No watering required: a drought-resistant garden for a changing climate

When garden designer Jane Gates moved out of London to the Sussex countryside in 2015, she fell in love with a traditional black barn conversion, and set about creating her perfect garden around it, inspired by celebrated plantswoman Beth Chatto’s gravel garden in Colchester, Essex. What she didn’t know was just how quickly her dry, drought-resistant garden would become relevant to today’s changing climate.

This area near the south coast has always been one of the hottest and driest parts of the UK. Over the years, Gates has experimented with plants that suit the site. But some of them have also coped well with increasingly challenging conditions – particularly the greater extremes of hotter, drier summers and mild, soggy winters.

Pots of Dahlia (‘Twynings After Eight’), Nicotiana alata, Pelargonium sidoides, P. odoratissimum and Gaura.
Pots of Dahlia (‘Twynings After Eight’), Nicotiana alata, Pelargonium sidoides, P. odoratissimum and Gaura

She has made some interesting discoveries along the way. Surprisingly, some plants, such as Alchemilla mollis and Astrantia major, known for loving moisture, have proved to be more resilient to drought than expected. Others have struggled, including daylilies. However, many plants specifically chosen for drought tolerance have relished the heat: Cynara cardunculus, the ornamental artichoke, soars overhead, and purple Verbena bonariensis self-sows with abandon.

“It’s exactly south facing, which is a dream after owning north-facing gardens in the city,” says Gates, who inherited a large, two-acre field around the barn, which she enjoys through double‑height, floor-to-ceiling windows. It was a blank canvas, save for a Magnolia soulangeana (‘Susan’), which has survived. Gates and her brother, a contract landscaper, first removed a large hedge that divided the space in two; they replanted the hedge along a boundary, and added a pond next to it. Then they added a layer of gravel before planting into it.

“I wanted the space around the front of the house to be quite flat – a big gravel garden with a terrace using engineered, smooth sandstone,” says Gates. Gravel is used as a layer for the plants to grow through, merging the paths with the planting. The feeling is of a relaxed, natural‑looking space, the light colour of the gravel contrasting beautifully with the black of the barn.

Jane Gates, in her garden.
Jane Gates’ garden is in one of the driest parts of the country

Gates recommends gravel as a topping (called a mulch) because it “locks moisture into the soil below in summer”, while keeping moisture away from plant crowns in winter, which can rot them. This helps make some plants more resilient to climate extremes.

Of course, gravel has its own sustainability footprint, because it’s a natural stone that has to be transported, and Gates has used it sparingly in key parts of the garden rather than throughout. Other borders have an annual topping of compost to lock moisture in and to add nutrients to the soil, especially around the shrubs and small trees she brought from her previous garden, including a Catalpa bignonioides and two Cercis canadensis (‘Forest Pansy’).

Ajuga reptans covers the ground beneath Gaura lindheimeri (‘Whirling Butterflies’), bronze Carex buchananii, Lavandula spp and velvety Stachys byzantina.
Ajuga reptans covers the ground beneath Gaura lindheimeri (‘Whirling Butterflies’), bronze Carex buchananii, Lavandula spp and velvety Stachys byzantina

Shrubs and small trees give the garden height and structure, as do domes of dark purple Pittosporum (‘Tom Thumb’), which Gates bought as an alternative to box topiary. The purples of Verbena bonariensis and dark-stemmed V. officinalis var. grandiflora (‘Bampton’), one of Gates’s “haze plants”, combine wonderfully with the bright white of Gaura lindheimeri (‘Whirling Butterflies’) and chunky Hylotelephium ‘Herbstfreude’ (known as Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’).

Ornamental grasses add softness and a sense of structure.
Ornamental grasses add softness and a sense of structure.

All of these flowering plants are held together by ornamental grasses of varying size, from knee‑high Nassella tenuissima to chest-high Miscanthus, Calamagrostis and Stipa gigantea. Despite the gentle softness of these grasses, Gates planted them first alongside the shrubs for structure. Many of these plants can also be seen at Sussex Prairie, an inspirational public garden nearby, with dramatic, naturalistic planting.

“I overplanted, to tell you the truth; I have been told by friends not to dig any more beds,” admits Gates, adding how she would love to add many more deep tap-rooted and drought-tolerant Eryngium planum. Our future climate will be an unpredictable one, but as Gates’s approach shows, looking to nature and observing what thrives could also help us to survive.

Get the drought-tolerant look

Eryngium planum This sea holly has a deep tap root to delve down for water, which also supports its tall, tough stems of silvery blue flowers, loved by bees and butterflies.

Gaura lindheimeri (‘Whirling Butterflies’) Airy and free flowering all summer long, this perennial originates from the southern prairies in the US; it needs well-drained soil in wet winters.

Hylotelephium spectabile (‘Herbstfreude’) Chunky, succulent leaves and stems that grow to knee height help this useful plant, formerly known as sedum, to withstand the hottest summers.

Pelargonium sidoides Near-black-purple flowers against soft, silvery leaves make this a sophisticated small plant for pots and gravel gardens. The pale leaves reflect sunlight and their soft hairs help reduce transpiration.

Veronicastrum virginicum Producing chest-high vertical spires of white to pink flowers, this member of the plantain family is ideal for providing accents throughout a planting.

The Guardian