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dry gardening, gravel gardens and drought-tolerant planting

FireFire Posts: 17,373
edited August 2022 in Tools and techniques
Does anyone have garden areas that are specifically planted to be drought tolerant - beds that are designed so as never to be watered? I hope this thread can be an investigation into various 'tough  garden' techniques. As others have noted elsewhere, there are many different challenges in the UK to these kinds of approach. Temperatures are one element, low rainfall/water are another consideration, but so are high (winter) rainfalls.

Different designs and intentions behind planting areas might include
- low maintenance public areas with limited budget or staff time allocated
- ornamental beds at home
- planning for low cost
- wild areas of low soil nutrition to encourage flora and fauna diversity
- vegetable growing
- low, solid ground cover
- non-grass, drought-tolerant "lawns"

or a various mix 

There can be a wide variety of ways of going about building low watering regimes, as well as a variety of motivations. Two examples of different approaches are
Beth Chatto Gardens: which has one portion of its land (six metres down of sandy gravel) given to gravel gardening (1991). They do not water much after planting but use gravel as a mulch. Interestingly, the Head Gardener describes the soil under the mulch as warm and damp; so it's not so much a "dry garden" as a "no watering garden" which is not the same thing.  Asa Gregers-Warg notes that the staff team spend most of their time on the gravel garden as they are constantly battling weeds - such are the damp growing conditions. They site their new  raised plants into home-made compost.

Designer John Little has a very different way of doing things. He uses substrates like pure builders' sand, crushed concrete, toilets, sinks and glass. His main interest is planning / seeding for greatest diversity of flora & fauna (particularly for pollinators), low cost and low maintenance in public growing spaces such as housing estate and schools. He promotes growing without any soil at all - getting substrates with as low nutrition as possible, in some cases, mimicking UK chalklands, particularly good for supporting rarer native plants.






  • PosyPosy Posts: 3,601
    This will be really interesting,  @Fire. May I just mention that any consideration needs to take into account winter conditions, too. It may be like the Med in summer but if it turns into a bog in winter there will be problems. It's not just drainage but also the water table.
  • FireFire Posts: 17,373
    Fire said:
    Temperatures are one element, low rainfall/water are another consideration, but so are high (winter) rainfalls.

  • Not at home , but the Mediterranean border(s) in Queen Mary's Gardens in Regents Park is/are planted so that ( other than new planting ) nothing is ever watered. Most of it is on a slope ( so drains ) and is basically planted into grit /gravel/sand rather than anything else, so waterlogging is not an issue ( even though the drainage in the rest of regents park is far from perfect).  From memory , they have lavender ( various kinds ) , perovskia , thyme , teucrium, some ornamental salvias ( although I was told despite repeated attempts culinary sage - salvia officianalis has failed to survive )-- alchemilla mollis as well. they do have some palms, and some cacti , plus the whole thing does evolve . When planting , they don't put "very small" plants in -- not because they think older specimens will do better , but to avoid easy theft from a public place. Sad but true.

    Also @Fire , for what it is worth, you were querying whether the grass in the main parks would survive this drought /heat-- after the deluge mid week I took a walk in Primrose Hill and around some bits of the main park --lawns  noticeably greener.
    Kindness is always the right choice.
  • JennyJJennyJ Posts: 9,613
    I choose mostly plants that are supposed to prefer or at least tolerate dry conditions, simply because of the soil type and low-ish rainfall here, but they have to be winter-hardy too, probably more so than in London and the south-east. I add as much compost (home-made) as I can manage but it's still a free-draining soil, which does help with winter-hardiness. I don't mulch as much as I would like because I like my self-seeders so it's a compromise, and I'm not keen on gravel as a mulch because I like to be able to add new plants here and there and it's a pain scraping it aside, plus I wouldn't be able to see it because I like dense planting. I only water newly-planted things until they're established (as little as a few weeks for a perennial, as much as a year or more for a tree). Planting for drought-tolerance/zero watering and at the same time tolerance to winter waterlogging due to higher rainfall and/or heavier soil as well as cold would be much more of a challenge and I think would need the kind of soil/substrate amendments that you described to prevent or at least reduce the waterlogging aspect.
    Doncaster, South Yorkshire. Soil type: sandy, well-drained
  • PlantmindedPlantminded Posts: 2,780
    edited August 2022
    I also have dry, sandy soil, with a sandstone seam near the surface in places.  As my garden is on two levels and gently sloping, waterlogging has never been a problem.  Although I use organic mulch to improve the soil, it’s still very dry and free draining.  As a result I grow mainly shrubs, trees and grasses which are tough and drought tolerant once established, compared with herbaceous plants.  This means there’s not much on offer for slugs and snails!  I never water my front garden, apart from a small box hedge maybe twice a year. The rest of the plants in the front garden are established conifers (which I don’t like but they provide privacy), grasses, Erigeron karvinskianus and salvias. The winters are mild here, but it can get quite windy so l don’t grow anything that’s not tough enough to support itself.
    Wirral. Sandy, free draining soil.

  • FireFire Posts: 17,373
    I have a full sandy pavement bed, no watering after getting established, densely planted, no mulch. They are planted mostly with rozanne, Sedum Autumn Joy, erigeron and verbena bon. The established erigeron and verbenas are loving the high heat and drought. The Rozanne is hanging on and flowering. Of the four, all the sedum is badly suffering, which surprised me. Perhaps lower growing, lessy showy sedum might have coped better.

    At home and in the neighbourhood shrubby salvias are thriving.
  • FireFire Posts: 17,373
    Today's Get Dirtyincludes discussion about changing gardens in the UK and how we adapt to heating climate. Alan Gray talks about planting in the south/east things like agapanthus with deep and questing roots, fennel, pittosporum, verbena. Deep tap rooted plants might be a good bet for the future. Tree dahlias have become semi-perennial down here (not dying right back). Free standing figs and Leucadendron argenteum could become widespread.

    Also discussion of which new plants might get become invasive when they are much happier and will self-seed.

    It's a time of experiment with ornamentals and crops.

  • PosyPosy Posts: 3,601
    Yes, I've seen this sort of advice before and it really irritates me. My garden is like a desert in summer but by October/November it will be waterlogged and by January there will be standing water in places for days or even weeks.
    British gardeners need to look at our varying conditions before they hand out advice. It was just the same in 1976 when people went out and spent a fortune on drought tolerant plants, only to watch them rot during a normal British winter.
  • FireFire Posts: 17,373
    edited August 2022
    I would just say that the winter waterlogged aspect is important to include in plans. It does narrow down the plants that will do well if your garden is bog by October.

    As ever, people with sharp drainage (like Alan Grey or me) will have to plant differently to those on solid clay or conditions like Monty Don.

    I found it interesting that Alan Gray has been gardening the space for 50 years and has seen radical changes as to what he can grow outside - such as free standing figs (without shelter of a wall) and pittosporum.
  • FireFire Posts: 17,373
    edited August 2022
    This is another episode of Getting Dirty - this one about is about a gravel garden in full sun (eight inches of gravel) on clay, good if you can ensure perfect drainage.  It has never been watered. This time the interview is with Derry Watkins who heads the Special Gardens nursery near Bristol. The episode works best as a podcast (not a video) because the visuals aren't great.

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