Which plants are best for drought conditions?
Has this summer’s drought had an impact on your garden? Read on for some tips on how to look after your existing plants or change your garden to cope with future droughts.
According to a 2017 report by the RHS “Gardening in a Changing Climate”, summers are going to get drier, drought will occur more regularly and winters are going to get warmer and wetter. This will impact our plants and the pests and diseases associated with them.
Whether your garden is made up of trees, shrubs, hedging, formal bedding, herbaceous perennials or simply a lawn with a couple of skinny borders either side – this summer will have had an impact on your plants. The MOST important principle when considering your garden, is that you must choose the plant that suits the local conditions, rather than attempting to change the conditions to suit a particular plant.
If your garden backs onto dense woodland which casts shade over your garden all day and it’s a bit damp all year round – you shouldn’t attempt to grow sun-loving Mediterranean plants like Rosemary or Lavender. If your garden has an alkaline soil, full of lime, it would be impossible to grow acid-loving Rhododendrons and Azaleas because you couldn’t permanently change the soil from alkaline to acid. (If you don’t know your garden’s pH and would like to find out, have a look at the UK Soils Map produced by Cranfield University: UK Soil Map – you can practically zoom into your own garden and there’s loads of information about your soil)
Following this logic – if our summers are going to get drier, maybe we shouldn’t be growing plants that need to be artificially watered all summer?
The following is a list of plants that can tolerate the sort of summer we’re experiencing this year – you don’t have to completely renovate your garden to a Mediterranean theme but maybe introduce one or two each year. Some of these plants are also good for pollinators such as bees and butterflies, so if you’re interested in gardening for wildlife you should be growing these anyway!
Small to Medium sized trees:
- Crataegus x persimilis ‘Prunifolia’ or Broad-leaved Cockspur Thorn – has beautiful glossy leaves which change to dramatic reds and oranges in the autumn. Also full of white flowers beloved by bees in the spring, followed by lots of bright red fruit which are attractive to garden birds in late summer/autumn.
- Gleditsia triacanthos ‘Sunburst’ or Golden Honey Locust – an elegant tree with light feathery foliage which turns from acid yellow young growth in the spring, to green over summer and then back to yellow with buttery autumn colour.
- Ginkgo biloba – a true ‘survivor’, the Ginkgo hasn’t changed for over 200 million years and this tree is literally bullet-proof once it gets going. Not only does it survive most conditions thrown at it by nature, it has also been known to grow through the atom bomb being dropped on Hiroshima!
- Pyrus calleryana ‘Chanticleer’ or Callery Pear – makes a fantastic garden tree, a lovely narrow pyramid shape, comes into leaf very early with flowers the bees love and then the leaves change colour in the autumn, but stay on the tree a long time.
You could also try the following: Acacia dealbata, Cercis siliquastrum, Ptelea trifoliata ‘Aurea’ or even the exotic Koelreuteria paniculata which we saw planted throughout Athens as street trees: Street Trees in Greece
- Abelia × grandiflora – a low-maintenance shrub that provides both autumn colour and summer flowers.
- Arbutus unedo or the Strawberry Tree – beautiful bark as it ages, evergreen leaves and interesting fruit.
- Vitex agnus-castus or the Chaste Tree – a deciduous shrub from the Mediterranean with lavender coloured flowers in autumn.
- Callistemon citrinus or the Bottlebrush Flower – sweet scented, loved by bees and butterflies and available in a range of colours.
You could also try the following: Buddleias, Lilacs, Bamboos – all of which can be beautiful if pruned regularly or grown in containers.
If you’ve been on holiday to anywhere in the Mediterranean, think about the kind of flowers that thrive in those conditions – Lavender, Rosemary, Rock Roses (Cistus), Euphorbia, Poppies, Cosmos, Verbena, Sea Hollies, Nicotine plants and of course, Sunflowers!
There’s quite a long list of plants that will cope with drought – if you need inspiration, visit a garden that’s advertised as drought tolerant, Mediterranean or “The Dry Garden”.
With all of these planting suggestions it’s worth pointing out the importance of buying plants from reputable British nurseries. As mentioned in the introduction, climate change is affecting the pests and diseases that can threaten our trees and plants. The latest disease to hit the horticultural headlines is Xylella fastidiosa which is responsible for the death of 1000’s of olive trees in southern Italy as well as ornamental plants throughout southern France, Spain and the Balearic Islands.
For more information about this disease and what it affects, click here: Xylella fastidiosa
Things you can do now, to help your existing garden!
- Re-think your lawn! Do you need it? Do you use it? Could you keep it watered if there was a hosepipe ban? If it’s simply an area for your children to play on, could they play on astro-turf? If it acts as a pathway to your shed/log store etc, could it be left to grow longer with just a path mowed or strimmed through it? Could it instead, be turned into a wildflower meadow?! If you’re adamant that you want a lawn, don’t cut it so short in times of drought – raise the cutting height on your mower and don’t cut quite so regularly. Longer grass prevents moisture from evaporating from the soil and encourages roots to stay deeper in the soil where they have better access to water. But mainly, don’t panic – grass always comes back eventually – it grows from underground stems called rhizomes which can sit dormant in times of drought. As soon as we get rainfall again, the grass will start growing again!
- If global warming means we’re going to get wetter winters, consider investing in a method to save all that precious winter rainfall to use the following summer. If you have a downspout from your gutters, install a water butt (or two) to collect the rain – this can be from a house, a greenhouse, a garage or even a shed roof.
- Try to think of other ways to reuse water – our ‘grey’ water can be perfectly good for watering the garden, especially when hosepipe bans come into force. If you wash up in a sink, consider using plant-based, environmentally friendly washing-up liquid and you can use it on your garden rather than throwing it down the sink when you’re done. Be aware though – some washing-up liquids contain salt and your plants won’t thank you for that in times of stress!
- If you plant up hanging baskets and containers every summer, have a think about the plants you usually use and consider changing them next year. Traditional plants such as Petunias, Fuchsias and Begonias can have very high demands for water so why not look into alternatives such as Salvias, Verbena, Lotus berthelottii, or even Sedums, herbs and grasses.
- Think about ways to drought-proof for the future – use mulches on everything, from containers to flowerbeds. After a spring downpour, whilst the garden is still wet, put a thick layer of compost or farmyard muck on the top of your borders. When you plant up a container, top it off with a layer of grit, gravel or pebbles. If the soil’s surface is not exposed to the sun, water will be retained in the soil for longer (this also has the added benefit of smothering weeds which are unsightly but more importantly, are also competing with your plants for water and nutrients).
- Research irrigation systems – there are now some affordable systems out there that you connect to an outside tap and come with a digital programmer so you can apply precisely the right amount of water at the same time every day. It takes a surprisingly small amount of water to keep soil moist and plants alive – the problems occur when we miss a day (or two) or go on holiday for a week (or two) and it then becomes very difficult to rehydrate the soil.
- When water’s scarce, make sure you apply it exactly where it’s needed. Standing in front of a border watering it with a hosepipe means a lot of water runs off the leaves and away from plants and there’s no point applying an even layer of water to the whole bed when it’s only individual plants that need it. Make funnels out of old plastic bottles with the bottom cut off, plunge them into the border next to the plants and use these to water into so that it’s directed straight to the plant’s roots.