Gardening column: drought stress

20 July 2018

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COMPETITION is so embedded in our psyche that we invite it into most human pursuits, and gardening is no exception. In the midst of flower-show season, and tested by drought, gardeners up and down the country are having their plots scrutinised. I have judged gardens and had people assess the gardens I care for. It does make you question what a garden is for.

I remember as a judge being so constrained by the criteria set before me that I didn’t actually like the winning garden. Thankfully, though, merit based on order and tidiness is shifting to a more holistic appreciation of recycling, biodiversity, and mindful use of limited resources.

The Royal Horticultural Society’s competition “Britain In Bloom” is all about using gardening to transform communities by greening up unused spaces, sowing wild flowers, and supporting wildlife. Even the RHS definition of weeds, those one time marks of failure, has moved us on to “plants that out-compete other more desirable plants, or simply invade half the garden”.

So gardening responsibly is more about maintaining a balance than eliminating certain plants entirely. A looser way of gardening involves leaving a patch of nettles in a sunny spot for butterfly larvae, and the odd dandelion for bees, hoverflies, and even moths. A lawn full of clover and selfheal will be nectar heaven for bees and support biodiversity much more than a pristine bowling green.

This summer, many garden plants are showing drought stress. On my sandy plot, ornamental elders look dry and shrivelled, whereas physocarpus with similar and equally attractive foliage colourways appear untouched. All the Mediterranean stalwarts, such as rosemary, lavender, phlomis, and phyllyrea have come into their own. In a domestic garden, there is really no justification for watering a lawn. It will green up again soon enough when the rain returns, and, if you have let the clover flourish, it may never turn brown.

“Grey water” previously used for washing dishes, vegetables, and bathing can be used for container plants and those in the garden that are not yet established. Good dry gardening practice also involves covering garden soil with a layer of organic matter, such as bark, to reduce evaporation of water.

Gardening along these lines will help the environment. But what about people? There are many projects aimed at giving specific communities educational or therapeutic spaces. Horatio’s Garden is a charity that creates beautiful accessible gardens around NHS spinal-injury centres.

Compared with these, our own gardens, even when organic and wildlife-friendly, can feel a bit of a selfish indulgence, but they can give us space to recharge. Whether through some mindful hoeing of some of the weeds, or just sitting in their midst, gardens assist with self-care, and we all need that.

www.horatiosgarden.org.uk

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