Creating a dry garden

Information sheet

Climate change is likely to bring with it hotter, drier summers. Consider using plants that will cope with dry soil and no additional watering.

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Site and soil

Most of the plants that tolerate dry conditions also revel in the sun so the ideal site is south or west facing, with little or no shade. Such plants also hate cold, wet soil so the ground should be free-draining. If your soil is naturally wet or cold and heavy, then you may need to build raised beds and incorporate gritty sand into the planting area to improve drainage. Drought tolerant plants generally have low nutrient needs. Do not add any extra fertiliser as this can encourage lush growth which then needs more water in summer and is more easily damaged by frost in winter.

Planting tips

Even the most drought tolerant plants may need some help to get going -  so follow these tips:

  • Some sun-lovers are not very hardy so check before you buy and aim to plant these in spring, so they are well established before winter arrives
  • Choose small, young plants so they get used to their growing environment as they develop. Larger, older plants are harder to establish in difficult conditions.
  • Add organic matter to the soil to help improve structure and moisture retention.
  • If the soil is dry when planting, fill the planting hole with water to get the moisture down at root level. Then put the plant in and backfill with dry soil which seals in the moisture
  • After planting, mulch with water-retaining materials such as gravel or bark.

Plant characteristics

Drought tolerant plants tend to share a range of characteristics that help them conserve moisture so that they can cope in areas of low rainfall. This is a good example of plants showing adaptations to their environment and includes the following:

  • Hairy leaves to help reduce the drying effect of the wind e.g. catmint, Jerusalem sage
  • Grey or silvery leaves to reflect more of the sun’s rays, keeping the leaves cool e.g. mugwort, sea holly
  • Leathery or waxy leaves to help prevent water loss e.g. daisy bush, strawberry tree
  • Succulent leaves to store moisture e.g. Delosperma, Sedum
  • Thin, needle-like leaves which have a very small surface area and so lose little by evaporation. Some plants roll their leaves inwards, reducing their exposed surface even more e.g. blue fescue, pine
  • Tiny leaves which lose less water by evaporation e.g. kerosene bush, lavender

Recommended plants for dry conditions

In a very dry season, even these plants may need extra water until they are established but after that they should survive on rainfall alone.

Crinum (Crinum x powellii)
Nerine (Nerine bowdenii)
Ornamental onion (Allium)
Wild tulip (Tulipa tarda)

Herbaceous plants
Californian fuchsia (Zauschneria)
Catmint (Nepeta)
Delosperma (Delosperma cooperi)
Globe thistle (Echinops)
Ice plant (Hylotelephium spectabile)
Mullein (Verbascum)
Osteospermum (Osteospermum)
Poppy (Papaver)
Red-hot poker (Kniphofia)
Sea holly (Eryngium)
Spurge (Euphorbia)
Verbena (Verbena bonariensis)
Wild indigo (Baptisia australis)
Yarrow (Achillea)

Small shrubs
Box (Buxus)
Heavenly bamboo (Nandina)
Hebe (Hebe)
Jerusalem sage (Phlomis fruticosa)
Kerosene bush (Ozothamnus)
Lavender (Lavandula)
Lavender cotton (Santolina)
Mugwort (Artemisia)
Rock rose (Helianthemum)
Rosemary (Rosmarinus)
Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia)
Sage (Salvia)
St John’s Wort (Hypericum)
Thyme (Thymus)

Medium-large shrubs
Abelia (Abelia x grandiflora)
Broom (Cytisus ‘Burkwoodii’)
Ceanothus (Ceanothus)
Daisy bush (Olearia macrodonta)
Eleagnus (Elaeagnus angustifolia)
Juniper (Juniperus)
Sun rose (Cistus)
Yucca (Yucca)

Golden honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos ‘Sunburst’)
Golden rain tree (Koelreuteria paniculata)
Hop tree (Ptelea trifoliata ‘Aurea’)
Judas tree (Cercis siliquastrum)
Mimosa (Acacia dealbata)
Pine (Pinus) including dwarf varieties
Smooth cypress (Cupressus arizonica var. glabra)
Strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo)

Chilean glory flower (Eccremocarpus scaber)
Jasmine (Jasminum officinale)
Passion flower (Passiflora caerulea)
Trumpet vine (Campsis radicans)

Blue fescue (Festuca glauca)
Fountain grass (Pennisetum)
Golden oats (Stipa gigantea)
Miscanthus (Miscanthus)
Pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana)
Switch grass (Panicum virgatum)

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