Tag Archives: summer gardens

Planting a perennial meadow

My current project is planting a perennial meadow. Not a wildflower meadow. Much and all as we find annuals like soldier poppies, blue cornflowers and cosmos hugely charming, they are not wildflowers to New Zealand and basically that is gardening with annuals, freshly sowing seed each season. That is not the way we garden.

After six years, the area ‘down below’, as Felix Jury used to call it, is now more meadow than park.

We have turned the park area into what I would call an enhanced meadow, allowing the paddock grasses and self-introductions to grow (the buttercups and daisies currently in flower are very pretty!) and enhancing it by adding other plants like Higo, Louisiana and Siberian irises, primulas, bluebells, narcissi, snowdrops and even trilliums grown amongst the grass.

The area to the right is called the Iolanthe garden, due to the presence of the original plant of Magnolia Iolanthe

I want a summer flowering meadow and for us, that means strong perennials. The Iolanthe garden offered around 600 square metres of chaotic and weedy space. It was the old vegetable garden until the original and splendid plant of Magnolia ‘Iolanthe’ grew so large that it cast too much summer shade. It then became a mishmash, deteriorating to a neglected wilderness beloved by butterflies and bees but not so much by humans. Mark has used it over the years as a trial ground for perennials where it really does sort out the survivors. In a garden the size of ours, buying a 10cm potted perennial and putting it straight into the garden is likely to mean that the poor wee thing will get ignored until it is either dead or romping away and out of control. We need to grow on these plants to trial them in our conditions, to assess their performance and to watch for weed potential as well as building them up to get sufficient numbers to make a statement when planted into the main gardens. But once planted out in the Iolanthe garden, they were never loved or nurtured.

At its best, Mark’s mishmash could look like this but never all of it at the same time and never for very long

The area contains a number of permanent plants and relics from past usage. There are so many citrus trees that it should eventually become a citrus grove but that will take a couple of decades. There is a grove of Daphne bholua at one end, a stand of sugar cane at the other, some mighty big inulas, far too many bluebells and annual forget-me-nots, though they look charming at the moment with the abundant parsley, the one surviving rhubarb plant, way too many self-sown hellebores, my green tea camellias, feijoas, self-sown yams and potatoes and a whole lot more, especially weeds. How to knit all this together into one semi-coherent vision? A casual meadow of perennials is my answer.

It is a big job. The soil, being ex-vegetable garden, is friable and easy to dig and there is a fair amount of perennial material there to lift and divide to get me started. But working amongst existing plants, especially permanent trees and shrubs, is much harder than starting with a blank slate. And the weed issue is major.

I often say that meadow management has a lot to do with your tolerance level for weeds. I know that we may not be able to keep this meadow as free of weeds as we expect to keep the more controlled herbaceous plantings, but I am trying to reduce their impact from the start. I hand weed to clear each area (easier on a sunny day now that we have sufficient heat in the sun to wilt the young weeds quickly so that they will not just grow again) and remove them. I am then planting perennials in random blocks but considered combinations. So, in one block I have put in a yellow variegated agapanthus with a deciduous yellow day lily (hemerocallis) and bluebells. I have just done a block with sedums (flower colour unknown at this stage) with blue perennial lobelia and seed of the white lychnis . Nerine bowdeni has been teamed with the dark pink Japanese anemone, deep burgundy eucomis with yellow crocosmia, Stipa gigantea with pink alstromeria and so on and so forth. All blending on the edges. Then I mulch heavily with the leaf mulch we bought in from the arborist.

A work in progress. It won’t look like a meadow until the plants knit together and the mulch is hidden

Fortunately our weed problems are all annual weeds. There are neither oxalis nor creeping weeds so if I stay vigilant this spring and take the ones that succeed in germinating and getting through the mulch, I am hoping the plants will spread sufficiently to knit together and form a barrier to shade out the weed seeds still in the soil.

That is the plan. I shall report on progress. My mental image is of a sea of flowers from spring to autumn, alive with butterflies and bees. Allowing some annuals and biennials to seed through and the use of assorted bulbs will blur the lines between the different blocks of plants, making it more meadow than perennial garden.  The budget for this newest area is zero dollars. I am simply working with material we already have here. When I think about it, this probably means there will be a lot of pink because that is the one colour I have not used in the other perennial gardens so the leftover plant options I am now using will be dominated by shades of pink.

The caterpillar garden – all blue, white and some purple, taller growing in the centre enclosures and low growing in the outer bays. Photo taken today in early spring. 

The perennial meadow will complete the sequence of summer gardens where we have put the focus on perennials and grasses. Starting from one side, we have the caterpillar garden which looks as if it will hit its stride this year.

The lily border – basically all OTT pink, red and white auratums but I am working on getting some white umbelliferous plants seeding down to extend the flowering. Photo taken last summer. 

The grass garden – mostly tall grassy plants with just the addition of pale apricot and white foxgloves, big salvias, yellow Verbascum creticum and a few other flowers. Photo taken today.

Next the lily border, then the big new grass garden (just coming into growth now after being planted six or eight weeks ago). Then the twin herbaceous borders and finally the perennial meadow – looser, multi coloured and much more casual.

The twin borders have every colour but little white and no pale or mid pink because we are after the brights. Photo taken last summer.

Each garden has been planned to have a different feel to it and, critically, there is little overlap of plants. My aim has been a different plant palette for each area. A few, like Verbena bonariensis and Orlaya grandiflora) are spreading themselves and the foxgloves will, too (no common pink ones allowed!). There are just a few other plants that I have used in two of the gardens but the vast majority of plants are used in one area only. I have never subscribed to that old rule of repeating plants ‘to achieve continuity’ because too often it just makes everything look the same. Also, this is not a place for treasures and special plants. These are bold, showy and vigorous plantings. The treasures belong in the more detailed rockery and woodland areas.

Roll on summer. Though, to be realistic, we should hit peak summer garden next year, not this summer. But at least we will get an indication this December through to April of how it will all come together.

 

 

 

Found! Our summer garden.

Gardening is usually a gentle activity in emotional terms. We may feel irritation, pleasure, satisfaction, disappointment or similar feelings. The feeling of sheer panic is probably largely limited to those gardening to deadlines with either an opening date for the public or a garden-based event. Occasionally, I feel real joy. I wrote about the feeling of joy in December 2016, down in our meadow. By joy, I mean the rare times when my heart sings.

It was back in 2009 when I wrote about our quest to get to grips with summer gardens. We do very good spring gardens throughout New Zealand but by summer, most people’s thoughts turn to beaches and barbeques. With a predominantly woodland garden here, our garden in summer was certainly lush, green and restful but not exactly vibrant.

A decade on and I looked at my herbaceous borders this week, and my heart sang. “Yessss!” I thought. “We do actually have a summer garden at last.” A colleague and friend visited this week and was suitably gobsmacked. “When you said you wanted to do herbaceous borders,” he said, “I thought …” I can’t remember what he said he thought but it was along the ‘yeah nah. Unlikely. They’ll learn. It’ll never happen,’ sort of thing. It was very affirming to impress a professional colleague of similar experience level to us. These borders are now at what I call the ‘tweaking stage’. Altering the bits that don’t quite work. Were I more high-falutin’, I would describe this as ‘editing’ (the current term) or maybe fine tuning. But every day, these borders bring me great personal pleasure.

Lily border to the left, caterpillar garden metamorphosing to the right

On the other side of this area (with the yet to be planted Court Garden in between) is what Mark calls the caterpillar garden. That is because he drew inspiration from a piece on BBC Gardeners’ World where leading UK designer, Tom Stuart Smith, was clipping established buxus plants into his trademark undulating forms redolent of a caterpillar. We don’t do buxus here, so Mark planted out the basic structure in the dwarf camellia species C. minutiflora. For the shape, he drew inspiration from the basket fungus which is based on five-sided shapes. So what we have are eight enclosed pentagons with bays to the side, making 23 different garden sections. Mark’s vision was of tall plants billowing out of the enclosed centres with lower plants filling all the side sections – all in shades of blues, whites and lilacs. It fell to me to fill in all the blank spaces. It is coming together. Most of the planting was done by last summer but because the camellias giving the basic form were poor, hungry specimens kept too long in the nursery (I have no idea how many – well over 100 of them?) they are taking time to recover and flourish. And the perennials with which I am painting are smaller growers than those I used in the new summer borders so it is taking longer for them to fill in the spaces. It is block planting – generally only one or two different plants per section – so a whole lot depends on the selections made at the start.

Today, I will strip out the deep pink phlox in one section – too pink. It was a mistake. Fortunately, Mark raised some perovskia seed – Russian sage with blue flowers and grey foliage. It is unproven in our conditions but will be ideal if it works and way more harmonious than the pink phlox.

A stokesia! We were both wrong.

An American visitor this week set us right on the plant that I was sure was a scabious but Mark kept referring to as a centaurea. It is in fact a stokesia and is a wildflower where he lives so we defer to his superior knowledge on this matter. He said he didn’t know which stokesia it is but as we know it dates back to Mark’s mother, it is almost certainly one that was sold in the 1960s. It has stood the test of time, I can tell you that.

Many of us covet those gorgeous big blue-lilac alliums that are seen widely in UK gardens. I was a bit shocked to find they usually treat them like tulips – disposable, one-season wonders. But then I looked at some bulb catalogues there and they are cheap as chips to buy. If we are paying anything up to $15 a bulb here, we are not going to be treating them as annuals. I decided this spring that the easy to grow blue brodiaeas – particularly Brodiaea ‘Queen Fabiola’ (also known as a tritelia) are not bad substitutes for we poor, colonial gardeners. I am drifting these bulbs along one side and very pretty they looked in spring with the white iberis. And they are perennial, not one-season wonders.

I am looking forward to autumn to start planting the central court area. I am mentally prepared for this large planting project. I have most of the plants needed at hand, not all, but most. It will be a quick turnaround, immersive grass garden – big grasses at shoulder height or taller, mostly. A prairie on steroids, perhaps?

I think it bears repeating: if you want a summer garden it needs to be close to all-day sun and start with the perennials, not trees and shrubs. Think of it like painting with flowers because it is those which give the seasonality. Form and foliage are important but they are not the foremost defining factor for a summer garden. 

 

Summer gardens – the starting point

I garden so I have a lot of thinking time. And it struck me this week that the reason why good summer gardens are a rare occurrence in this country is because most New Zealanders start a garden by planting out the trees and shrubs, then the hedgings and edgings.  Herbaceous underplanting is more of an afterthought, not unlike adding cushions to a sofa. A filling in of remaining spaces.

If you want a good summer garden, start with the herbaceous planting and build from there. That was my moment of clarity.

New Zealand does great spring gardens. Magnolias, flowering cherries and crab-apples, soft foliaged Japanese maples, azaleas, rhododendrons and a host of other pretty trees and shrubs grow with a lushness and froth of bloom. You would be hard pressed to find prettier spring gardens and that takes in the length of the country.

Le Jardin Plume in Normandy

Northern New Zealand also does year-round, sub-tropical gardens very well. All the lush greenery of palms, cycads, bamboos and some lesser known small tropical trees with many ferns, clivias and bromeliads – albeit often sustained by irrigation or misting units over the hotter summer months.

Good summer gardens are a scarce event in this country and I think it is because we start with the trees and shrubs. There aren’t that many woody plants that flower in summer. Hydrangeas and jacaranda do but even so-called repeat-flowering roses peak in spring and then rather stagger on from there without ever achieving that mass, new season glory again. There is a very limited selection if you want summer-flowering woody plants.

New Zealanders generally want gardens that ‘have interest’ all year round. Some gardens boast of being a garden for all seasons when in practice they are spring gardens with spots of bloom and colour at other times.

Summer at Auckland Botanic Gardens

Classic twin herbaceous borders at RHS Wisley Gardens

I have seen impressive summer herbaceous plantings at Auckland Regional Botanic Gardens but those are large-scale, public plantings which are different to home gardens. They are probably worth a visit right now if you are in the area. I have also seen a fair number of classic, twin herbaceous borders, but mostly overseas. They are more commonly classic twin mixed borders in New Zealand, where the shrubs will dominate over time. It is not the herbaceous borders that have made me do a double take of envy. It is the more contemporary herbaceous plantings with fewer rules, considerably less maintenance but more colour control that inspired both of us. We won’t know if we have succeeded here for another year or two and then the proof of sustainability is if it still looks good a decade later, but I am optimistic at the early results.

Bury Court – superb planting combinations by Piet Oudolf

More Bury Court

So far, I can say that a good summer garden needs full sun with open conditions. My plantings started with the herbaceous plants and bulbs. These are plants that like well cultivated soil so it is easy for them to spread their roots. There are some trees and shrubs, but mostly used to give definition and form to the area without intruding into the herbaceous plantings and without the potential to cast shade where shade is not wanted. It is a very different style of planting and management to the rest of the garden. Once the principles and techniques are mastered, the fun comes with plant combinations.  Our conditions are so different that we need to trial plant material and work out our own combinations rather than working from overseas plant lists and examples. But we have learned from looking at some highly skilled combinations and the difference between cobbling together plants based primarily on flower colour and the genuine flair of knowledgeable gardeners is noticeable once you get your eye in. It is the detail that is possible in private gardens that often makes a huge difference.

Wildside in Devon

That is what we have travelled overseas to look at and to reinterpret for our conditions at home.

Our blank canvas three years ago with just the foundation shrubs and trees to define what will remain open space

February in the garden

Giant allimns at Mount St John in Yorkshire

Giant allimns at Mount St John in Yorkshire

February can be a quiet time in the flowering garden for us. It may sound bizarre to those who live in drier climates, but the mid to late summer period is largely green here. We don’t irrigate and rarely water anything except the vegetable garden. That is the advantage of summer rainfall. It is currently the hydrangeas that bring the most summer colour.

We have never gone in for summer bedding plants and any annuals are self seeded so more inclined to make a show in the earlier months of spring and summer. There aren’t a lot of trees and shrubs that bloom in midsummer and most bulbs peak from later in autumn through to spring. Essentially, it is perennials that give the summer colour and we have only just started getting to grips with that group of plants on a larger scale.

We have made two trips to England to see summer gardens.  We do late winter and spring gardens that we do so well here in the temperate north but summer gardens have been a steep learning curve for us. What is interesting about the modern English plantings – heavily influenced as many are by Dutchman, Piet Oudolf – is that they have shaken up the labour-intensive classic herbaceous border into styles which are more sustainable, easier to manage and contemporary in style. This means they are cheaper to run, too.

Geraniums, linaria and one of the white umbelliferous plants of the Queen Anne's Lace type at RHS Wisley Garden

Geraniums, linaria and one of the white umbelliferous plants of the Queen Anne’s Lace type at RHS Wisley Garden

Our conditions are not the same so there is a trial and error process. We are looking for a midline.  Mass plantings of a single variety, a trend much favoured by modern landscapers both here and overseas, are not for us. Frankly, we find them dull in most situations. But too often, underplanting with perennials may aim to be ‘cottage garden style’, or maybe layered, but descends instead into a mismatched hodgepodge of little merit. There is so much to learn.

It is the different plant combinations that make a garden zing for us. Not only must plants be compatible in growth habits and growing conditions, but there is the complex issue of getting a succession of different plants to take the display through the whole season. We don’t want a summer garden that looks brilliant for three weeks. We want it to look good for up to six months and okay for the remainder of the year. That is a whole different ball game.

Baptisia and buddleia in the plantings designed by Penelope Hobhouse at Tintinhull, Somerset

Baptisia and buddleia in the plantings designed by Penelope Hobhouse at Tintinhull, Somerset

February will show me whether I am on the right track with my most recent efforts last winter, reworking a couple of areas of the garden. It must be the third or fourth time I have redone one particular area so I am hoping I have it looking better this time. I have gone for much more grouping – larger blocks each containing maybe three different bulbs and perennials to try and take each block through the year with something of interest. Pansies, nigella, white cosmos, linaria, alonsoa and poelmoniums are allowed to seed down to break up any rigidity between the blocks of planting because I want a soft effect, not hard-edged designer style.

I am not going to show it in photographs until I am happy with how it is looking. So my photographs this month are all of combinations that caught our eye in English summer gardens. I would like parts of our garden to look a bit more like these and a little less green in February.

068 - CopyFirst published in the February issue of New Zealand Gardener and reprinted here with their permission. 

Mid summer gardens. Despatches from the Heroic Gardens Festival 1

Cannas - not my favourite plant but they can be used well

Cannas – not my favourite plant but they can be used well

I think I can claim to be a vastly experienced garden opener after more than two decades on the front line. But I am a novice when it comes to being on the other side during a garden festival. There were 26 gardens open for the weekend. I managed ten of them in two and a half days, plus two that were not part of the annual festival. Five a day is plenty.
Eupatorium, salvias and gaura planted in generous swathes

Eupatorium, salvias and gaura planted in generous swathes


I won't be planting Rosa Tropical Delight

I won’t be planting Rosa Tropical Delight

I started at the Auckland Botanical Gardens. I wanted to look at their rose gardens where they are growing them without spraying. I hoped that I might get some ideas on healthier varieties to try here but I realised that their dedicated rose beds are in such an open position with full sun and free air movement that the lessons were not really transferable to my sheltered, confined rose garden area. And, to be honest, traditional rose beds leave me cold and roses are not my favourite flower in their shoulder and off-peak seasons which often last about 49 weeks of the year.
B I G swathes - here of asters, Joe Pye weed and cannas

B I G swathes – here of asters, Joe Pye weed and cannas

Old style amenity strip planting

Old style amenity strip planting

But the perennial beds were a delight. Yes you need space for these. Planting in big swathes is what gives the impact. I am not talking the garish stripes of old-style amenity bedding, although unfortunately that is still in evidence so I guess some people must like it. It was the big beds with voluptuous, billowing plants, carefully selected for flower colour and foliage combinations that are at their peak now. Even the canna lilies, which don’t rank in my personal top ten – or even top one hundred favourite plants, looked splendid as the tall back row of the chorus.

The joyous sight of golden rudbeckia

The joyous sight of golden rudbeckia

Compact, dwarf zinnias do not make my heart sing. Spot the interlopers.

Compact, dwarf zinnias do not make my heart sing. Spot the interlopers.

Mark often despairs that the modern breeding of many annuals and perennials is to get smaller, more compact, tidier plants allegedly better suited to suburban gardens and, I would add, floral clocks and traffic islands. These dwarf plants will never have the impact of a big, bold, swathe of golden rudbeckia. They made my heart sing.
Underplanting on the orchard hillside - rudbeckia again

Underplanting on the orchard hillside – rudbeckia again

???????????????????????????????It was the hillside of rudbeckia in Lynda Hallinan’s garden that I liked the most. She has underplanted her orchard trees with a sea of gold and very lovely it was too. Her planting of a white umbellifer (maybe Ammi majus?) with a semi double golden cosmos was equally gorgeous on a day in high summer. At least, I think it was a cosmos. Annuals are not my area of expertise. Lynda’s scale was of course smaller than the Bot Gardens, showing that it can be done in a mid-sized domestic garden.
White cosmos in a front garden

White cosmos in a front garden

Aside from a rather lovely patch of white cosmos in another garden, that was about as good as it got in the summer garden stakes. Of course it is different in tiny urban gardens on very expensive real estate. When your lot in life in life is limited to square metres, most will opt for year round appeal. In Auckland, this tends to mean palms and bromeliads to the exclusion of seasonal highlights and change. I will return to Auckland tropicana in the future.
The pondside wild garden at Auckland Botanic Gardens

The pondside wild garden at Auckland Botanic Gardens

It was entirely a reflection of my current thinking that I found the wild pondside garden at Auckland Botanic Gardens so deeply appealing. I am sure some will see this sort of gardening as weedy eyesore but they probably like the garish amenity planting in stripes and will whip out the sprayer at the drop of a hat. I applaud Auckland Botanic’s willingness to explore contemporary directions in sustainable gardening and healthy eco-systems which we have yet to see appearing in many private gardens in this country.
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The January Garden

Auratums and pink lobelia

Auratums and pink lobelia

I don’t cut many flowers to bring indoors. It feels a bit like murdering them to sever them in their prime and bring them indoors to die. We were lucky that Mark’s parents had the foresight to plan the garden so there is a different view from every house window and we have plenty of flowers in sight all year round. The lilies are different. In summer I love to bring in huge stems to scent the house. They are big. They are bold. They are beautiful. Lilies define our summers.

You need quite a lot of lilies to justify cutting the entire stem off and, after many decades, we have a few. Mark’s father Felix started breeding auratums maybe four or five decades ago and Mark has continued. This was never for commercial reasons. It was to build up plants for the garden, to extend the colour range and the season and particularly to get outward facing blooms rather than the upward facing ones which are preferred in floristry. Constantly replenishing with newly raised plants is also a safeguard against the potential ravages of lily virus. Not that we have had a problem with lily virus and disease, but if we ever do, we are prepared.

The lily we scorned at Wisley

The lily we scorned at Wisley

We noticed a floriferous new lily at the Royal Horticultural Society Wisley Gardens last June. People were admiring it and but Mark took one look and said: “Gross. No good as a garden plant. Look at those upward facing blooms waiting to mark.” Not only are the upward facing blooms more vulnerable to weather damage, but the pollen falls internally and spoils it sooner. So I photographed it, but not for the same reason as the admirers. It was showy but we wouldn’t give it garden space.

Although you can to leave auratum lilies in the ground year after year, lifting and replanting deeper on a regular basis saves having to stake every stem. They work their way upwards over time. In our free draining soil, if I put them anything up to 20cm down, they are much better at holding themselves upright. The other technique to save forever staking (and then de-staking at the end of the season) is to grow them through shrubs which can act as supports. Apple trees and azaleas work well for us. When I do have to stake, I prefer to harvest my own bamboo lengths and leave the leaf axils in place to grip the flower stem. It saves tying to a smooth stake.

Just another unnamed seedling (or JAUS, as we call them here)

Just another unnamed seedling (or JAUS, as we call them here)


Auratum bulbs do not respond well to drying out, even in their dormant season. This is why they are usually sold in bags of sphagnum moss or sawdust. Always try and buy them as soon as they come into garden centres in early winter and get them into the ground as soon as possible.
Orange tiger lilies growing through the espaliered apple trees

Orange tiger lilies growing through the espaliered apple trees

Our lily season starts with what we call the Christmas lily, or Lilium regale from China. It even Others sometimes refer to L. longiflorum as the Christmas lily. It is typically pure white and hails from Japan whereas L. regale has deep pink petal backs fading out to white. The orange tiger lilies with their reflexed petals follow soon after. They lack scent but they are a showy addition to the summer garden and very easy to grow. Next we get the aurelians – scented trumpet lilies in pretty gold and apricot shades. Most of ours have been raised from seed. They have a lovely elegance to them both in the garden and as a cut flower. You will notice their trumpets face outwards and downwards.
Aforementioned JAUS

Aforementioned JAUS

These are all but an overture to the main event – the glory of the auratums which take us through January and well into February. There is nothing subtle or understated about the flower power. Their common name is the “golden rayed lily of Japan”. How lovely is that?

???????????????????????????????First published in the New Zealand Gardener and reprinted here with their permission.

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.