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Dry gardens - 7 rules to success

Updated: Oct 13, 2023

Either because the temperatures are rising or because of its Mediterranean aesthetics, dry gardens are both a trend and a natural shift for future gardens. A gardening way that is here to stay, dry gardens have a huge diversity of plants.

Photo: Clara and O. Filippi nursery garden, from Claire Takacs

Your motivations to create a dry garden might be very different: interest in the landscaping and aesthetics of Mediterranean plants, an ecological choice of not spending a valuable resource - water, or simply to have a lower water bill to pay.

Part of our country, Portugal, has a Mediterranean climate and the temperatures are rising all around the globe.

Aware of the ecological benefits, and paying attention to the integration of a garden with the place and surrounding landscape, in Locistudio we are inspired by these dry and gravel gardens and love to explore Mediterranean plants in our recent projects.

It is great to have some clients in Mediterranean climate zones, who are also curious and eager to explore these kinds of gardens: adapted to the climate and with very little maintenance after just a few years.

As you might be curious and want to know a little more about dry gardens, we got inspired by our experience and a great book Olivier Filippi to write down some curiosities and some of the most important elements to think about when planning a dry garden.

Most of us are influenced by the gardens of temperate climates and drought is frequently seen as an obstacle for the garden so, it might be interesting to acknowledge that the flora is way richer in the Mediterranean climate zones than in the temperate zones.

The world has five main areas of Mediterranean climate: Chile, California, Southwest Australia, South Africa and the Mediterranean basin.

To survive in a difficult environment plants in dry climates had to specialize during their evolution and that's why they are extremely diverse, adapting to multiple conditions of soil, exposure, latitude or altitude. That makes these plants an endless resource for gardens.

Mediterranean climate around the globe

Dark green: Plants from Mediterranean climates

Light green: Plants from adjacent areas including mountains, arid steppes and deserts

We listed a few aspects to consider if you want to have a garden without irrigation:

1. Plant small and diverse

The more difficult climate conditions, the more you should plant small plants, and preferably, which were developed in tough conditions.

A plant that is bought big was normally developed in the nursery in conditions which are too favourable and will get used to good fertilization, and water without limits... it looks of great health but lost the capacity to adapt to difficult conditions. The plant forgot what drought was. Plus, the more diversity the less risk of diseases.

2. Right plant to the right place

A dry garden has a experimentational character. As in every garden it is important to consider the sun, soil, and humidity of each zones of the garden, and to group plants with similar irrigation needs. This creates different environments in a garden. For example, Lavender, Rosemary, Cistus and Santolinas hate water during the summer months.

For the gardener, professional or amateur, the pleasure is not in the end result but in the process and discovery of plants and their evolution in the garden.

3. Soil

Mediterranean plants are used to soil conditions that appear hard but are convenient for them: no deep and humid soil but gravelous, poor and well drained. For that reason in such a garden drainage is essential and there are some strategies, like working with levels and gravel paths.

4. When to plant

For a Mediterranean garden, the best season to plant is Autumn. Considering the natural development cycle of the plant, it will have time to grow in more favourable conditions. The plants which adapt to drought grow during Autumn, Winter and Spring and will go dormant during summer, when the heat arrives.

5. When and how to water

To get a young plant used to drought, the best is to water as little as possible but abundantly. This way there will be a great accumulation of water in depth and roots will develop in depth. With bigger watering intervals and abundant water, roots will grow to the deepest soil levels where humidity stays longer without evaporating.

6. Weeding and mulch

A weed is just a plant which grows at the wrong time in the wrong place. To obtain the desired effect weeds have to be removed. They grow more intensely in the first year, when the soil is prepared and they get more light. They might enter into competition for water and sunlight. As new plants grow weeds loose terrain.

The process of removing weeds might be a therapy for some and a nightmare for others. We can always have the help of a mulch, a top layer of material which can be straw or gravel for example. For Mediterranean plants, gravel is a better option as it doesn't bring more organic mater and they prefer poor soils

Besides helping to stop the growth of weeds, gravel allows to drain surface water, which is perfect for santolinas, lavenders, helichrysum, and looks beautiful.

7. Pruning

Some Mediterranean plants love to be pruned every year, this applies for lavenders, santolinas, rosemary and cistus, they must be kept as a compact volume with one cut in autumn, otherwise they old prematurely.

These were seven rules to create your dream dry garden, to enjoy the perks of the mediterranean climate, and with barely any maintenance after a few years. A beautiful and diverse dry garden.


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