6 steps to a water-wise garden

Free yourself from watering, weeding and worrying about your plants through the dry summer months.

Credit: Peter Symcox

Simple steps for planting a luxuriant explosion of shrubs, perennials and self-sown annuals—impervious to summer’s endless heat

Free yourself from watering, weeding and worrying about your plants through the dry summer months.

Let me begin by saying that I am a passionate gardener. I have gardened in Montreal (fighting the squirrels as well as the bitter winds of winter), again in Vermont, where we created a winding romantic garden that meandered over several acres through fields and woods with paths leading to rushing streams, and, lastly, in Victoria. There we took advantage of three distinct zones in the one and a half acres at our disposal to develop a Mediterranean garden, a woodland garden and a “crazy” kind of English garden in which everything flourished with heedless abandon and was a veritable haven of quietude and delight.

1. With gloved hands, clear away the gravel to reveal the landscape cloth beneath.

2. & 3. Now make a criss-cross slit in the cloth – somewhat larger than the diameter of the hole in which you intend to place your new plant.

4. Dig out the hole.

5. Add a handful of bone meal to the hole and work it in well.

6. Remove the plant from the container and gently tease free the roots; sometimes cutting a small slit on each side may be necessary.

7. Place the plant in the hole.

8. Smooth back the landscape cloth and gently scrape the gravel back around the stem of the plant. Water weekly for the first three weeks or so.

After that, do nothing more except wait for the heavens to open; the soil below has been well soaked and evaporation will occur scarcely at all due to the cloth and gravel mulch.

But as the years progressed and the back grew steadily weaker and—this is the important thing—the climate grew ever more sinister, with periods of drought and floods of unprecedented vigour, I began to think seriously about the kind of gardening I had always wrought, and whether or not this was the wisest thing for the future, both for me and for gardeners in general. More and more I found myself thinking of labour-saving devices and, in particular, how I might eventually eliminate the need for the water-sprinkler, whose days, I felt, were as numbered as those of the dinosaurs.

Then, almost by chance, friends asked me for advice on how to turn a dry, cement-like patch laughingly called a “lawn” into a garden that would need little care and even less watering. At long last, this drought-tolerant garden was about to come into being.

But do not be misled into thinking that a drought-tolerant garden must necessarily be of limited botanical interest—nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, imagine, if you will, a selection of shrubs, perennials and self-sown annuals in an explosion of colour, texture and virile growth—and dependent only upon what rain there might be from the heavens and certainly not water from a hose.

This all proved true when next we designed and planted a stunning drought-tolerant garden at Glendale Gardens and Woodland (located at the Horticulture Centre of the Pacific in Victoria and open to the public; for hours and admission call 250-479-6162 or visit www.hcp.bc.ca).

Step One

The old adage remains ever true—get your soil right, and the rest is easy. This should be heeded at whatever level you wish to garden and tend your plants. Nothing, I swear, is more important. First—and this is of prime importance—the soil was rototilled thoroughly and this, too you must do, even if you had thought only to add several inches of good topsoil. Indeed, when planning to transform an existing lawn into a drought-tolerant garden, do not think that merely adding topsoil will do the trick. No self-respecting plant can be expected to thrust roots down through several inches of good soil only to be met with hard-packed lawn—or any other kind of unyielding material.

Step Two

Smooth soil

The soil was then thoroughly raked, to remove larger stones. As the area was sloping, we terraced it to create distinct levels and a path was laid out, roughly dividing the area into two equal parts. Low stone walls were erected and the perimeter of the whole garden edged with stone. Steps were placed—entrances, if you will—so the garden could be approached from all sides.

Step Three

More topsoil added and levelled off; stone border put in place

More topsoil was added and levelled off.

Step Four

Plants in containers

The whole area was thoroughly watered and then immediately covered with landscape cloth. The purpose was two-fold—to ensure the soil stayed moist and prevent the growth of weeds.

Dividing Wall

Step Five

As soon as possible after placing the landscape cloth (24 hours at most), the area was covered with 7.5 to 10 cm (3 to 4 in.) of crushed rock (1/2-inch minus is an excellent size). In this situation the soil retains moisture and is thoroughly insulated by the gravel. This creates truly excellent growing conditions whereby plants have their feet in nice, cool, damp soil, while their stems and leaves bask in the heat radiated upwards from the gravel.

Step Six

New plants were watered once a week for the first month or so; after that they were on their own. When planting your own garden, do not worry—once the ground below has been well saturated (and you’ll see to that), very little evaporation will take place, due to that landscape cloth and gravel which you’ll so painstakingly spread over all.

Finished product

The variety of plants that can flourish in such conditions is amazing, and you will be
delighted by the fact that so many of them are deer-resistant—all grey-leaved plants, for example, the tree-lupins, euphorbias, lavenders, herbs, yuccas, artemesias. The list goes on and on.

And so, I urge you to consider seriously the advantages of not being a slave to your lawn, which needs to be weeded, fertilized, watered (taking up to 70 per cent of a household’s fresh water in the summer months) and mown 11 months of the year. The benefits of a drought-tolerant garden become even more enticing by the minute. So—go ahead, think of the future (and your back) and plunge in!

Echinacea and YuccaEchinacea purpurea and
Yucca filamentosa

Plant picks for a drought-tolerant garden:

The following plants are hardy to the zone number indicated (turn to page 10 for our zone chart): • Achillea millefolium cultivars (yarrow) – zone 3
Achillea ‘Taygetea’ (yarrow) – zone 3
Alchemilla mollis (lady’s mantle) – zone 4
Allium schoenoprasum ‘Forescate’ (large chives) – zone 3
Armeria species and cultivars (thrift, sea pink) – zone 5 or 6, depending on type
Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’ (hybrid Artemisia) – zone 7
Artemisia ludoviciana ‘Valerie Finnis’ (western mugwort) – zone 4
Aurinia saxitilis ‘Citrina’ (basket-of-gold, perennial alyssum) zone 4
Brachyglottis Dunedin Group (Senecio greyii of gardens) – zone 9
Coreopsis auriculata ‘Nana’ (eared tickseed) – zone 4
Coreopsis grandiflora ‘Sunray’ (tickseed; short-lived perennial) – zone 4

Sedums, yucca, Echinacea, Crocosmia
Sedums, yucca, Echinacea purpurea
and Crocosmia x crocosmilflora

Dianthus deltoides (maiden pink) – zone 3
Echinacea purpurea ‘White Swan’ (white coneflower) – zone 3
Erysimum linifolium ’Variegatum’ (variegated wallflower) – zone 7
Euphorbia amygdaloides (wood spurge) – zone 6
Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii (large Mediterranean spurge) – zone 7
Euphorbia dulcis ‘Chameleon’ (sweet spurge) – zone 4
Euphorbia x martinii (hybrid spurge) – zone 7
Gaura lindheimeri and its cultivar ‘Siskiyou Pink’– zone 6
Geranium ‘Johnson’s Blue’ (hardy geranium) – zone 4
Geranium macrorrhizum (scented hardy geranium) – zone 4
Helianthemum cultivars (sunrose, rockrose) – zone 6
Helichrysum italicum subsp. serotinum (curry plant) – zone 7
Lavandula angustifolia (English lavender) – zone 5
Lavandula x intermedia (hybrid lavender, lavandin) – zone 5
Lavandula stoechas (Spanish or French lavender) – zone 8
Lavatera ‘Barnsley’ (shrubby mallow) – zone 7
Lupinus arboreus (tree lupine) – zone 8
Lychnis coronaria (rose campion) – zone 4
Mentha suaveolens ‘Variegata’ (pineapple mint) – zone 6
Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gracillimus’ and ‘Zebrinus’ – zone 4
Origanum vulgare ‘Aureum’ (golden oregano) – zone 5
Papaver croceum or P. nudicaule (Icelandic poppy) – zone 2
Papaver orientale (Oriental poppy) – zone 4
Pennisetum alopecuroides (Chinese fountain grass) – zone 6
Perovskia atriplicifolia (Russian sage) – zone 5
Phlomis russeliana (sticky Jerusalem sage) – zone 4
Rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary) – zone 7
Salvia argentea (silver sage) – zone 5
Salvia patens ‘Cambridge Blue’ (gentian sage) – zone 8
Santolina chamaecyparissus (lavender cotton) – zone 6
Sedum spurium ‘Tricolor’ and ‘Red Carpet’ (two-row stonecrop) – zone 4
Sedum album ‘Murale’ – zone 4
Senecio greyi syn. Brachyglottis greyi – zone 9
Sempervivum species and cultivars (hens ’n’ chicks) – zone 4 or 5 depending on type
Stachys byzantina (lamb’s ears) – zone 4

Longtime volunteer at the Glendale Gardens and Woodland at the Horticulture Centre of the Pacific, Peter Symcox has designed many gardens including his own award-winning landscape in Metchosin, featured in the video Great Gardens of the American West.