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August notes on dry summers and flower gardening without water.

I don’t need to tell you that we’ve had very little rain and our gardens are parched. But I will anyway. It’s certainly not the English summers that I like to whimsically look forward to. In my vision they are still on the right side of balmy, not too hot with a gentle breeze rustling through the trees. Green lush lawns and a tapestry of planting, dots of colour undulating across mixed borders, the air high with fragrance. A garden peaking in high summer.


Over the last few years though, I have got comfortable knowing that the lawn will not be green by now. Since I water as little as possible, a dry spring and summer has left the sandy soils here on the plots like desiccated coconut. I’m not sure whether was the right thing to do or not. And then I expect an August Storm or two, the soils too dry to take all the water in one go.


With hotter summers and heavy rainfall unpredictably predictable, I have to reflect on whether the resources required to grow annuals here is appropriate. Good reasons to grow flowers are that they attract pollinators which for vegetable growing is essential; they take carbon from the atmosphere and when grown naturally, maintain excellent soil health. But when perennials can do this with far less soil disturbance and water input; are annuals counterproductive to grow?


Certainly there are some annuals that still do fulfil this brief - great for pollinators and providing habitats; often Mediterranean or South American in origin, thriving in hot dry weather; sow these directly (no greenhouse/ water / compost) and then next year they will appear again, self sown gently about - good ones for me are Californian Poppies, calendula and poppies.


So I want to offer some suggestions as to how we can prepare for mixed summers that are both sweltering hot and stormy whilst enjoying gardening and herbaceous borders here in Cambridge without having to water or work quite so reactively. After this year’s lack of rain, I think annuals are a luxury for me!


The Cambridge Botanical Gardens have a dry garden that has the kind of planting and garden that I am talking about. Cambridge was already considered semi arid 30 years ago - it certainly will be arid in 30 more.


The garden at the botanics has planting mulched with gravel and paved paths running through it. The plants are close together to reduce evaporation, shading the soil and roots. It is very low maintenance, no water is ever used on the garden. Ever. Yet it still has a very English feel about it - flowering plants and shrubs, with contemporary landscaping materials in a formal style, surrounded by hedging. It is a very important garden and one that is helpful to inspire us in our own gardens.

Plants used include guara, phlomis, verbena, oregano, nepeta, salvia, phygelius, romneya, cerostastigma and kniphophia. This are the backbone of the long border here in our own ‘Braybrooke Garden’. Great long flowering structural and colourful planting. That really do make for some exciting flower arrangements too. They are all perennial requiring little disturbance bar lifting, splitting and replanting after a few years to reinvigorate. Grasses, alliums, crocosmia and Iris are used to great effect behaving like fire works throughout the summer. And now in August, it is the perfect time to order these bulbs and sow these perennial plants, to flower next year, and the next without having to lift and resow.

I still believe that whilst creating our own garden oasis at home is great for the environment, but I am sure you are as interested as I am in making conscious choices and purchases. The same goes for what we grow and how we grow.


Originally published in Cambridge Edition August 2022.










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