Reviewing summer garden choices, as the drought worsens

Plant options for dry conditions- at Beth Chatto's Garden.

Plant options for dry conditions- at Beth Chatto’s Garden.

Have we reached a point where the emerald green sward of lawn in the midst of drought is a badge of shame, rather than a symbol of pride and good management?

The current extended dry spell has focussed my train of thought on inappropriate gardening styles. As I walked around Christchurch a few weeks ago, I marvelled at just how many sprinklers were running and how many property owners were out holding hoses and watering their ornamental gardens of an evening. At the time, I wondered why this city of keen gardeners were so determined to ignore their Mediterranean-style summers and slavishly pursue an English style of gardening which, in their conditions, relies entirely on irrigation.

Eryngiums - another plant option for dry conditions

Eryngiums – another plant option for dry conditions

The deepening drought conditions here in the north should be raising red flags for gardeners who rely on summer watering. Where I live, drought is pretty much unheard of – until this summer at least. But much of the Waikato was in severe drought a few years ago and there are warnings coming from meteorologists that these are likely to become more common. Maybe it is time for thinking gardeners to lighten their heavy hoof prints on the planet and actively explore other ways of creating beautiful and pleasing gardens without following what are, at times, downright bad environmental practices. A clarion call, no less.

Lawns are a major offender. Frankly, I regard watering your lawn as an indefensible waste of a scarce commodity. Perfect green lawns are a value we have adopted, almost without question, from American suburbia. We have elevated the lawn to a pedestal way beyond its actual position in life which is to offer a useful area upon which to play and entertain and to provide a negative space (an empty space) to act as a foil which highlights ornamental plantings. A lawn should be a functional tool, not an end in itself.

Watering hedges is similarly dubious in my books. If you have to water your hedge to survive, you have chosen the wrong plant in the first place.

I also put permanent irrigation systems throughout gardens in the same category. If you are having to water your garden all summer to achieve the effect you want, then I think you should be going back to the drawing board and looking at different gardening styles.

We watched a BBC Gardeners’ World programme recently on the Royal Horticultural Society gardens which includes Hyde Hall in Essex. The head gardener there commented that their annual rainfall was less than Jerusalem. We have been to Hyde Hall and while they certainly irrigate many of the ornamental gardens (and probably the lawns, too), the dry garden was a revelation to us.

Not far from Hyde Hall are the famed Beth Chatto Gardens and it was Mrs Chatto’s dry garden which astounded us with its magic when we visited. She is gardening in similarly dry conditions and her dry garden is on an old river bed so with even less moisture retention.

We wanted to come home and try a dry garden but alas, in a climate where we regard three weeks without rain as a drought and where we have an annual rainfall level about eight times higher than those areas of Essex, it is never going to work here. We failed on the photography stakes in those two gardens. I took plenty of photos of wonderful colour combinations in perennial plantings at Hyde Hall (gifted colour combos, even, though my photos are average) but it is the special magic of the dry gardens at both locations which has stayed in our memories.

Missouri meadow garden at Wisley - simple but magic in 2009

Missouri meadow garden at Wisley – simple magic in 2009

Wisley Gardens in Surrey to the south are also very dry and they were showcasing a different style of dry gardening in their Missouri Meadow.

Helichrysum Silver Cushion - happy in dry conditions, attractive, tidy and it's even a native

Helichrysum Silver Cushion – happy in dry conditions, attractive, tidy and it’s even a native

If you pause to think, much of the world is dry and of course there is not only dry gardening with Mediterranean style plants – shrubs, trees and perennials which will take poor, dry conditions. These are often dominated by grey foliage, not necessarily small leaves but frequently so, often furry or prickly – all ways for the plant to conserve water. Some of our native plants fit into this type of garden. Pachystegias, our native helichrysum, some of the olearias, Astelia chathamica – all will take dry conditions.

The American prairies are a rich source of inspiration for seasonal gardens and home to a host of wild flowers that we now incorporate in our gardens such as echinaceas and black-eyed Susans. The work over recent decades by prominent Dutch gardener and designer, Piet Oudolf, appears to draw more from the American prairies as it does from the Med. The Oudolf School has been one of the most influential garden styles in Europe for the past decade but has pretty much bypassed us in this country so far. Yet it is one which lends itself to dry gardens.

Look across the Tasman. Our nearest neighbours have a wealth of plant material which has evolved to thrive in dry conditions. Some of it is very beautiful.

As the drought deepens here, maybe it is time to seriously question why so many of us are hanging on for grim death to an arguably outdated genre of lush, green gardening, mixing formality with informality, inspired by the English gardens of early last century.

If you are having to water anything other than your vegetable garden every summer, have a rethink. There are other ways to garden.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

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4 thoughts on “Reviewing summer garden choices, as the drought worsens

  1. Pat Webster

    Changing habits is tough, but reducing the amount of water (not to mention time) we use in our gardens is worth the effort. Bravo for taking on the challenge. In Quebec, we get lots of water in summer — sometimes too much. A wet summer coming after a winter with heavy snowfall means root rot. But summers here seem to be getting hotter and dryer. We don’t ever water our lawn but I’m looking at reducing the amount of it nonetheless. Or simply letting the grass grow and the wildflowers appear.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      We have just been officially declared in drought – the whole of the North Island of NZ. Normally we get plenty of rain here in Taranaki. But increasingly, we advocate for more environmentally friendly gardening. Too much of what we do is just bad practice in the garden, and too rarely questioned.

  2. nays

    One thing I’ve been thinking about lately with the drought, is how cold climate gardeners accept a dormant garden in winter, but dry climate gardeners do not accept gardens which will go dormant in summer. Guess we just can’t shake that English garden mindset. I like to grow bulbs, and the bulk of mine are winter rainfall species. Even though they’re in pots, those ones require little to no watering. Too tender for Canterbury, of course, but great for the sunny Kapiti Coast, where many still grow roses in the sandy soil and then sneak out after dark to water them once the inevitable water restrictions begin in summer.

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