Planting with creative foresight: A summer challenge

23 June 2017

In Italian gardens shade is king. Avenues of Holm Oaks, rows of Cyprus and Poplar, dappling climbers cooling terraces below.  By the summer solstice open ground is scorched, with green growth confined to shady pockets and irrigated borders.  This heat glows around the Mediterranean all summer long, baking out the day and hovering through the night.  In June it jumped to England, forcing gardening minds across the country to ponder the problems of gardening for drought, for heat, for the Mediterranean.

Since average English summers eschew the need for shade - who needs it when you have sporadic moments of weak sunlight at best – we need to look outside our ostentatiously green landscape for help.  But how to build gardens that can tolerate the hottest of summer days and increasingly unpredictable rainfall without resorting to Mediterranean pastiche is a harder question all together.  The answer lies beyond rows of potted olive trees.

Choosing the right plants is the most important element of planting a ‘hot garden’: species that bear the summer heat, but can survive the frosts of a British winter.  Natives of Southern Europe and the African plains can provide some inspiration.  Santolina varieties are a favourite, with their soft silver bracts and lollipop flower heads, Santolina pinnata ‘Edward Bowles’ is an especially pretty version.  Lavandula, Perovskia and Artemisia of course, all helping form a backdrop of soft metallic sturdiness.  In general it’s the plants with harder, more silvery foliage and smaller, less ‘leafy’ leaves that will thrive in hot, dry conditions.  Thousands of years of evolution have bred the wilting genes out.

Other safe options include dwarf forms of Achillea, Calamintha and various Sedum and Salvia species.  Dianthus amurensis can provide bright zings of colour in dry garden borders, and the clashing Californian poppy, Eschscholzia californica, that seems to be riding a wave of orange-lust at the moment.  Certain umbels can stand the heat too, Bupleurum falcatum and Foeniculum vulgare leading the charge and lending a frondy softness to the tough-skinned leaves of other drought-tolerant plants.  Blending these species together in a beautifully coherent way is done nowhere better than at Beth Chatto’s ‘dry garden’ in Essex, designed to survive without irrigation and bearing the mark of huge creative foresight.

It’s also a case of creating micro-climates within these hotter conditions, as formal Italian gardens have done for centuries, planting clusters of trees to create shady borders where moisture can linger a little longer.  Avenues of dappled shade can strike the perfect balance, enabling us to use plants that need light but appreciate a little protection from the sun at its hottest.  These shady spots also help those of us caught in the garden in the baking heat, we hop from one patch of shade to another, hands in fountains as we peer out to admire the plants toughing it out in the midday sun.  Whilst these ever-hotter summers may throw us initially, with careful planning and a careful nod to the drought-ready Mediterranean gardens of old they may even be seen as a chance to try something new.

- Elizabeth Tyler