As specialists in dry gardens we often get asked, “So you do cactus gardens?” While of course cacti and succulent plants do thrive in a dry environment, it’s a common misconception that this is the only solution.
Dry gardening in this area means working with the Mediterranean climate that shares with other parts of the world – like South Africa, California, Australia, parts of Southern America and of course the Mediterranean basin – hot, dry summers, wet springs and autumns and then cold, dry winters.
We advocate dry gardening in this region because it makes sense, and is a sustainable and ecological way of approaching your garden: using the right plant in the right place, adapted to the soil type, water availability and characteristic of the land.
Our dry gardening guru – Olivier Filippi (www.jardins-sec.com) – has studied the art of creating a water-free garden and in his book, The Dry Gardening Handbook: Plants and Practices for a Changing Climate, observes that we are lucky that the natural evolution of flora here in the South of France is actually far more varied and long-lasting than the more temperate areas in Northern France.
So the great news is that we can have a dry garden without being limited to cacti! If we look in the surrounding landscape, we see it remains green throughout the summer thanks to native shrubs such as Pistacia, Phillyrea, Myrtus, Rosemary and Buxus while its colour comes from Cistus, Roses, Broom, Lavender, Iris, Peony, Lavatera.
Once we get into autumn and winter, we are treated to the changing leaves of Cotinus, Rowan trees, Dogwoods, Field Maples and native grasses give everything that golden glow, providing an architectural interest.
So how do we go about creating a dry garden? You don’t need to import or upgrade your soil, which obviously reduces costs immensely. The plants need to be chosen for your specific microclimate depending on winter temperatures, maritime winds and so on. The easiest way to know what would work is to look at what’s doing well in the surrounding landscape.
From a technical point of view, it’s important to plant small specimens in the autumn giving them a chance to settle in and set down roots over the winter and spring. Then after careful surveillance for the first summer with watering as necessary, your garden will never need watering again. This reduction of water not only vastly reduces the mosquito problem but will boost native bee and butterfly populations.
The end result gives you a colourful, ecological, sustainable and low-maintenance garden that will evolve naturally into a truly beautiful garden without having to have a cactus in sight!
The most important lesson that we have learnt in this type of gardening, once the right plants have been chosen for the site, is the importance of using predominantly evergreen shrubs and sub- shrubs which gain ground quickly to cover the soil and prevent weeds developing. The first year is the hardest to keep the weeds down. There are two ways to speed up or help your chosen plants win over the weeds: one is to mulch the soil heavily – we suggest using mineral mulches such as locally sourced gravel or stones found in the garden; organic mulching is also useful but in the long-term it improves fertility which is not always beneficial to the plants chosen for your garden. Second is to overplant the garden so that the ground is quickly covered and then the most vigorous of the plants dominate and survive, while some of the other plants are removed or die out. When it comes to paying for maintenance, this second option might seem rather wasteful but it really does work out cheaper in the long run.
Life is not all rosy though; there is a cultural aesthetic to accept and understand. Although with use of plants from other countries with Mediterranean climates, such as Perovskia from Afghanistan, Agapanthus from South Africa, we can extend the flowering season. Yet still in the heat of August the flowering landscape is reduced to a series of soft summer tones as discussed in our article Brown is the New Black in the last issue.