Inspiration for Dry, Sunny Gardens in Temperate Climates

Yes, I know it's the rainy season, but I've been working on my presentation  Water-Savvy Garden Design , which sent me digging back through my photo library. While my seminar covers dry shade and seasonally wet conditions, the section for "hot, dry conditions" is always of great interest to audiences, especially those who are from more temperate regions. It's not just Texas and Southern California that needs inspiration – even here in winter-wet Seattle we can have sustained temperatures in the mid-upper 90's for several weeks in summer and go without any measurable rain for at least two months, sometimes three.

Even though I've no personal interest in creating a gravel garden myself, I have gleaned much-needed inspiration from the one created by Beth Chatto. Her motivation – and seasonal climate are similar to my own, although the temperature extremes are less in Essex than here in Duvall, WA.

'For some years I had dreamt of making my Gravel Garden, with plants adapted to the prevailing conditions, instead of watching mown grass turn biscuit-brown for weeks every summer. I hoped to see which plants would survive without hosepipe irrigation and was prepared to lose some of the many new introductions not yet sufficiently tested for summer drought or winter cold and damp. I would replace these with other, more resistant plants. I hoped to teach myself and possibly help visitors to make and maintain some kind of decorative garden without irrigation.' Beth Chatto

My soil is largely amended clay which retains moisture if mulched and is nutrient rich: quite different from the fast-draining sand and gravel of the Chatto garden, yet studying her plant combinations can still offer ideas for plants that might need minimal supplemental water. I've had the opportunity to visit twice recently (early June 2022 and in mid-July 2023) and will include images from both.  Hopefully they will get your creative juices flowing too.

Big Picture

A path meanders through mounding hummocks of perennials which are punctuated by occasional vertical elements. Gravel garden designed by Beth Chatto

This garden is largely fully visible with small trees limbed up and the majority of the plantings being knee-high or lower and just a few punctuation points. At this time of year the overall color palette is yellow, blue-purple and silver-white.

Santolina, bronze fennel and Mexican feather grass are all finely textured and of a similar height, but the design is kept interesting by the variety in foliage color and form

Many drought-tolerant plants have finely textured foliage. When creating combinations it is important to find a pleasing balance between color, shape, texture and height, so if all the textures are similar as in the image above, then it is necessary to introduce contrast from one or more of the other attributes.

A mix of soft billowing plants that spill over the gravel path such as the blue flowering catmint with piercing, vertical blades of orange wandering iris (Libertia p.) is a clever way to create intrigue and tension.

Details: Punctuation Points

Ornamental onions are a repeating theme throughout the Beth Chatto gravel garden, with Bulgarian honey garlic syn. Sicilium honey garlic (Allium siculum subsp. dioscoridis) adding a delightful vertical surprise. In the background, the yellow spires of a giant mullein (Verbascum bombyciferum) play a similar role

A garden entirely composed of low mounding plants can quickly become a boring muddle, even with a backdrop of larger shrubs and trees. By piercing the ground plane with something tall the entire scene becomes far more enchanting.

My favorite plants for this purpose are those with tall, slender stems, basal foliage and flowers (or seed heads) at the top. These create a semi-transparent scrim effect. Tall verbena (Verbena bonariensis) is a wonderful example of this and is used in this garden as well as my own. Many of the ornamental onions (Allium spp.) suit this role  – the Sicilian honey garlic shown above is one example, but this garden includes many more that were unfamiliar to me. (Start your wish list!)

Giant feather grass (Celtica gigantea, formerly known as Stipa gigantea) is outstanding for creating an explosive, scrim-like effect in the garden

Tall, wispy grasses such as the giant feather reed grass above are already on my wish list for 2024! I love the airiness of those soft plumes, the way it moves in the breeze and the sense of mystery to brings to a design (what is that behind it??).

Although not listed in their plant catalog I'm convinced these tall blue spires in the gravel gardens are Pride of Madeira (Echium candicans) – unless someone can tell me otherwise?? Regardless, I adore the sheer tropical drama they add to this dry, hillside planting.

Of course not every plant you see in this garden is suited to every hot, dry area in another country – and Pride of Madeira (Echium candicans) is one such example as it is invasive in some states, so be sure to do your research before planting. I'd also hesitate to plant bronze fennel shown earlier as it self-seeds like a thug.

New to me!

Do you get excited by new-to-you plants? I certainly do, especially anything that is deer-resistant and drought tolerant. So check this out:

Phlomis tuberosa 'Amazone' is less well known in the trade but worth hunting for.

Loved the purple stems and soft lavender flowers of this variety of Jerusalem sage, Phlomis tuberosa 'Amazone'. It is hardy in zones 6-9. Seen here adjacent to a stand of hardy geranium, Geranium macrorrhizum 'Album'.

More Plant Inspiration

There were so many ideas in Beth Chatto's gravel garden – check out the full plant catalog. Even if you're not able to order from the UK you can then search for local information and nurseries that carry them. Happy shopping! (Consider me your willing enabler).

Some of the (deer-resistant) winners in my own full sun garden that has moisture retentive soil but receives no supplemental water have been featured in previous blog posts: Best Flowering Groundcovers for Full Sun, Surprising Melt-Proof Annuals, Short Term Groundcovers for Hot, Dry, Deer-Prone Areas, Deer-Resistant Combinations  for Hot Sunny Sites, Best Drought-Tolerant Perennials & Annuals, Reduce your Water Bills with these PNW Survivors.

What's your favorite?

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