With climate change causing extreme weather conditions such as droughts, floods, heat waves and storms, we gardeners are being challenged more regularly than ever. We need to adapt our gardening practices accordingly. Drought has become a particularly pressing problem, but it can be tackled by following a three-step strategy: prepare, deal with drought and manage the consequences. Check out my drought tolerant garden ideas below.
Preparation involves doing everything you can to store water. As we were suffocated by the July heatwave, think of the liters of rainwater that disappeared into your gutters. Do what you can to save as much as possible on water catchers, barrels, garbage cans or other containers. Be aware of safety with large containers of water; a simple lid or mesh on top will prevent small creatures or children from falling out and drowning.
Improve your soil’s water-holding capacity by adding organic matter. It’s not an instant fix, but stuffing in well-rotted compost in the fall will help retain moisture and nourish your soil. Mulch or cover your flowerbeds with a generous layer (5 cm or 2 in.) of organic matter when the soil is already moist.
2. During drought
In the midst of drought, the emphasis should be on watering. The goal is to get the plants through with minimal damage. Watering in the morning or evening is recommended as there is less water loss through evaporation.
Evening watering means the plant has all night to swell before it begins to lose more water through transpiration. On the other hand, moist soil overnight is more likely to attract slugs and snails. Here at the nursery we have to water during working hours, starting in the morning and continuing throughout the day, with some plants requiring a second soaking in the evening.
How to water the plants
Plants need water at their roots. A pinch of water can rinse the dust off the leaves but won’t keep a plant hydrated. A thorough soaking so that the water penetrates deep into the soil is what is needed.
Prioritize plants that need the most water, especially those that have been recently planted and do not yet have an established root system. This includes newly planted trees and shrubs as well as tiny seedlings and bedding plants that will die quickly without water.
For the rest of the garden, provided you have access to enough water, a sensible plan is to divide your garden into sections and soak each section in rotation. Established plantings should be able to cope without water for several weeks. Plants may appear to wilt or droop a bit during the day, but straighten up overnight, and plants that are watered daily will develop no tolerance for going without water and end up being more susceptible to drought.
Direct the water towards the base of the plant rather than up. This is especially important for large-leaved plants, where the foliage acts like an umbrella diverting water away from the root zone. Water slowly to make sure it soaks in and doesn’t run. Some plants will show burning or crispy leaves. Leave them for now as they provide a degree of shade for the leaves below.
Many trees lose their leaves during a drought and this is a normal response. Finally, do not feed your plants during this time.
How to water potted plants
Plants held captive in pots are another matter. Once the compost in a pot has dried out, it can become difficult to re-wet and can shrink at the sides so that water runs straight off, leaving the root ball dry. Modern peat-free composts seem particularly prone to this. Try not to let the pots dry out by using saucers underneath and/or filling a large bucket or wheelbarrow with water and soaking the whole pot for half an hour.
An additional problem is that the pots and their contents can become very hot during a drought. Hot, wet soil leads to root rot, which further compromises the plant’s ability to cope. This can be alleviated, to some extent, by grouping the pots together so that there is less sun on their sides, or by temporarily moving the pots to a more shady location.
Once the drought is over and the rains have fallen, often in torrents, many plants will begin to recover. Others won’t, but give them plenty of time before pronouncing them dead prematurely.
Some plants will go dormant early and reappear as new next spring, while tallergic plants that have not been properly staked can collapse. Anticipate this and stake them before the rain. Once they become turgid, they become brittle and harder to lift without breaking.
This is also the time to tidy up and remove fallen or damaged foliage. Above all, you need to perform a critical review of how your garden has coped. Note which areas became the most parched and which suffered the least. You might consider replanting your moisture lovers in an area, where they can benefit from optimal conditions in improved soil or with an infiltration pipe installed.
Selection of plants for droughts:
You may decide to gradually fill your garden with plants that require little or no watering. Thirty years ago, the late Beth Chatto pioneered the idea of creating a drought-loving garden that would thrive and look great without irrigation.
In 2018, the pioneering garden designer’s Essex garden received just a tenth of an inch of rain throughout June and July. He tolerated over 50 consecutive days of no water at all and still looked fine. However, the soil was extremely well-drained, the soil poor and rocky, and the well-established plants bred specifically for these conditions.
It is unlikely that plants adapted to such extreme conditions would like a wet Cornish winter in ordinary soil. It is therefore crucial to exercise caution in your selection. Think about the conditions in your garden and don’t trust a label that says “drought resistant.” Small plants will establish more easily than large ones. If you are planting trees this fall, try to plant them before Christmas. If they are far from a water source, you may want to invest in a watering pouch that fits around the trunk.
Establishment is essential for all plants to be drought tolerant. For this reason, it is best to plant in the fall to allow maximum time to develop a good root system. The exception to the rule are aromatic Mediterranean plants such as lavender and rosemary. It is best to leave them until spring, when the soil is warmer.
About the Duchy of Cornwall Nursery
Nestled in a lush Cornish glen near Lostwithiel, the Duchy of Cornwall nursery This is where horticulture is celebrated and where nature can flourish.
It’s a place to relax, nurture the senses and discover beautiful plants and inspiration for home and garden. From the glasshouse filled with the largest collection of indoor plants in the South West to the buzzing Bumblebee Garden, the Duchy of Cornwall nursery is a little haven full of surprises. And four-legged visitors can also enjoy it!
For more information, please visit duchyofcornwallnursery.co.uk