Drought gardening: How will horticulturists cope?

Watering cans

Gardeners in the UK are facing a difficult summer after the driest spring in over 100 years. But how can home horticulturists cope?

Summer is a time of excitement for gardeners conjuring up manicured lawns, immaculate roses, and a cornucopia of other flora.

But this year the usual optimism is in danger of drying up.

Across England and Wales spring rainfall was 86.9mm - the driest since 1893, according to the Met Office. It's meant problems for gardeners.

The dry spring "knocked gardeners off balance", says Peter Gibbs, presenter of BBC Radio Four's Gardeners' Question Time. This menace contrasts with the usual threat of spring frosts.

Already this has meant gardeners have had to plant seeds quicker and be more selective when deciding what to plant. They also need to consider how plants that will fare well in a hot dry summer will do when the cold eventually returns.

Best plants for dry weather

  • English Lavender
  • Rosemary
  • Trees and shrubs
  • Geraniums
  • Lilacs
  • Ornamental alliums
  • Pelargoniums
  • Petunias

"It's a confusing time for gardeners as a lot of things that can be put in are high risk and may not survive the winter," says Dr Phil Gates, a senior lecturer in botany at Durham University and gardening blogger.

This isn't the first time gardeners have been unsure of what to plant.

After the warm weather of 2007, gardeners became excited about what exotic plants they could grow. Banana and palm trees soon became in vogue.

But many did not survive the cold British winter. Gardeners are now re-assessing what to grow, suggests Leigh Hunt, principal horticultural adviser at the Royal Horticultural Society.

"When we first started talking about global warming, we were looking at the need to grow Mediterranean plants as they can cope with hot weather.

Plants to avoid

  • Bedding plants
  • Salad crops such as lettuce and rocket
  • Busy Lizzies
  • Salvias

"But now erratic weather is the trend so we need to develop an approach of coping when the weather doesn't do what we expect."

Of the recent dry weather, East Anglia was the worst affected area in the country as it has seen the driest spring for 101 years.

And in Kent, the "garden of England", gardeners are having to take extra measures to preserve that status.

Lavender Lavender can flourish in dry weather conditions

Plants such as geraniums and petunias are flourishing, as are wild flowers, whereas water-absorbing busy lizzies and salvias have all been given the cut.

Gardeners are using hanging baskets with reservoirs to stop water seeping through the bottom as well as water retention tablets.

Mel Henley, head of parks and gardens for Tunbridge Wells Borough Council, says its staff had been adapting what was planted over the last few years.

"Because flowers themselves have a high impact, we don't want to lose that so we're putting permanent plants in with the flowers.

"This won't make it lose impact but it just means that it won't need as much water because herbs and shrubs don't need as much."

Dry weather gardening tips

  • Scrape back the surface to make sure water goes to the roots
  • Re-use house water, collect rain water
  • For vegetables, step up watering two weeks before eating
  • Water late at night so it's absorbed before evaporating
  • Add a layer of mulch to keep moisture in
  • Don't cut the lawn too short in the summer
  • Put soaked newspaper under crops that need lots of water
  • Use screens or windbreaks to reduce effects of drying winds

As an increase in average temperatures has seen the growing season extended, when to plant seeds has also changed.

So if you wanted your roses to bloom perfectly in June, you really would have had to have planted them in October rather than in March, so that the roots can be established and get a good soaking over the winter months.

Not all areas of the UK are suffering from the dry weather as Scotland has had 20% more rain than usual for spring.

"Scottish people have a much more sensible attitude towards it - they are not put off by bad weather," says Lesley Watson, RHS judge and owner of New Hopetoun Gardens near Edinburgh.

"Bananas and palms were never grown here as we're very realistic about what can and can't be grown in Scotland."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    There is a wonderful chemical called Broadleaf P4(swell gel), add this to the compost when you pot your bedding plants, and it stores the water when you water them meaning that you don't have to water them as much or as often. This chemical is available from most Garden Centres, and you don't need a licence to use it. Put in your hanging baskets as well, and it does exactly the same thing. Try it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    I made a comment here last week about lack of rain. Since then we seem to have had continuous rain here in London and could do with a day of sunshine. I'm a novice gardener and I seem to have also picked up a pest during the rainy weekend. Any help on how to get rid of it without using chemicals would be helpful. Here is a link to blog detailing the problem http://bit.ly/lXXlqe thanks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    If you want to grow thirsty plants (such as grass) - move to Wales.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    If oil companies can pump aviation fuel from Southampton to Heathrow,
    how come you Brits cannot build a National Water grid?

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    "Gardeners in the UK are facing a difficult summer after the driest spring in over 100 years"

    Good old BBC- I am a "gardener" and live in the UK (west of Scotland) but it has rained for me nearly every day since April. If something happens in England, for sure it is turned into the whole of the UK.

    A completely blinkered and incorrect statement.


Comments 5 of 84



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