What's up with the weather?

Friday 19 May 2006

What's up with the weather?

Cleve West, designer of the Saga Insurance Garden at this year's RHS Chelsea Flower Show, provides tips on keeping your garden healthy and happy, no matter what the weather

Andrew Goodsell, chief executive of Saga Group said, "As sponsor of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, Saga is well aware of the need for careful water conservation. With our customers in mind, the Saga Insurance Garden was designed to incorporate a spirit of adventure and a keen interest in design, craftsmanship and imaginative low maintenance planting. Our garden is inherently ecologically aware in its design. I hope it will inspire and encourage all who see it to make their own gardens more sustainable and environmentally friendly".

From hosepipe bans in the south to flooding in the north, British weather is all at sixes and sevens this season. According to the Environment Agency, around two million British homes are in long term flood risk areas while at the same time the current persistent dry weather in the South East has led eight water companies to impose a hosepipe ban. If, says the Agency, we are heading for yet another hot, dry summer, we could be in for the worst drought in 100 years.

So how to steer your garden through such extremes? The answer is to follow the advice of Cleve West, designer of the Saga Insurance Garden at this year's RHS Chelsea Flower Show, who always takes local conditions into account when designing a garden. This year he is planting drought tolerant perennials in gravel beds to help drainage and reduce moisture loss. Three sculpted concrete vessels will collect water for use during the show. "If you live in the south and have free draining soil, choose drought tolerant plants and install plenty of rainwater butts. If flooding is a problem go for plants that actually enjoy moisture. If you try to fight nature, nature always wins." says Cleve.

How to cope with droughts

Dig in organic matter when preparing beds, this helps soil to retain moisture

Mulch beds and borders to prevent moisture loss. Apply a couple of inches of spent mushroom compost, wood chippings, manure or leaf mould to damp soil.

Add water retentive gel or use fine textured compost for pots and hanging baskets

Water in the evening or early morning which reduces evaporation and aim water at the roots where it's most needed. Most containers need watering once a day.

Move pots into the shade when you go on holiday.

Set up a water butt to collect rainwater

You could avoid watering lawns. They go brown, but recover when rains return. In any event as dry weather bites raise mowing height so that the grass is allowed to get a little longer and protect the soil from drying. Good autumn maintenance with spiking, scarifying and feeding will leave lawns in good shape to resist drought in future years.

It's easy to spot plants that like it dry - they often have spiny, glossy, sticky, silvery, hairy or fleshy leaves, which prevent water loss. Lavender and rosemary are good examples. But why not try something unusual as Cleve has done in the Saga Insurance Garden.

Eriocephalus africanus (South African Rosemary) - being from South Africa it flowers during our winter and produces fluffy seedheads in early summer. Smells good too. Will grow in the ground in mild sheltered districts otherwise needs winter protection.

Borago pymaea (Prostrate Borage or Corsican Borage). Flat bristly leaves tells you this is a survivor of drought. Pale blue star-shaped flowers are a subtle touch.

Bulbine frutescens (Burn Jelly Plant) As the name suggests, good for minor burns, stings and skins complaints. Aloe-like with beautiful orange/yellow flowers. Another South African native needing winter protection.

Artemesia caucasica (pedemontana) (Caucasian Artemesia) An evergreen perennial growing no higher than 30cm with clusters of small round flower heads in summer among silky, finely cut silver/green leaves. Very tactile.

Phlomis lanata. Dwarf form of Jerusalem Sage growing to only 60cm with small rust-grey woolly leaves and delicate yellow flowers.

Ozothamnus hookeri Small evergreen shrub (60cm) with subtle green-grey-silver foliage that makes it shimmer in the right light. Very aromatic.

Common as muck…but just as wonderful…

Salvia argentea (Silver Sage) Who hasn't dreamed of a pillow made from the large downy silvery-white leaves of this biennial?

Foeniculum vulgare (Fennel) a wonderful aromatic plant that self-seeds freely. Stems can be used in the kitchen and the seeds aid digestion. It's a good plant to attract insects and looks great with grasses and other perennials.

Stipa gigantea (Spanish Oat Grass) a favourite of many on free draining sites its tall seedheads magnificent catching low sunlight all through summer.

Allium sp. (Eg atropurpureum, hollandicum, Allium cristophii ). Invaluable for early colour and contrast of form their globe flowerheads looking good in almost any situation.

How to cope with floods

Avoid plants getting water-logged in winter by growing them on raised beds or planting on mounds. Fortunately plants are dormant in winter and short spells of wet soil are seldom fatal. Summer water-logging is thankfully, very unusual, as plants would be active at this season and very quickly damaged by water logging.

Aerate lawns every autumn by spiking with a fork or aerator, filling holes with lawn top dressing to improve drainage

If you have clay soil: dig in plenty of organic matter and horticultural grit to improve drainage

If you have free-draining soil: dig in organic matter to increase the water holding capacity and provide nutrients.

Build raised beds, fill with free-draining compost and grow plants in these

Use open, free draining compost for pots, perhaps adding up to 30% grit by volume, and stand pots on 'pot feet' so they don't stand in water.

Where water-logging is persistent a drainage system using land drain pipes or trenches filled with gravel may help. You will need a ditch or a soakaway to get rid of the water.

Plants for wet soil

Try planting alnus, cornus, salix, sambucus and amelanchier

Make a bog garden and plant carex, gunnera, hostas, iris, lysichiton, primulas, rheum and rodgersia.


Areas affected by the hosepipe ban: Cholderton & District Water Company, Folkestone and Dover Water Services, Mid Kent Water, Sutton and East Surrey Water, Southern Water, South East Water, Thames Water, Three Valleys Water.

Call the Environment Agency Floodline on 0845 988 1188 or check their website to find out if your home is in a flood risk area.

For further press information please contact the Saga Press Office on: 01303 771529.

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