Adapting to a changing climate: A guide to drought tolerant gardens

As our summers become noticeably warmer and the threat of drought increases, it’s crucial that we adapt the way we garden to changing climate patterns and prioritise water conservation.

Dry gardens and drought-tolerant gardens are not just practical and sustainable solutions to the challenges climate change presents, they open up a world of beauty to discover and provide us with the opportunity to create havens for nature, and for ourselves.

From plant recommendations to design tips, we explore the ways we can all be more water-wise in our gardens.

Image credit: Delos at Sissinghurst, Dan Pearson Studio, Photography by Eva Nemeth

What is a dry garden (and how does it differ from a Mediterranean garden)?

A dry garden, also known as a xeriscape garden or a drought-tolerant garden, is a type of garden that is designed to thrive with minimal water requirements. It is specifically created to conserve water and reduce the need for irrigation, making it suitable for regions with limited water resources or areas prone to drought.

The main characteristic of a dry garden is the use of plants that are adapted to arid or semi-arid conditions. These plants have evolved to survive with minimal water and are typically drought-tolerant, meaning they can withstand extended periods of dryness. They often have features such as deep root systems, fleshy or waxy leaves, or specialised mechanisms for water storage. The selection of plants in a dry garden focuses on low-water-use species, including succulents, cacti, grasses, and certain shrubs and perennials.

A Mediterranean garden, on the other hand, refers to a garden style that is inspired by the landscapes found in Mediterranean regions, such as Southern Europe, even extending to North Africa, and parts of California. While a Mediterranean garden can incorporate drought-tolerant plants, it is not exclusively focused on water conservation. These gardens often feature a variety of plants, including herbs, flowering shrubs, vines, and trees that are characteristic of Mediterranean climates. Mediterranean gardens typically have a more diverse plant selection and may require more regular watering compared to a dedicated dry garden.

Both dry gardens and Mediterranean gardens can be considered drought-tolerant to some extent. Dry gardens specifically aim to minimise water usage and rely on plants that are naturally adapted to low-water conditions. Mediterranean gardens may require more regular watering, but they often include a mix of plants that can tolerate drier conditions and still thrive with less water compared to more water-demanding garden styles.

Image: Hillside, Somerset.

Tips for designing a drought-tolerant garden

When designing a drought-tolerant garden, there are several key factors to consider:

Plant Selection: Choose plants that are adapted to dry conditions and have low water requirements. Look for native species or those that are well-suited to your specific climate. Select a diverse range of plants with different textures, colours, and sizes to create visual interest in your garden.

Water Conservation: Incorporate water-saving techniques and features into your garden design. Consider using efficient irrigation systems such as drip irrigation or soaker hoses that deliver water directly to the plant roots. Group plants with similar water needs together to optimise watering efficiency. Mulch the soil surface to reduce evaporation and retain moisture.

Soil Preparation: Ensure that your soil is well-prepared to retain water. Improve soil structure and water-holding capacity by incorporating organic matter such as compost or well-rotted manure. This helps to enhance water infiltration and reduce runoff.

Efficient Watering Practices: Adopt smart watering practices to minimise water usage. Water deeply and infrequently to encourage deep root growth and drought tolerance in plants. Water during cooler times of the day, such as early morning or late evening, to reduce water loss due to evaporation. Regularly monitor soil moisture levels to avoid overwatering.

Grouping and Zoning: Group plants with similar water needs together in specific zones based on their water requirements. This allows you to provide appropriate irrigation to each zone without wasting water on plants that don’t need it. Consider creating microclimates within your garden to provide more favourable growing conditions for certain plants.

Proper Plant Placement: Understand the sun and shade patterns in your garden and select plants accordingly. Place sun-loving plants in areas with maximum sunlight exposure, while shade-tolerant plants can be positioned in areas with less direct sunlight. This ensures that plants receive the right amount of light for their growth and reduces stress on water usage.

Garden Design and Hardscaping: Incorporate elements of hardscaping, such as pathways, rocks, or gravel, to minimise the amount of space dedicated to water-dependent plants. Use these features strategically to create visual interest, define garden areas, and reduce the overall water demand of the garden.

Maintenance and Monitoring: Regularly maintain and monitor your garden to ensure its long-term success. Remove weeds that compete with plants for water and nutrients. Prune and deadhead plants appropriately to promote healthy growth and conserve energy. Keep an eye out for signs of stress or disease in your plants and take necessary actions promptly.

Image: Little Dartmouth, Devon.

Design inspiration

There is so much to be discovered in this form of gardening. To provide you with inspiration for planting combinations and design ideas, we suggest exploring the works of garden designers such as Dan Pearson, Luciano Giubbilei, Olivier Filippi and Errol Reuben Fernandes.

Dan Pearson is known for his innovative approach to designing naturalistic and sustainable landscapes. His work includes the creation of the Delos garden at Sissinghurst Castle, which draws inspiration from the Mediterranean and features a diverse selection of drought-tolerant plants. An aspect of garden design he also explores in projects within his Create Academy course, ‘An Expert Guide to Planting Design’.

Luciano Giubbilei, another acclaimed garden designer, designs gardens that are characterised by their simplicity, elegance and focus on form, texture, and colour. While he has designed gardens in a range of styles, including contemporary, traditional, and naturalistic, he is particularly well-known for his work with Mediterranean gardens. He believes that garden design should be approached in an environmentally responsible way, taking into account factors such as water conservation, soil health, and the use of locally sourced materials, prioritising the use of energy-efficient irrigation systems, and the incorporation of rainwater harvesting systems to reduce water consumption.

Olivier Filippi is a renowned expert in Mediterranean and dry gardening. He is a nurseryman, landscape designer, and author who has dedicated his career to researching and promoting the use of drought-tolerant plants. Olivier and his wife Clara own and operate the Pépinière Filippi, a renowned nursery in the South of France specialising in Mediterranean plants. Filippi’s approach to gardening revolves around the concept of creating resilient landscapes that are adapted to the specific climatic conditions of dry regions. His work emphasises the use of native plants and the importance of understanding a plant’s natural habitat to create sustainable and water-wise gardens.

Errol Reuben Fernandes, the head of horticulture at the Horniman Museum and Gardens, captivated Instagram viewers with a virtual tour of the resplendent Grasslands Garden during last summer’s heatwave. Fernandes, combining his artistic flair with practical plant choices, transformed the museum’s entrance by replacing invasive bamboo with drought-tolerant species. Beneath the surface, he repurposed concrete and rubble from path renovations to create hidden microenvironments, expanding the range of plants for experimentation. Fernandes’ visionary approach has revitalised the gardens, harmonizing art and nature in a breathtaking display.

Image credit: Luciano Giubbilei, Potter’s House, Mallorca.

Plant recommendations

Depending where you are in the world, your plant choices will differ, however here are some ideas for pollinator-friendly plants to get you started…

If you live in the UK, drought-tolerant plants that thrive while supporting pollinators include lavender, yarrow and sedum. Other options encompass echinacea and kniphofia, attracting bees and butterflies. Consider catmint and sea holly or their drought tolerance and pollinator appeal. Red valerian and Russian sage are additional contenders that can withstand dry conditions while providing nectar for pollinators. Look to agastache to complete your vibrant, water-wise garden.

For the US East Coast, opt for butterfly weed and black-eyed Susan to support monarch butterflies and attract bees. Echinacea and liatris are suitable choices, along with bee balm and coreopsis loved by hummingbirds. Joe-Pye weed and switchgrass create a habitat for birds and insects. Baptisia and goldenrod add seasonal interest while attracting pollinators.

On the US West Coast, embrace California poppy and agave for their resilience in arid conditions. Penstemon and salvia attract hummingbirds, while red yucca produces tall spikes of tubular flowers that are rich in nectar, it is primarily known for attracting hummingbirds and bees rather than butterflies (however, butterflies may still visit the plant occasionally if they find the nectar source appealing).

“There is beauty in an environment that isn’t forced. You can always create a counterpoint to a limited area of cut grass by juxtaposing rough-cut spaces, long grass and meadow, which naturally bleach in summer.” – Dan Pearson

Plant directory

UK

Lavender – Lavandula spp.

Sea Thrift – Armeria maritima

Red Valerian – Centranthus ruber

Mexican Fleabane – Erigeron karvinskianus

Verbena bonariensis

Yarrow – Achillea spp.

Stonecrop – Sedum spp.

Lily of the Nile – Agapanthus spp.

Rosemary – Rosmarinus officinalis

Myrtus ‘Tarentina’ Santolina spp.

Little salvias

Cyclamen hederifolium f. album

Eyebrow Grass – Bouteloua gracilis – a Californian native well suited to these dry conditions.

Prairie Dropseed Sporobolus heterolepis

US – EAST COAST

Black-eyed Susan – Rudbeckia spp.

Butterfly Weed – Asclepias tuberosa

Coneflower – Echinacea spp.

Switchgrass – Panicum virgatum

Bee Balm – Monarda spp.

Joe-Pye Weed – Eutrochium spp.

Blazing Star – Liatris spp.

Little Bluestem – Schizachyrium scoparium

US – WEST COAST

California Poppy – Eschscholzia californica

California Lilac – Ceanothus spp.

Sage – Salvia spp.

Yarrow – Achillea spp.

Matilija Poppy – Romneya coulteri

Purple Needlegrass – Nassella pulchra

California Fuchsia – Epilobium canum

Blue-eyed Grass – Sisyrinchium spp.

By considering these factors and tailoring your garden design to the specific needs of your region and climate, you can create a beautiful and sustainable drought-tolerant garden that conserves water, supports biodiversity and thrives, even during long dry summers.

For further reading on the topic, see our recommendations below.

Further Reading

Planting: A New Perspective by Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury

The Dry Garden by Beth Chatto

Planting Design for Dry Gardens by Olivier Filippi

Spirit: Garden Inspiration by Dan Pearson

The Bold Dry Garden: Lessons from the Ruth Bancroft Garden by Johanna Silver

Bouteloua gracilis – Discover Dan’s experiences of this unusual Californian native in this blog post.

For further advice on how to promote coexistence, biodiverse environments, seasonality and naturalistic garden design, start watching Dan’s online course below.

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