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Hyde Hill Dry Garden
The Royal Horticultural Society is a leading gardening charity dedicated to advancing horticulture and promoting good gardening. Pictured is a dry garden at Hyde Hall that evokes a Mediterranean slope using silvery spiky leaved plants.

But more often, sun combines with little rain and you find that the soil dries out in summer. On a dry site, the trick is to select those plants that can cope with a lack of moisture and don’t need constant watering, which is both time-consuming for you and costly to the environment.

Recognizing Sun-Loving Plants

The best plants to use in a sunny garden are those that would naturally be found in exposed positions with high light levels, low rainfall, and poor, fast-draining soil. Plants that can cope in such locations have evolved by developing certain characteristics. A sunny garden planted with suitable plants will be much easier to establish and maintain than one with poorly chosen plants.

  • Silver or gray leaves reflect heat and sunlight. Many silvery plants, particularly artemisias such as the Artemisia alba ‘Canescens’ shown here, are superb foliage plants.
  • A low-growing habit helps reduce the drying and damaging effects of wind in exposed places. This rose root (Rhodiola rosea) also conserves water with its fleshy leaves, silvery green foliage, and a thick, water-storing root.
  • Small leaves, such as those of this rock rose, Helianthemum nummularium, reduce the surface area through which moisture can be lost. Some shrubs, such as Spanish broom (Genista hispanica), go so far as to barely have leaves at all.
  • Waxy leaves, like those on the pretty, white-flowered Cistus salviifolius, are coated with a thick waterproof layer to slow down moisture loss and reduce leaf scorch in very hot weather.

Drought-Tolerant Plants

In addition to sun, plants that can survive without much water require the following:

  • Good drainage: few drought-tolerant plants will put up with a waterlogged soil in winter. As a general rule, it is cold combined with wet that kills these plants, not cold alone.
  • Low nutrient levels: overfertilizing encourages fast growth of soft, sappy foliage, which wilts in hot weather. Plants grown in poor soil also flower more profusely and for longer.
  • Good air circulation: this helps reduce fungal diseases and rotting at the plant’s “neck” (the point at which the plant emerges from the soil).

Often, a garden may have the right climatic conditions for these plants but unsuitably wet, heavy soil. In this case it is essential to improve the drainage so that plants are able to survive the winter months. Incorporate plenty of sandy grit in the topsoil—down to a depth of 10 in (25 cm) or so—or make raised beds using stone, brick, or timbers. Build retaining walls at least 16 in (40 cm) high, add a 4-in (10-cm) layer of 1-inch (25-mm) gravel in the bottom, and fill to planting level with gritty topsoil. Individual plants can be planted in raised mounds up to 12 in (30 cm) high and 3 ft (1 m) across. This is especially effective for trees and shrubs. Drought-tolerant, sun-loving plants are ideal for a variety of planting styles, including sunny beds and borders, and they will often thrive in containers on a patio. While classic Mediterranean plants, including herbs like lavender and rosemary, are often used in formal knot gardens and parterres, they are probably at their best in informal, naturalistic styles. Use gravel paths to draw the eye through the garden, as they wind among mounds of bright flowers and silvery foliage that are interspersed with aromatic herbs and shrubs.

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