Michael Littlewood is a landscape designer and the author of many gardening publications. A Guide to Waterwise Gardening introduces the different aspects of water use and water conservation in the garden and is the latest title in his series of beginners’ guides to aspects of eco-friendly gardening. In this exclusive extract, he explains how to apply waterwise garden design to your choice of plants.
A basic premise of ecologically aware gardening is to choose plants suited to the conditions you can provide, rather than attempting to alter the conditions to suit your plants. If, for instance, you have alkaline soil, it makes no sense to grow heathers, which require acidic conditions. This applies equally to water requirements; you should, as far as possible, choose plants with water needs matching those your garden can provide – without any input from you.
As a general rule, annual plants need more water than perennials, which tend to put down deeper roots, so if your garden is designed around displays of annual bedding plants, think about replanting some areas with drought-resistant perennials or shrubs. Reduce your use of bedding plants with high water requirements, such as fuchsias and begonias, and opt for varieties needing less, like pelargoniums and Livingstone daisies. Plants with large or soft leaves tend to need a lot of water, while those with silver or grey, thick, small or aromatic leaves usually need less. The range of plants available to us is vast, so you can factor water requirements into your choice of plants and have just as beautiful a garden.
Credit: Michael Littlewood
Few gardens have exactly the same conditions throughout, so think about where to put plants so that their needs are best met. If you have a lower area of ground where the soil tends to be wetter, that could be a better place for annual bedding plants, while higher, drier areas would be better for deep-rooting perennials and shrubs. It also makes sense to group plants with similar water needs. That way, drought-resistant species can be left to fend for themselves, and you can deliver additional water efficiently to those plants that need it, without wasting water on surrounding plants that could have managed without.
Gardening more water-wisely does not always mean changing the plants we grow; sometimes changing where and how we grow them can be enough. However, in areas where drought issues are serious and look set to get worse, it makes sense to think about switching to growing plants which are adapted to cope with very little water. Plants that have adapted to dry conditions are called xerophytes, and drought-resistant gardening is sometimes called xeriscaping. This takes inspiration from drier areas of the world, and embraces styles such as prairie planting, Mediterranean-style gardens, gravel gardens, and designs incorporating a high proportion of non-plant elements like hard landscaping and garden ornaments.
The most water-efficient areas in a garden are those which are left to nature. Local wild plants have adapted to local rainfall levels, and establishing areas where naturally-occurring wild plants are allowed to grow has huge benefits for wildlife, for
the environment, and for the gardener. Leaving some areas to ‘go native’ will let you concentrate your watering efforts on a smaller area of garden.
Plants with low water requirements:
* Plants with silver or grey leaves (these colours reflect heat), many of which also produce volatile aromatic oils which form a protective haze around the plant. Examples are lavender, rosemary, sage, thyme, Santolina (cotton lavender), Cistus (rock rose), Phlomis, Artemesia, and most types of Achillea.
* Plants which store water, either in their leaves and stems or in underground tubers, bulbs or rhizomes. Succulents and cacti, for instance, have thick, waxy leaves in which to store water.
* Plants with long tap roots, which can source water from the lower subsoil, like verbascums, many poppies, many umbellifers, Acanthus, lupins and hollyhocks.
* Plants with hairy leaves, which trap moisture, and ones with small, narrow, divided or curly leaves, which have evolved to reduce transpiration.
* Plants from hot places around the world; these cope well with dry British summers once they are established.
* Plants native to your local area; these will do best of all, as they are ideally suited to your local conditions.
Special offer: A Guide to Waterwise Gardening
A Guide to Waterwise Gardening by Michael Littlewood offers a clear and compelling introduction to the many different aspects of water use and water conservation in the garden. Waterwise garden design, water-efficient gardening techniques, rainwater harvesting and household water recycling will add up to give you a garden that is independent of mains water – and which is also more attractive and productive. This book will show you how.
£11.95 plus £2.55 P&P
To order, visit www.ecodesignscape.co.uk or call 01460 75515.
Also available: A Guide to Companion Planting, A Guide to Gardening by the Moon, Companion Planting Chart, Vegetable Growing Guide, Vegetable Planning Chart, Gardener’s Monthly Reminder Calendar, Gardening By The Moon Calendar, Seasonal Availability Calendar.