The summer of 2022 was one of the hottest on record and the driest since 1976. Throughout the sweltering heat of July, the hot topic of gardening conversation was, once again, watering and hose-pipe bans.

Climate change means more droughts are forecast, as well as more heavy rain and storms. So, what can you do to manage the need for watering your garden in future?

A drought-tolerant garden

One way to manage the need for a lot of watering is to plant species that are drought tolerant and don’t need regular maintenance. In the UK, we often see clients who want a big lawn, but this summer, the heat reduced many lawns to yellow patches of straw-like grass. Lawns are pretty resilient, and most will have recovered now. But, there is another way.

You could consider removing your lawn entirely in favour of plants that are happy in dry conditions. This might seem shocking, as a lawn is a staple ingredient of a British garden. But removing the turf means no more mowing, which is very time-consuming. A planted garden adds much more interest and improves your garden’s biodiversity, encouraging many beneficial insects and birds.

Look at the pictures below and see how this couple transformed their boring lawn (pic 1) into a species-rich, easy-maintenance, very drought-tolerant and exciting space – at relatively little cost and pretty quickly; they started in May 2020.

Before pic

The key here is to use ornamental grasses and perennial planting, plus a few evergreen and structural elements – specifically plants that prefer a drier position.

As you can see, the scheme is all planting, and I understand you might be scared of that. But more plants are easier to look after, as weeds don’t get a look in. The ground is well covered, so weed seeds struggle to take hold; if they do, they are well hidden. No more trying to dig out Dandelions from the turf!

The owners transformed this garden spectacularly using just a spade and some hard graft. Picture 2 shows the rough outlines of gravel paths set out; the existing paving had to stay for budgetary reasons.

And the following pictures (July and October) show how the plants have matured over the next two years. Even in winter, the garden has structure and interest! The whole garden is chopped down once in April, and it all returns for the summer. To prolong flowering, you could do some deadheading to get a new flush of flowers to continue the display.

The point here is that with some work and minimal expense on plants and gravel, you can drastically transform space into a haven for wildlife and free up time for yourself as you do not need to be tending it all the time.

Setting out
Drought-tolerant garden in July
Drought-tolerant garden in October

This couple said they only watered three or four times during the summer and only when they felt the soil at a lower depth was dry.

See below for how to test whether to water or not.

I like this couple’s hands-on approach; it just shows how much change can be made to make things easier on maintenance levels and to future-proof the garden for the climate changes ahead.

Drought-tolerant garden in winter

Drought Tolerant Plants

Most ornamental grasses are drought tolerant. Some standout species are Stipa tenuissma, Calamagrostis Karl Foerster, Deschampsia cespitosa, Panicum virgatum (lots of lovely cultivars available), Anemanthele lessoniana (which prefers dry shade) and Miscanthus varieties.

These plants will give a backdrop of grassy structure into which you can add colour with flowering perennials such as Verbena bonariensis, Rudbeckia fulgida, Echinacea purpurea, Persicaria amplexicaulis, Geranium Psilostemon and Eryngium bourgatii.

The grasses and plants mentioned above can all cope with sun and drier soil. There is also a list of others that will take some shade and moister (but not waterlogged) soil.

Watering Tips

Gardeners are most affected by water woes. Experienced and novice gardeners will probably have lost plants in the recent summer heat – or perhaps lost them due to overwatering.

Many established plants and trees will drop leaves to preserve themselves during dry conditions and soon leaf up again when rains return.

Plants need oxygen in the soil, so overwatering is just as harmful as underwatering. It’s a delicate balance, and if you are not used to looking for the signs of either, then read on.

To test whether to water or not, you should dig a small test hole and see if the soil is damp and cool under the hot, dry crust of the earth. Water deeply once a week if needed – water the soil only around plants you are worried about, with a good soak that will go down into the root zone (a couple of watering cans or buckets is enough to soak into the soil deeply).

Established planting should be able to cope with drought, and newly planted shrubs and trees are most at risk of drying out. Watering too much is not only costly in the water itself (unless you have a system of water butts that are always full) but also can drown your plants.

The soil should have air spaces between the soil particles as roots need air too. Again, the thing to do is to test the earth – if it’s cool and damp under the top surface a couple of centimetres down, don’t water!

Don’t use sprinklers as these are wasteful, and much of the water won’t land where it is needed. Although it’s a fallacy that watering leaves in sunny weather will burn them, watering leaves does no good either, so make sure to water the soil.

For further information about watering, see Watering Plants in Hot Weather.