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Extreme gardening: surviving intemperate weather

garden in MargateThe year-long drought of 1921 is thought to have been a significant influence on T.S. Eliot’s great poem, The Waste Land, written in Margate during the anti-cyclonic autumn of that year.  The earth was parched, and the landscape bleached yellow with thirst.   I read the poem in my youth as an elegiac meditation on the devastation caused by WW1, epitomised by the dry landscape it vividly evoked.   I had yet to experience the effects of drought as an adult, and a gardener, and I had never heard of Beth Chatto’s experimental ‘dry garden’, which she created from a wasteland near Colchester.

In recent years, to combat periods of water shortage, gardeners in the South-East of England have turned to plants from hotter climates:  grey and hairy-leaved plants such as Santolina, Artemisia and Stachys; aromatic herbs such as Sage, Rosemary and Thyme; and succulent plants such as Agave, Sedum or Euphorbia.  Yet we do not have a Mediterranean climate:   most drought-tolerant plants do not like cold wet winters or heavy clay soil.  In bitter winters we have witnessed many casualties, including varieties of plant that had come to think of London as a frost-free haven.  It was a salutary reminder that there are no quick-fix solutions in gardening:   slow, patient, and often rather arduous methods usually work best.  Beth Chatto’s beautiful gravel garden is a tribute to her diligence in sourcing the right plants for the right habitat, focussing on making the soil less inhospitable, taking time to develop the garden over many years, and of course combining surprising forms and textures.

Joan ScanlonIn the UK we have gone from unseasonal drought to deluge and back to dry weather conditions in less than 9 months, with no certainty of what future skies will bring as autumn approaches and we enter one of the main planting seasons of the year.   However, if we can have neither unlimited water nor reliable dry seasons, we can at least resolve many related problems by improving the soil.   Now is the time to take steps to protect plants that were chosen in the spring for their drought-resistant qualities.   For Mediterranean-style plants and succulents, quantities of grit will vastly improve soil drainage and assist their chances of survival; a collar of gravel around each plant offers their leaves a dry place on which to rest in wet weather.  Similarly, if you are planting open-crowned bulbs such as fox-tail lilies, a good bed of grit or compost may keep them from rotting in heavy wet soil.

Joan Scanlon town gardensEven in the 15th Century, Leonardo da Vinci was preoccupied with water, as a mercurial subject to draw, and as an essential resource to be managed. He designed locks and canal systems, invented machines for draining marshes, and even sketched floats designed for walking on water!  Green watering systems which use soil-water sensors and draw on underground rainwater tanks do now exist, more than 500 years later, at huge expense, but most environmentally minded gardeners will have to settle instead for Beth Chatto’s more labour intensive methods to prepare for extreme weather conditions in the future.

Joan Scanlon

Town Gardens & Acanthus Landscaping



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