Agapanthus (PA Photo/thinkstockphotos)
As the hot weather continues, Hannah Stephenson offers tips on how to make your garden more drought resistant
Our sweltering July probably prompted many gardeners to reach for the hosepipe. In fact, according to The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), less than 3% of the annual water consumption of an average household is estimated to be from garden use, but at peak demand times as much as 70% of water supplied may be used in gardens.
This doesn’t have to be the case though. Rainwater collected in water butts, waste water from the kitchen and grey water from the bathroom can all be used to water plants.
Or, maybe, the ultimate solution is simply to create a garden that doesn’t need much watering in the first place.
This doesn’t mean creating a desert garden devoid of colour. Dramatic flowerbeds can easily be achieved from plants that have very low moisture and maintenance demands. Many drought-resistant plants naturally form communities of plants which all thrive in the same conditions and come from similar Mediterranean habitats.
At the front of the border you could have dwarf lavender, Sedum spectabile, lamb’s ears and ornamental grass such as stipa tenuissima, while middle-sized drought-resistant plants include Echinacea purpurea ‘Magnus’, Erysimum ‘Bowles’s Mauve’ (wallflower), Russian sage and Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’ (catmint).
At the back of the border you could use species more than 1.8m tall, including Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’, Choisya ternata (Mexican orange blossom) and Trachelospermum jasminoides.
Most drought-tolerant plants will have either aromatic leaves, fleshy and succulent leaves (which store moisture for dry spells), grey leaves, hairy leaves (which shade themselves with their own hairs), long narrow leaves (which are good at shedding heat without water), or spikes (which act as ‘fins’ to cool the plant).
The RHS offers these extra tips to create a more drought-resistant, but still attractive, garden:
:: Cultivate the soil deeply and dig in large quantities of organic matter to improve soil structure, water retention and water availability for plants. Well-rotted garden compost, mushroom compost, composted bark and well-rotted farmyard manure are all suitable forms of organic matter. Heavy manuring can add nearly a month’s worth of water storage capacity to the soil. Loam-based potting compost doesn’t dry out as quickly as peat-free composts. If using peat-free, water-retaining gels might have some benefit.
:: Apply sufficient fertiliser as plants use water most efficiently where nutrient levels are adequate. But do not apply too much fertiliser to the soil, as this can encourage too much lush growth which can flop in summer, requiring extra watering and becoming frost-damaged in winter.
:: Choose plants with grey-green or silver leaves as they reflect the sun’s rays, helping to conserve moisture within the plant tissues.
:: Try to choose plants which suit the site’s soil type and aspect. They will be more tolerant of varying climatic conditions as well as of pest and disease problems.
:: Plant things while they are still small. They will develop much greater resilience as they adapt to their conditions from a young age. Ideally plant in autumn so they can do some growing before dry weather arrives.
:: If planting Mediterranean plants, do so in spring when the soil is warming up. Many of these plants will suffer from root-rot if planted in autumn and become cold and damp over winter.
:: Before planting, thoroughly soak the plants in their pots in a bucket of water until the bubbles stop rising to the surface.
:: Thoroughly water in all new plants (and keep them watered in the first season after planting to ensure they establish well). Once established, they will become much more drought tolerant.
:: After planting, mulch the bed with 5-7.5cm (2-3in) of gravel or, even better, a layer of compost or straw covered with gravel, to help retain moisture while the plants establish.
:: You may decide to go without a lawn in your drought-friendly garden, but if not, you’ll be pleased to know that lawns are surprisingly drought tolerant and usually recover well in the autumn rains even if they have been brown and parched most of the summer. Lawn irrigation should rarely be required, if at all, to keep the grass healthy.