Our latest (and final) assignment for my garden design course this year is my favourite so far.
We have to design a gravel garden, inspired by Beth Chatto’s, using plants that are capable of surviving without being watered.
I am massively into the whole idea of “right plant, right place” – in other words using plants in situations where they will thrive, so you need to do a minimum amount of care to keep them happy.
Yes, I admit, this is partly because I am quite lazy, but it’s also because I wholeheartedly buy into the sustainable / environmental implications of the idea as well: don’t waste precious water on plants, instead making sure they can live on whatever rainwater they receive; don’t pump your soil full of chemicals to fertilise them, but choose plants that like the conditions you’ve got; and don’t spend ages pruning plants into small shapes, but just let them grow to their natural form. (Though, that’s not to say that I’m not partial to a bit of topiary…)
All these ideas, in fact, are almost a given these days in garden design, but back when Beth Chatto started advocating them in the 1960s they were a radical departure from the manicured, high-labour-intensive, high-irrigation form of gardening that was popular.
A few weeks ago, we took a college trip to see the gardens and had a tour from one of the gardeners there. Now, we’re busy working on our own designs and selecting plants.
Along with sharing some of my photos, I thought it might be interesting to pass on a few tips to bear in mind if you’re planning a drought tolerant garden…
1. No watering…
The ultimate aim of a drought tolerant garden is that you never need to water it. In the gravel garden at Beth Chatto they never, ever water the plants there. Even in the hottest driest summers. Once the plants are established, they survive entirely on rainwater, and never get topped up by a hosepipe.
It’s a liberating thought, both in terms of labour reduction (I find watering things a spectacularly tedious task in the summer, I have to admit) but also because — even when there isn’t a hosepipe ban in place — we should take care of our water usage and be aware that it is a finite resource.
2. …except at the beginning
The only exception to the no-watering rule is for newly established plants. When first plonked into the soil, all plants need to be watered for a while as their roots grow and they settle into their new home.
At Beth Chatto’s garden, we were told that all new plants were watered for the first six weeks while they established themselves in their new position. Of course, if rain is forecast, don’t worry about watering, but if you’ve just planted something and there are weeks of long dry weather, then you will need to irrigate while they get settled.
3. Know your conditions
The Beth Chatto gardens are located near Colchester in Essex, one of the driest parts of the UK*. The gravel garden is the sunniest, driest part, on the site of what used to be a car park. Plants, obviously, need to enjoy sunshine and drought.
Just around the corner, though, the bog garden is planted in a hollow at the side of a river, where it always damp and the plants need to survive with frequently water-logged roots.
My point? Even within the same garden, you can have all sorts of different conditions. Check the soil type before you plant. Drought tolerant planting does well in dry, slightly arid soils (many of the plants used tend to come from the Mediterranean or other warm locations) so choose the place in your garden that meets these conditions best.
4. Choose the plants carefully
If you’ve got good conditions for drought-tolerant plants, the next thing you need is… …drought-tolerant plants. Ha ha, it sounds obvious, but it’s worth pointing out.
Depending on their origin, different plants thrive on a huge variety of different conditions. If you’re planning on having a no water garden, you’ll need plants that are capable of surviving drought. I think I’ll do a whole separate post on some suitable plants, once I’ve finished choosing my favourites for my design, but you can always find good options by searching on websites like the RHS plant finder. Select the full sun and drought tolerant options. On the Beth Chatto website, there is a huge list of suitable plants sold at their nursery that are used within the gardens as well and you (by which I mean, I) could spend many a happy hour browsing through the selections: drought loving plants.
5.Harmony and contrast
As a general rule of thumb, great garden design is all about harmony and contrast. You want to use plants that look good together, so you want some of their characteristics to be shared: colour (for example, similar flower colour or a flower the same colour as another plant’s leaf), shape, leaf size, or form, for example.
But it’s really important to use contrast in order to notice all of the amazing characteristics of a plant. So, if you had a plant with big, fat leaves (known as a “coarse texture”in garden design terms) like a bergenia (seen at the front right of the picture above) you could place it next to something with thin, delicate, feathery leaves (a “fine texture”) such as a tall grass like Stipa gigantea, as seen in the photo above.
As we were shown round the gardens, the gardener pointed us to a part that he jokingly referred to as “Beth Chatto by numbers”. It was a line up of a hosta (big, broad, flat leaves), next to a fern (delicate, small, frondy leaves), surrounded by a drift of arching grasses (fine, delicate leaves, with a contrasting arching form). Though each plant had a contrast of form (plant shape) and texture (leaf shape), they all shared the same colour of green, which provided harmony.
To be honest, I think if you knew nothing else at all about garden design, you could still make really stunning, eye-catching displays, just thinking about harmony and contrast.
6. Vary the height.
And a final design point: don’t forget to plant upwards! Don’t just use small plants, but ensure you have planting at eye level. Trees are great for bringing height to gardens, as are really big shrubs or climbing plants. Yes, it’s great to go out into the garden and look at the ground and really appreciate all the plants down there, but when you first step out (or look out of your window) it’s really important to have things at eye level, so the space doesn’t look boring.
My favourite of the tall plants at Beth Chatto was this spectacular Eucalyptus dalrympleana. Disclaimer: do not plant a huge eucalyptus if you have a small garden. They are beautiful, but grow very, very tall and may well take your whole house out with their roots…
7. Think about the whole of a plant’s lifespan.
It’s oh-so-easy to look at pictures of lovely colourful flowers in catalogues, be seduced with their beauty and buy a plant that ends up doing nothing for 48 weeks of the year. Beth Chatto, actually, hardly ever uses flowers, preferring plants with dramatic leaves, shapes, seedheads and so on…
Think about how a plant will look at all points of the year. If it flowers, will the seedheads look good afterwards for the winter months? How will the new shoots look as they push through the soil in spring? Is the bark particularly appealing in winter months on a deciduous shrub?
The more interest a plant can give at different stages of its lifecycle, the more deserving it is of a space in your garden.
8. Leave space for plants to grow.
Beth Chatto’s style is very much a natural one. Plants aren’t clipped and pruned to resemble odd shapes, but left to take their natural form. And, unlike the traditional herbaceous borders, stuffed full, cottage-style, with hundreds of plants, the gravel garden has plenty of space between plants, allowing them to get bigger, and grow to their natural shapes.
The benefit of this? You need fewer plants (which costs less money), you don’t have to spend lots of your time pruning, plants won’t compete with each other so much for valuable water and you don’t need to be removing plants that have outgrown their spaces. Plus, personally, I think it looks really lovely and evocative.
9. Prepare the beds well
Yes, you’re going to need tough plants that can make it on their own without being pandered to. But that doesn’t mean you don’t give them any help at all.
Though they don’t water or fertilise the gravel garden, they do make sure to prepare the beds really well before planting. They dig through the area and add lots and lots of well rotted organic matter (manure or compost or something similar) so that nutrients are retained in the soil.
This is good practice for any type of gardening, to be honest, but especially important if the plants are “going it alone”.
So, phew, the end of a monstrously long post. Congratulations if you made it this far! Hope there was something useful in here. I’ll share some more of my final design and the plants I’ve chosen once I’ve got a bit further along with it all…
* They get around 60cm of rainfall a year, compared to 76cm where I am in London, or 90cm in Bristol where I spent a wonderful, if soggy, four student years and to where I would return in a heartbeat except for the incessant rain…).