Dry gardening

I’m back on stream again, having had awful computer problems recently. This explains the lack of posts in the last week or so. These were solved only by investing in a new one. It’s a real luxury for the moment having a computer that doesn’t close down or hang spontaneously. 

Dry gardening is a topical subject, since virtually the whole of France is experiencing the worst drought for many years (although as I write this, we have had more rain today than in the past 6 weeks combined). We had a reasonably dry winter, followed by a very dry spring: see my post about the weather up to the end of April this year here. This is in stark contrast to last year, when it didn’t stop raining till mid-June.

Our own statistics show that it rains less often but more copiously when it does rain. However, those heavy downpours are not as good for the garden or for filling up the aquifers as steady, but lighter, rain.

We are fortunate in having two wells and a citerne, which we use for watering the garden, thanks to submersible pumps and an irrigation system that we put in last year. However, the wells fill up only slowly and the citerne is filled by rainwater percolating into it. No rain, no water in the citerne.

Many communes in France offer subsidies to buy reservoirs for capturing rainwater from gutters, for example. Although most of these plastic containers are pretty hideous, there are ways of disguising them. An alternative is to buy the variety that you can bury below ground, although that’s not easy in areas where the bedrock is a few centimetres beneath the surface.

Gardening in harsh conditions demands different techniques and plants that will tolerate heat and drought (and extreme cold, too: we had -12°C on several occasions in December). I wrote a post a while back about plants that will tolerate these conditions. When I wrote it, I did not have the benefit of a wonderful book that a walking friend lent me recently: The Dry Gardening Handbook: Plants and Practices for a Changing Climate by Olivier Filippi (lovely name), published by Thames and Hudson in 2008.

I have been poring over this book for several days. It’s divided into three sections:

  • Plants and Drought, which deals with plant behaviour when faced with drought conditions;
  • Drought and the Garden, which discusses how to garden in a dry climate; and
  • An A-Z of plants that are adapted to dry conditions. 

Although it is aimed mainly at people gardening in a Mediterranean climate, the book is also relevant to areas that are increasingly experiencing dry conditions. It is beautifully produced and every page contains several colour plates; particularly useful when identifying plants. The price is reasonable as well: around £20 on Amazon; normally around £30. My birthday isn’t until September, though. Its only drawback is its size. It’s much too big to carry around a garden centre, so you have to know what you want before you go.

I learned long ago by trial and error here that it’s no good putting in plants that like loamy soil and plenty of rain. The mistakes I made have nearly all died or failed to thrive. But I have learned a lot more from this book, which I wish I had known before. For example:

  • You should never water a choisya in the summer. This encourages fungal growth around the collar, which thrives in hot, damp conditions. What have I been doing in previous hot summers? Watering it abundantly.
  • Some varieties of cistus tolerate only acid soil. Unfortunately, this includes the maculata variety that I planted recently (although the label on it actually said it was a different variety. It was only when the flower buds opened that I realised it was not what I thought I had bought); and
  • The ‘Hidcote Blue’ variety of lavender is particularly partial to well-drained soil and is likely to die if it doesn’t have good drainage. No good for clay soils, then.

There’s much, much more. The author has a nursery down in the Hérault that specialises in drought-resistant plants. I am itching to get there, but it might be some time before I get the chance. For those of you in, or closer to, that area, the address is:

Pépinière Filippi, RD (Route Départementale) 613, 34140 Mèze. Tel : 0467438869 Fax : 0467438459
Website: www.jardin-sec.com

People keep saying that we are going to have a dry summer this year on a par with that of 1976. How they know that so far in advance is beyond me. However, it’s clear that the more often this happens, the more we will have to change our attitudes to water conservation and gardening. Olivier Filippi’s book makes a big contribution towards that goal.

Copyright © 2011 A writer’s lot in France, all rights reserved


  1. Like you, we’ve had some rain but we’re still way behind. We have an army of water butts that we use to collect rainwater for the garden. We’ll be implementing a greywater system of some sort (the details are in Chris’s head) for our polytunnel – when we get round to putting it up. Still catching up on fencing projects …
    The idea of dry gardening is very interesting and something I shall certainly look into further. And it’s comforting to know I’m not the only person who puts plants in the wrong place from time to time!


    • I can highly recommend the book I mentioned in the post. Not only is it full of good advice, but the A-Z plant section is really useful.
      BTW wasn’t it naked gardening day today?! Hardly the weather for it…


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