The Big Dry

I’m being perverse and posting this on a day of summer downpours in Tauranga …

Xeriscaping – or landscapes that need little water – is a trend that’s well-established across the Tasman and is something that Kiwis living in the northern half of the North Island should consider as climate patterns change.

Melbourne has recently come out of a 10-year drought but, experts say, the respite is the anomaly and residents should get used to the idea of water conservation as a way of life.

The city’s renowned Royal Botanic Gardens, rated among the top five in the world, is restoring and expanding upon a water recycling system that was established in 1876 with “Guilfoyle’s volcano”, a reservoir that gravity feeds irrigation systems that run into wetlands and lakes before water is pumped back to the reservoir.

The Victorian folly is now the centrepiece of an “arid garden” that includes cacti, succulents and bromeliads mass planted, some of them to resemble flowing lava down the lower slopes of the volcano.

A Crassula succulent flowers madly on a scree slope of Guilfoyle’s volcano in Melbourne.

For home gardeners the trick is to select plants that will withstand everything your climate can throw at them – from frosts to drought and from strong winds to a high winter rainfall – and still bring you pleasure.

Group plants together that have similar water requirements and get serious about mulching as this will help the soil retain its moisture.

There’s no point creating a cactus garden if your heart isn’t in it, but there’s no harm in doing some research to extend your plant horizons.

The well-illustrated Succulents by Wanganui plantswoman Yvonne Cave (2002, revised in 2009 published by Godwit) is a good place to start or if you’re in the Tauranga area schedule a visit to El Jakedo Cactus Nursery and Garden in the Welcome Bay Hills (phone 07-544 1178) or Paloma Gardens near Wanganui to see how plants can be used.

Eremophila glabra pictured in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne. Commonly known as tar bush, the plant is native to Australia.

Award-winning Kiwi landscape designer Xanthe White includes a chapter on dry gardens in her 2012 book The Natural Garden (published by Godwit) and she makes the good point that “a dry garden does not need to resemble a desert”. At the end of the chapter is a series of design considerations that include water storage and distribution and shade, as well as a plant list.

“Closed rooms can become sensual sanctuaries from a harsh environment,” she writes. “Colour, fragrance and water are all carefully embraced as essential elements. Efficiency is paramount, though. Where water is scarce, not a drop should be wasted, nor used but once.”

Hear Xanthe talking about the book (9 minutes, 44 seconds).

Renowned English gardener Beth Chatto has created a gravel garden in harmony with the environment – Beth Chatto’s Gravel Garden was published in 2000 or visit her website for a plant list. Here is a little more about the gravel garden from a knowledgeable visitor.

The flowers of a Libertia – the plants are more commonly grown for their strappy, golden foliage.

Plenty of New Zealand natives are drought-tolerant – among them cordylines, flax, astelias, corokias, lancewoods, pohutukawa and the native iris (Libertia) – and there is a wide choice of tough Australian and South African natives, including Eremophilia glabra (red flowers or the yellow-flowered Kalbarri Carpet), kangaroo paws (use full-sized Anigozanthos for a longer-lasting plant) ti-trees, Oldenbergia grandis with its outstanding foliage and clivia, which are also shade tolerant. The plants of the coastline of Chile, Peru and Brazil might be worth investigating too.

The palette is widened by plants from similar Northern Hemisphere climates such as the shores of the Mediterranean, Canary Islands, California (southern California has a dry climate, while northern California is a bit wetter) and Mexico.

The new growth of Banksia speciosa is striking.

  • Further reading: Colorado State University’s useful website on xeriscaping.

Some of this article was first published in the Bay of Plenty Times and appears here with permission.

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