place, and the tired plants can be retired to a less visible spot. I also use saucers under each pot during the summer to catch the escaping ‘run-off’ and save on water wastage.
If you’ve been inspired by Sue’s drought-proofing tips and want to apply her techniques to your own garden, find our full range of drought-tolerant plants here. It’s also well worth visiting our hub page for specialist advice on growing alpine and rockery plants.
Plants and gardens have always been a big part of my life. I can remember helping my Dad to prick out seedlings, even before I could see over the top of the potting bench. As an adult, I trained at Writtle College where I received my degree, BSc. (Hons) Horticulture. After working in a specialist plantsman’s nursery, and later, as a consulting arboriculturalist, I joined Thompson & Morgan in 2008. Initially looking after the grounds and coordinating the plant trials, I now support the web team offering horticultural advice online. I have a keen interest in drought resistant plants and a passion for perennials, particularly hardy Geraniums. I previously stood as regional secretary for the International Plant Propagation Society which gave me lots of opportunities to see what other horticulturalists were up to in their nurseries and gardens.