Wet or Dry, Your Garden Can Thrive: Chelsea’s Top Tips

21st June 2024
Estimated reading time 6 minutes

This year water has been making a splash at the 2024 Chelsea Flower Show. Designers showed us not just how to incorporate water into our gardens as a unique feature and magnet for biodiversity. But also highlighted how we can adapt to meet the challenges posed by climate change.

And it’s no wonder gardeners are so hot on this subject. We had record levels of rainfall in England between October 2022 and March 2024. Whereas in 2022 we recorded our hottest summer ever when thermostats reached a sweltering 40°C for the first time.

Climate predictions suggest this weather pattern of excessive rain and warmer temperatures is going to persist. Luckily for gardeners, the Chelsea Flower Show offered ingenious solutions for dealing with both flood and drought.

Two gardens in particular placed water centre stage:

The Flood Re: The Flood Resilient Garden

This beautiful sanctuary garden by Dr Ed Barsley and Naomi Slade was filled with useful ideas to future-proof our gardens and address the disruption that flooding brings.

The WaterAid Garden

This gold winning show garden by Tom Massey and Je Ahn showcased how with careful planning and water management beautiful, resilient gardens can thrive even when water is scarce.

Top tips we took from the show

From sprawling country estate to a bijou urban space, the following tips can all be applied to help your garden work with flood or drought conditions.

Plant densely

Planting densely in boggy, flood prone areas of your garden is an effective way to slow the flow of surface water and allow it to soak away more easily. This helps reduce the volume, speed and pollutant load of run off entering drainage systems and waterways. 

The Flood Re garden interspersed damp loving favourites such as willow, ferns and water mint with buttercups, ragged robin and primula to introduce lush planting with bright pops of colour. 

The WaterAid garden brought a lovely mix to deal with boggy conditions and aid biodiversity. Including bogbean, veronica beccabunga, potentilla palustris, iris laevigata and cornus sanguinea.

Both showed that wet conditions shouldn’t prove a barrier to creative planting.

Plant appropriately 

While pond and bog plants were used for wetter areas of both gardens, plants fonder of drier conditions also had their place. In well-drained sections the use of fruit trees, roses and dahlias showed it’s possible to combine planting styles.

FloodRe Garden planting around pond

FloodRe Garden. Source: RHS

Adopting the principle of the right plant for the right space is a golden rule of gardening and is something we can all do. 

Start by mapping out your garden into planting zones which consider things such as: 

  • Aspect; where are the shady pockets and sunny spots in your garden? Which of these do the plants you like prefer? Are you planting them in the most favourable position.
  • Topography; what are the natural and artificial features that will affect what you plant? For example, is your garden on a slope creating dry conditions at one end and wetter at the other. Does a large tree or building create shade or a rain shadow that needs accounting for in plant choice and care.
  • Soil structure; do you have a good crumbly soil structure, or soil that compacts together resulting in poor drainage. Is it loamy, chalky, sandy, silty or clay? Do you need to adopt soil care practices to improve its condition to improve plant health and vigour?
  • Soil pH balance; is your soil acid or alkaline or somewhere in between?  Tailoring your planting to suit your pH will ensure strong growth and better protection against disease.

As the plant list for the WaterAid Garden shows – once you understand the different planting zones in your garden. You can then choose selectively from a wide range of suitable flowers, grasses, shrubs and trees to create a thriving planting scheme.

Build elevated areas

When a garden floods it’s often unusable. The Flood Re garden got round this problem by the clever inclusion of an elevated deck and mound. Thus creating an area of habitable high ground even after heavy rainfall.

FloodRe Garden elevated mound

FloodRe Garden. Source: RHS

The WaterAid garden provided a series of raised areas interconnected by an open decking walkway made from weathered steel grate. Giving an impression of floating above the planting, rain can easily pass through the permeable grate to the plants and water features below.

WaterAid Garden. Elevated walkway.

WaterAid Garden. Source: RHS

If you have a garden prone to flooding, then incorporating a raised area provides somewhere to escape the wet. While not every garden might have the space for a mound, the same idea of elevating sections makes for an interesting multi-dimensional space.

For example, building terraces into a sloped garden creates sophisticated stepped sections suitable for different purposes. For instance, lower sections could include a water feature such as a pond for collecting excess water. Whereas higher, drier sections used for relaxing, socialising or storage. 

Smaller gardens or courtyards can simply raise beds off the ground to create drier conditions that extend their range of planting opportunities.

Channel, direct and store water

While too much water can be a bad thing. It can also be a valuable resource when rain is scarce. By channelling, directing and storing water both Chelsea gardens created clever features that added to the overall enjoyment of the space.

In the Flood Re Garden a central swale (a shallow, wide ditch) formed a stream that channelled rainwater into a feature pond and large water tanks. These tanks served the dual purpose of acting as ornamental ponds, as well as a water store for later use. Attached to smart technology, these tanks can be remotely discharged ahead of predicted heavy rainfall allowing them to be filled again.

Slopes formed by the elevated mound directed water away from the dry area towards those designed and planted to cope better with wet conditions. Guttering and rain chains were also used to direct water away from the pergola roof and into the water storage tanks.

FloodRe Garden rain chains

FloorRe Garden. Source: RHS

The WaterAid Garden meanwhile featured a striking centrepiece of a huge rainwater harvesting pavilion. An 11-feet-tall structure designed to capture every drop of rain, funnel it down hollow columns and store it in a chamber beneath the garden for later use.

WaterAid Garden water conserving pavilion

WaterAid Garden. Source: RHS

What both these garden show is that managing water in your garden doesn’t have to be boring. In fact, it can become the main feature. Whether it’s the addition of a pond or a series of interconnected elements used to channel and harvest water.

By taking control of how water flows around a space these gardens proved you can create a beautiful, dynamic space that works hand in hand with nature, reduces the impact of flooding and conserves precious water resources. 

Something we as gardeners will all need to do in the future.

Wet or Dry, Your Garden Can Thrive: Chelsea’s Top Tips

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