Superbloom at the Tower of London, an example of drought tolerant planting

Drought Tolerant gardens for the Future


Watching how planting styles change within the garden design sector is fascinating. Most often these are designer led or horticultural led movements – from the alpine rich schemes of the seventies and eighties to the prairie style swathes of herbaceous planting that have dominated the 2000s. Often a pioneering designer will put together a scheme or a number of schemes in a particular style, and then this style through media attention then starts to filter into the wider gardening fraternity, which leads to demand from the consumer and thus more supply by the trade growers, eventually filtering down into the retail garden centre sector.

While, as mentioned, these movements are often designer led, there is another strong pusher in the direction planting schemes are going….. you’ve guessed it – climate change, and in particular dryer and hotter summers (we’ll talk about the other wetter side of the coin later on in another journal entry).

Looking at the wider landscape always offers answers

There is a real movement now towards drought tolerant planting schemes. These are not new, xeriscaping or zero water planting schemes have been around for millenia but the fact that this style of planting is moving so rapidly into the domestic gardening scene feels a real thing.

So how do we plant for the future, and create schemes that will thrive over time? Looking at the wider landscape always gives the answer. Plants that thrive in the wilds of warmer and drier parts of Europe are being looked at as potential common garden plants that will do well in the drier UK summers. New varieties of these species are being cultivated to provide added aesthetic value while still possessing the attributes that will make them thrive in our new environment.

Poppies and wildflowers

Superbloom at the Tower of London, October 2022

However the plant variety itself is only half the picture…
A plant will slowly adapt its physiology to adapt to its environment as it grows, so a plant commercially grown it a peat rich growing medium watered everyday in a humid greenhouse ready for sale in a garden centre, will be very very different to the same plant grown from seed in a dry nutrient starved soil. And that plant will not necessarily perform well, when planted out in a garden to face the elements. Botanists and horticulturalists are busy pioneering planting and growing methods that will negate this and provide schemes that require little human input in a world of hosepipe bans and scorching summers.

A plants physiology will slowly adapt to its environment as it grows

Nigel Dunnet in the UK, and Cassian Smidth and arjan boekel in Europe, are just some of the guys pushing the envelope - constantly documenting their methods and schemes. I will link to their Instagram feeds below. With their work documented through social media, and the subsequent discussion, they provide a huge inspiration and a font of knowledge in this area. I highly recommend following their work.

An overview of the planting at Superbloom

Superbloom at the Tower of London, October 2022

On a tangent.. I was lucky enough to visit ‘Superbloom’ this summer which is the brainchild of Grant Associates and Nigel Dunnet, I think I got the best month too if you look at the pictures above! This was initially supposed to just be a one year installation at the Tower of London but I believe there is discussion to make it permanent, if the decision has not already been made.

Is it always about the plant?
While the plant and its variety are paramount, as highlighted, the conditions it has established in are perhaps just as important. What a plant really needs to develop, is consistent conditions. Now this is where it gets difficult. Most people come from the perspective that a plant needs nutrient rich damp soil, and they are right mostly…. But what if that lovely soil holds water readily such a clay loam. Come our wetter winters (another climate change result) a lot of those plants that we thought were super hardy and drought tolerant and marvelled at their resilience, simply can’t deal with having their roots sat in cold wet soil. This is where soil manipulation comes in. These plants will need a free draining growing medium (which would, you’d think, be exactly what they didn’t want in a hot summer!) Lean free draining soils are now being looked at as a growing medium in order to create those consistent conditions throughout a plant’s life. The work of the guys above, among others, delve deep into this methodology. There are a number of books hitting the market on this subject. I will draw your attention to this recent publication below.

The book cover of Gardening in a Changing World: Plants, People and the Climate Crisis by Darryl Moore

Gardening in a Changing World: Plants, People and the Climate Crisis by Darryl Moore