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Can This Garden Be Saved: “It Barely Rains; I Live in a Desert”

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Can This Garden Be Saved: “It Barely Rains; I Live in a Desert”

March 21, 2017

Harsh conditions are the new normal in areas of the United States and Australia. While minimal rainfall may seem un-conducive to growing anything, it is really a case of adjusting expectations. Remember, a common cause of plant death is over watering.

Problem: I can’t grow the kind of garden I’d always dreamt of.

Solution: Imagine a different kind of beauty.

Photography by Claire Takacs.

Improve the Soil

Agapanthus on either side of the drive at Lambley Nursery in Australia. Toward the house, the drive is fringed with purple catmint and euphorbia.
Above: Agapanthus on either side of the drive at Lambley Nursery in Australia. Toward the house, the drive is fringed with purple catmint and euphorbia.

The Lambley Nursery garden, in the windswept plains of Victoria, is watered between two and four times a year. It is watered deeply, when the weather is cool. Soil is more important than perfect amounts of rainfall: when the garden at Lambley Nursery was first cultivated in the 1980s, a good quantity of quality soil was added. Mulching continues to improve the soil, adding to its moisture-retaining properties.

Seek Out Silver Foliage

Three sides of the property are banded by cypress trees (Cypressa macrocarpa); not a dense hedge but a sequence of exclamation points,  meters (about 60 feet tall). The cypress filters wind, forming a first line of defense.
Above: Three sides of the property are banded by cypress trees (Cypressa macrocarpa); not a dense hedge but a sequence of exclamation points, 18 meters (about 60 feet tall). The cypress filters wind, forming a first line of defense.

Silver- and felty-leafed plants do well in drought, with verbascum providing height here. Deep color thrives in a harsh environment, in the form of blue purple agastache, globes of echinops, and salvia. For wilder colors there are annuals and self-seeded poppies, plus the tribe of bulbs, corms, and tubers that are self-sufficient in terms of water. Alliums and iris for instance are more concerned about getting the right amount of light.

Plant a Drought-Tolerant Hedge

Privet grows through the middle of the garden, offering further protection from wind and creating friendlier, enclosed environments.
Above: Privet grows through the middle of the garden, offering further protection from wind and creating friendlier, enclosed environments.

A wall of privet (Ligustrum vulgare) was planted from cuttings, taken from an old garden. No other hedging used locally has proved to be so long-lived. With this evergreen backdrop, shapes and colors of individual plants become more remarkable. Shown here: Aloe ferox, with roots that don’t mind competing with those of the hedge.

Consider Your Climate

A path bisects the teeming lushness, in a garden with height, volume, and interesting textures.
Above: A path bisects the teeming lushness, in a garden with height, volume, and interesting textures.

David Glenn of Lambley Nursery quickly decided when he moved here to forget received notions of what a garden should be (he is British). Research into plant life that was already adapted to drought, for instance that of the American southwest and the southern tip of Europe, helped him to understand what was needed on his wind-dried patch of desert. This area is banded by olive trees, where echium, euphorbia, phlomis, and even Rosa rugosa is able to thrive.

Choose Hardy Plants

 Echium pinnana, towering over purple spikes of Salvia nemerosa.
Above: Echium pinnana, towering over purple spikes of Salvia nemerosa.

Echium makes its presence known around the garden; it’s a good coastal plant, resisting wind and extreme heat. In the background, olive trees are flanked by Yucca recurvifolia ‘Ivory Towers’, a soft-leafed form, compared with the razor-sharped varieties.

Create Micro-Climates

A Shady path at Lambley Nursery, Victoria, Australia.
Above: A Shady path at Lambley Nursery, Victoria, Australia.

Where there is no shade, create it. Enclosures of hedging, stone walls, and wind-filtering trees create cooler micro-climates, encouraging the happiness of plant and animal life. Neat edging and crisp lines also add some authority to this highly controlled environment.

Above: For more garden solutions, you can order my new book, My Garden is a Car Park: and Other Design Dilemmas, for £12.99 from Amazon UK. For US readers, The The Problem with My Garden can be ordered for $17.99 from Amazon.com.

Wind is often another problem with desert-like gardens. See: Can This Garden Be Saved: “My Garden is Windy.”

For more dry garden ideas, see:

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