Exploring the possibilities of dry gardens with our RHS Horticultural Hero

World class designer Tom Stuart-Smith explains about his drought-tolerant planting which was a key feature of this year’s RHS Hampton Court Garden Festival

Choosing plants that really work hard, look great and don’t need too much maintenance is an ultimate dream for gardeners. At this year’s RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival, landscape designer Tom Stuart-Smith created an immersive and beautiful planting display that shows how to do drought-tolerant planting with style.

“What I’m creating is a planting suited to the warmer parts of Britain, thinking in a few years time some parts of the UK will be more Bordeaux in terms of their climate,” Tom explains.

Echinacea pallida
Agastache 'Blackadder'
Geranium 'Brookside'
This year Tom is the show’s Horticultural Hero, an opportunity for showgoers to enjoy and experience his work first hand. Visitors to the garden, though Tom is keen describe it as “more of a planting than a garden”, walked through the 25 x 11 metre space, being welcomed by a range of plants that can cope with low water levels.

“Some of the plants will be very familiar to people – such as achilleas, agastache, echinaceas, geranium – but they will be surrounded by a framework of shrubs such as figs, Pistacia lentiscus and Phillyrea angustifolia.”

Plants we love

Tom’s aim is for the garden to be a dry garden but with energy and interest. “I’m using plants that are quite easy to grow. Almost all of the plants have been grown by the Sunnyside Rural Trust; a charity working with adults with learning difficulties, and Chris and Toby Marchant (formerly of Orchard Dene nursery) have been giving them help in setting up the nursery,” he explains. 

“I’ve got a mixture of herbaceous perennials, grasses, subshrubs and trees. I’m using Liatris pycnostachya, which is a wilder-looking, taller and more eccentric species compared to regular L. spicata. Blues, purples, yellows and oranges abound.” He added that more permanent structure is provided by Tetraclinis articulata, a small Moroccan conifer on the border of hardiness but a plant he believes will be used more often in coming years.

The dry garden theme appealed to Tom because of the changing climate we are all witnessing but also because of the work of many others.

“I take great inspiration from people who have been trialling this way of growing – of course Beth Chatto, Elliot Forsyth’s prairie garden at Cambo Estate, Fife, Cassian Schmidt’s Hermannshoff and James Hitchmough from the Universtiy of Sheffield who has been growing plants in crushed concrete,” he explains.

“If plants have a ‘dry neck’, they should grow well and not get waterlogged in winter. Many plants can be planted in six inches of sand and do well. It not only widens the range of plants you can grow, but helps grow the plants tougher.”

Tom’s garden is a demonstration of stunning planting but in impoverished conditions – much like those needed for successful wildflower meadows
Tom is honest this style of gardening may not suit everyone, and it wasn’t popular when he was growing up. “It’s taking us a long time in England to come out of the lush, green mentality of the early 20th Century where the main objective was to get your delphiniums 3 metres (10 feet) high and your leaves a foot across. And I suppose that’s the tradition I was brought up with. Times change, and now wildflowers are desirable.” 

He added: “The message has come through that for a decent wildlflower meadow you must have impoverished soil. If you want this planting diversity in a garden, you’ve got to have impoverishment otherwise the thugs will miss out. This runs against the instant gratification model, where you have your garden looking lush and full at the end of year one – you aren’t going to achieve that if you have impoverished soil. Competitive plants growing in drought conditions grow in a more balanced way.”

Takeaways for your garden

As dry gardens become a more popular choice, Tom offers his advice to those looking to achieve a similar result
The message for home gardeners is a simple one though – don’t water more than you have to. Tom advises not watering until things are looking quite stressed; this is so the plant’s roots search out the moisture, they stand up better and stay tight and smart.

Because the whole planting system is under stress, it’s going to be much lower maintenance than a normal, high nutrient border. The main maintenance is a spring weed, a mid-to-late summer cut back but it’s mainly in spring.

Even though dry gardening may remind us of those holidays abroad, of dry summers and that element of senescence, Tom believes there is much for us to consider for our own gardens. A tougher way of growing plants perhaps, but that means less maintenance and a more balanced ecosystem. It looks like dry gardens may become much more of the norm over the coming years.

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