Designing a Dry Garden

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A dry garden doesn’t rely on rainwater, irrigation or feeding to survive. Instead, plants are chosen for their drought-tolerance. If you have a busy life and don’t have much spare time to spend maintaining your garden a dry garden is one for you. Also it conserves water for the nation and gives you a powerful taste of the Mediterranean.

The first thing that you need to consider if whether your plot of land is suitable.. The space should be open and have access to lots of sunshine. The poorer the soil the better as your dry tolerant plants will need to search for their nutrients and moisture , developing the long roots they will need to survive drought conditions. Make sure when you are preparing the bed, dig very deep to give these longer tap rooting plants an easy passage.

The next thing you need to think about is materials. Dry gardens can initially require materials such as sand, crushed hard core or concrete to improve the drainage. ( See my last Article on Tom Brown at West Dean Gardens)

It is imperative that structure is fully considered. The smaller drought tolerant plants tend to be short lived so try to plant a combination of longer-lived plants because it will help create a backbone structure. Water them sparingly and once they are established then sit back and watch them grow without watering- anxiety. If you have trees already that cast shade, you can still plant dry shade tolerant species like Liripoe and Japanese anemones.

Poor and stony soil is a bonus in gardens where you want to grow a wide range of ground cover plants with little maintenance. The gravel garden is a good option, suppressing the germination of weeds almost entirely. This balance between plant and stone is characteristic of Mediterranean landscapes. One thing you may want for a more wild natural look is for your plants to self seed, so your gravel needs to be thick enough to prevent normal English weeds coming up, but not too impenetrable that your self seeing plants can’t have offspring.

You don’t have to apply fertiliser to the soil, as this can encourage too much lush growth which can flop in summer, require extra watering, and become frost damaged in winter. At the time of planting some compost applied to the soil can help them initially. One other reason to think about a shingle mulch is that it locks the moisture in so in times of severe dryness the soil is less likely to turn into cement!

Generally, choose plants with grey-green or silver leaves as they reflect the sun’s rays, helping to conserve moisture within the plant tissues.
Some great Mediterranean plants are Lavender Hidcot, Phlomis, Lamb’s Ear, Valerian and most of the herbs like Sage, Chives and Oregano, Verbascum and Nepeta.

Ornamental grasses include the whole of the Stipa range as well as Calamagrosis Karl Foester and Sesleria autumnalis.
Some of your plants you will know from the traditional english cottage garden like Alchillea, Santolina, Iris’ Synopation’ and Erigeron karvinskianus.

For more structural plants have a look at Colletia, Callistomem, dwarf Eucalyptus as well as Teucrium fruticans and the Hebe range
The Beth Chatto Gardens

One of the most famous gardens in the UK, need inspiration for your new dry garden Beth Chatto’s Gardens is the place to visit. The gravel garden was formerly a car park and was set up as an experiment. The area is one of the driest parts of England and hasn’t been irrigated. Yet it is well-known for its display of drought tolerant plants.

If you are having issues with your garden it is worth visiting the Scree Garden because it has helped many work out what to do. There is big collection of easy alpines mimicking the growing conditions of stony, mountainous slopes.

There is a nursery within the gardens which sell various types of plants which are suitable for dry gardens. They offer advice on which specific plants would suitable for different types of dry gardens.


Gravel garden starter plants in detail

Cistus laurifolius is a white-flowering Mediterranean species that provides year-round evergreen structure. Stachys byzantina offers excellent weed-suppressant ground cover, with silver foliage and attractive summer flowers. Stipa gigantea, the large feather grass, is great for height and autumn seed heads. Eschscholzia californica and Nepeta nervosa ‘Blue Moon’ are sun-lovers that add vibrant seasonal colourAllium christophii and Allium Sphaerocephalo are autumn-planted bulbs that look great in gravel schemes.
Derek Jarman

Jarman was one of the most important artists and gay rights activists of his generation, making groundbreaking avant-garde films such as Sebastian, Caravaggio and Jubilee. Since he died of an Aids-related illness in 1994, his cottage and garden have become a site of pilgrimage for art students, architects and garden designers.

As a young boy he was enthralled by flowers, he dreamed of a magical rose garden emerging from the arid shingle. His parents had given him the 1926 illustrated manual, Beautiful Flowers and How to Grow Them, for his fourth birthday, and he spent his youth making little gardens, winning a prize at boarding school for his plot. Prospect Cottage was the first time he had the chance to make an entire garden of his own from scratch, and he began with 30 rose plants, brought to the coast from a nursery in Kensington.

Unfortunately the majority of the roses died so he looked into native plants such as sea kale and wild peas. He would use driftwood sticks to mark out the delicate purple shoots of the sea kale. He rarely intervened so the garden predominantly grew naturally.


Visiting Prospect Cottage

As of the 4th July 2020 Prospect Cottage and garden in Dungeness, Kent opened up to be viewed by visitors who wants to appreciate his work and art. As the film-maker said towards the end of his life: “Every flower is a triumph. I’ve had more fun from this place than I’ve had with anything else in my life. I should have been a gardener.”


What to do in September

Obviously keep up the watering of your vegetables in sustained hot weather. For years now we have been having sunny and dry Septembers

Top up the mulch to retain moisture and keep weeds down (don’t forget they kept on growing until Xmas last year!)

Keep pinching out your tomatoes and sowing new rills of lettuce, radishes and spinach

Time to prune the bigger shrubs that have finished flowering like Wigelia, Philadelphus, and Spirea- cut out the old flowering wood back to new growth that next year’s flowers will bloom from.

A harder cut of the Wisteria can wait till January.

Mow your lawn on a higher setting now to keep moisture in the grass to help mitigate against Indian summer browning in dry spells

Start planning where you want your bulbs to come out in Spring. You can order them online now for planting until November as well as bare root hedges and roses.

By |2024-02-06T15:25:39+00:00February 6th, 2024|Articles, Blog|Comments Off on Designing a Dry Garden

About the Author:

In 2006 I formed Glorious Gardens, gathering together skilled practitioners to offer not just design but implementation of these designs and maintenance packages where we could look after the gardens once we had created them. Throughout my career I have designed gardens to inspire people with the heart aching beauty of nature, with shapes, colours, moods and proportions to pleasure the body and calm and delight the mind. I am also an artist who works with colour and abstract shapes and I bring this sensitivity to the 4 dimensions of a garden. I am very good at listening to clients and I’m able to draw out the essence of what a client wants for their outdoor space.