Over the past few years, I've been gardening or visiting gardens in various places around Europe and North Africa, from courtyards in Marrakesh to the arid plains of Tangiers to hillside terrace gardens in the South of France. Through all these locations, I am struck by the lushness of planting when people decide to garden even in the hottest of places.
Our gardens in northern Europe have traditionally had plenty of water. We've been warned that this will not always be the case and over the past few years we've experienced hosepipe bans from as early as May. And when we realise wonderful wine is being produced on our neighbouring island in Kent vineyards, it becomes clear that our climate is undergoing a pattern of change. So more of us are going to have to become aware of gardening in drier conditions.
As the sun shines and rain during the growing seasons becomes scarce, it's time to look at those plants which are drought-tolerant, have adapted to poor conditions and don't demand irrigation or moisture-retentive soil.
On our Gardening Conversations Instagram broadcast a week ago (Episode 83 on @diarmuidgavin IGTV), plantsman Rory Newell explained how plants adapt to a lack of available water, showing how some plants are covered in tens of thousands of tiny hairs set at angles on the leaves to funnel any available moisture towards the plant's root system. Mesmerising stuff.
The best-known exponent of this type of planting in this part of the world was Beth Chatto, whose wonderful gardens and nursery you can still visit in Essex. She transformed the poorest of soils into an enchanting Eden. Starting with a neglected wasteland in the 1960s - some of it boggy, some shady and some of it dry - she formed dams in the marshy part, resulting in the creation of ponds and a bog garden.
In the darker part of the site, a beautiful woodland garden was planted, which is now home to a wide variety of shade-loving plants. And on the very stony, sun-baked soil she created her famous Gravel Garden, showing just what can be achieved in a garden that is subject to annual drought.
To improve the soil, she originally dug in tonnes of homemade compost, farmyard manure and mushroom compost to give the plants a good start and a chance to spread their roots. Then everything planted was mulched with 5cm of gravel, which helps to conserve moisture and keep weeds at bay. Through trial and error, she discovered which plants were best suited to these arid conditions. If there was a severe drought, she cut back the affected plants to help them get through to the autumn.
Whichever plants you choose, water well before planting and while the plant establishes itself. Beth's gardening philosophy was based on a simple principle of "the right plant for the right place". So here is a selection of some recommended plants if your soil is very dry, and sandy conditions and hosepipe bans are a regular occurrence.
BULBS are often at home in free-draining soils. Try lots of elegant red Tulipa sprengeri and purple alliums. She also recommends Scilla peruviana (Portuguese squill) and nectaroscordum (Sicilian garlic).
GRASSES such as silvery blue varieties like Festuca glauca, Koeleria glauca and helictotrichon; feathery Stipa tenuissima, and the very ornamental pennisetums with their bottlebrush plumes.
Mediterranean-looking plants with silvery or hairy foliage - santolina (cotton lavender), verbascum (pictured above), phlomis (Jerusalem sage), stachys (lamb's ears), ballota, convolvulus and lavender.
Sun-seekers from New Zealand such as senecio and Libertia grandiflora.
Giant fennel Ferula communis with its dramatic, massive yellow flower heads, as well as cultivated fennel.
Cottage-garden favourites such as nepeta, anthemis, crocosmia, penstemon, bearded iris (pictured below), gladioli, asphodels and verbena.
Tough old boots Valerian, which you see growing on stony walls, won't let you down; euphorbia will flourish in the most inhospitable of environments, and hypericum asks for nothing but gives back lots of yellow flowers.
It's best to plant smaller,younger specimens, which will adapt more quickly to their tough surroundings, rather than older ones which might have got used to a comfortable life in a nursery pot.
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It was April 2019 and Eoghan Riordan Fernandez was sitting in a van in the pouring rain, taking a break from a landscaping job, when the text arrived.