How to create a drought tolerant garden

25th August 2022
Estimated reading time 7 minutes

Turning our gardens into a drought tolerant oasis doesn’t have to mean a radical overhaul. By choosing the right kind of plant, tweaking our garden maintenance regime, and putting a bit of extra care into our soil, we can create a garden that won’t wilt when warmer weather arrives.

With so little rainfall in 2022, parts of the UK are facing the possibility of a drought with hope pipe bans already in place in many areas.

It seems that for the South and Thames Valley these long dry, hot summers are going to become the norm. Which can cause problems for gardens unprepared for this shift in weather patterns.

As our climate inevitably changes, so must our gardening. Not only must we rethink our choice of plant. We must also be mindful of resources and make the most of what we have.

In this blog we’ve covered a few tips for adapting your garden to help it withstand rising summer temperatures.

Choosing plants that thrive and survive in heat

Adjusting your garden maintenance regime

Improving the water retention of your soil

Choose plants that thrive and survive in heat

There’s a common gardening saying – if you want your plants to perform perfectly it’s all about choosing the right plant for the right situation.

So, with drier summers ahead of us it makes sense to move away from those plants who love the cool and wet. To those who have evolved to withstand the heat.

Which leads us to looking to areas like the Mediterranean for inspiration. As it’s in these places we’ll find plants specially adapted to cope with dry soil and lack of rainwater. 

For example, many drought tolerant plants have silver or grey-green leaves, like Artemisia ‘Silver Queen’. This lighter leaf colour helps to reflect the harsh sun rays. Others, like Verbascum bombyciferum, have a coating of fine hairs on their leaves or stems which help to trap moisture and prevent water loss. Then there is the plump, juicy form of succulents and cacti whose personal water store ensure they flourish in warm conditions.

Removing plants that seem to suffer in the heat and replacing them with sun worshippers like these you can still retain the structure of your planting scheme, while giving your garden a bit of a makeover in the process.

For something a bit more radical, you might also consider reworking areas of your garden that just don’t seem happy in the heat. If, for example, your lawn is resembling the dried plains of the Serengeti, an option is to remove the turf and create a gravel garden. A trend we predict to see more of at garden shows in the coming years.

For now, here are a few favourite drought tolerant plants that are easy to incorporate into any garden.

Our pick of drought tolerant plants

Agapanthus hails from South Africa so knows how to deal with the heat. It produces large spherical flowerheads in shades of blue and white throughout summer, which rise majestically above clumps of strappy foliage. A high impact plant suitable for a sunny spot in the border or a pot.

Cotyledon orbiculate is another South African native.  This evergreen succulent produces fleshy, round silvery leaves with a slight powdery bloom. While the leaves themselves are attractive, it’s in late summer that orange bell-shaped flowers emerge, hanging from tall stems. This is perfect for growing in pots and is also at home in a gravel garden. It’s not totally hardy so may need a bit of extra winter protection.

Pittosporums are fantastic evergreen shrubs that give your garden structure and interest throughout the year. They also make a good alternative to something like box, allowing you to experiment with clipping them into architectural shapes. They come in a range of sizes, with leaves that are anything from shades of green, yellow and purple, to silvery-grey or variegated. If that’s not enough, this shrub also produces small, scented flowers in spring.

Callistemon citrinus is native to Australia and adds impact and interest to any garden. Commonly known as the bottle brush plant, Callistemon citrinus produces dramatic crimson-red flower spikes in spring and summer that contrast with its dark green, aromatic foliage that release a lemony scent if gently bruised. ‘Splendens’ is a popular variety being known as a reliable plant to grow in the UK climate.

Trachycarpus fortune brings a touch of the exotic and the tropics to your garden. This hardy evergreen palm grows to the height of a small tree. It has a stout, fibre-covered trunk with fan shape dark green leaves up to 1m in width that are divided into linear segments.  This palm also produces large arching sprays of small, light yellow flowers.

Euphorbias are easy to grow and are popular for early summer gardens with their vivid acid yellow, green and bright orange colours. Generally requiring a sunny position and fertile, well-drained soil adding one of these to your garden will add instant impact in a mixed planting scheme.

Trachelsospermum jasminoides is the evergreen version of this popular climber. Its waxy green leaves form a perfect counterfoil to the small, fragrant star shaped flower that appear in summer. While this form of jasmine is drought tolerant it will require regular watering initially to help it establish.

Erygnium or sea hollies are equipped with tough, silvery leaves that shine out in the border. Coming from mountainous regions, they have developed long tap roots to search out water in the soil which makes them particularly tolerant to dry conditions.

Stipa tenuissima is a useful addition to a dry border or gravel garden. This lovely tactile grass grows up to 60cm, with a compact upright form topped with tufts of feathery panicles in summer.  It looks stunning planting with other drought tolerant favourites such as Perovskia atriplicifolia (Russian sage), Verbena bonariensis and Sedums.

Adjust your garden maintenance regime

Making a few small changes to how you garden can make a big difference to helping your plants survive the stress of dry conditions.

Here’s how your day-to-day care can help them cope:

  • Fertilise carefully so as not to overfeed. Plants with just enough fertiliser are better at using water efficiently. Overfed plants are prone to putting on lush growth which requires extra watering. 
  • Planting small plants, rather than larger specimens, helps them to build resilience from an earlier age as they adapt to their conditions.
  • Get new plants in the ground in the autumn, rather than spring or summer. This gives them plenty of time to make themselves at home and establish a healthy root system before dry weather arrives.
  • However, if you’re planting Mediterranean plants, then spring is the ideal time for planting to avoid them sitting in cold damp ground over winter, which can cause root-rot.
  • Give all new plants a thorough soaking prior too planting. Plunge the plant, pot and all, into a bucket or trug filled with water. Then wait until the air bubbles from the soil stop rising to the surface. That’s when you’ll know the soil and roots now have a little personal reservoir of water that will help get them started.
  • Once planted, continue to water new plants thoroughly in their first season to ensure they become well established. This will help them become drought tolerant and reduce their need for watering. For trees and shrubs these are likely to need a good watering regime for the first couple of years to help them get underway.
  • Adding a good layer of mulch (2 to 3 inches thick) after planting not only helps to keep water in the soil but will also improve overall soil condition.

Improve your soil water retention

If you’ve got soil that dries out quickly and doesn’t retain water, there are a couple of things you can do to help.

First is to dig in lots of organic matter.  Whether this is well-rotted garden compost, horse manure, mushroom compost, or composted bark – the more of this you can get into your soil the better. Deep it in deeply and you’ll find the structure of your soil and its ability to retain water all improve. Giving you much better growing results.

Secondly, add a deep layer of mulch in the autumn or spring. Make sure the soil is moist first, then add a good layer of mulch (2 to 3 inches). This not only helps to retain moisture in the soil, but it also helps to keep weeds supressed and adds a fresh helping of nutrients to your beds and borders each year.

When choosing a mulch, opt for a bio-degradable mulch rather something like shingle or plastic. That way what you put on your soil will help to add to its structure and fertility. Good options include garden compost, wood chippings, leaf mould and well-rotted manure.

Gardening into the future

As warmer summers seem here to stay, we hope these tips help you to adapt your gardens to the changing climate. If you would like some help with getting started, feel free to get in touch with details of your project. We’re BALI registered professional landscape gardeners with lots of experience with transforming and maintaining the grounds of both domestic and commercial properties.

Please call us on 01628 629720 or drop us an email via:

How to create a drought tolerant garden

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