Dry Gardens For Dry Places

In many parts of the world, water is a scarce resource. This means that gardeners need to learn to create gardens that require very little water….or have no garden.

Dry gardens have a character all of their own and that character does not necessarily need to be scarce on foliage, colour and lush growth.

Desert Landscape
Some of the most spectacular natural landscapes in the world are found in deserts. A desert landscape garden uses the arrangement and choice of materials to replicate the appearance of desert conditions. The design should be informal to create a natural look.

Use raised garden beds to promote good drainage and ensure that plants that are used to dry conditions do not become waterlogged. Cover pathways and garden beds with sand or gravel mulch. Features to include are a dry creek bed, or perhaps even a small pool or oasis. Stunted/smaller/gnarled trees will also create the appearance of an arid landscape. If paving is to be included, it should blend in to the garden and complement the colours of a desert landscape.

Contrary to popular belief, many areas we think of as plantless deserts are in fact filled with different types of vegetation. Although these plants have been toughened by the dry conditions, they can still be used to create a very ornamental garden.
They include:
  • Tussock grass clumps
  • Cacti
  • Desert succulents
  • Annual daisies
  • Natives of inland Australia (eg. Mallee Eucalypts, certain Acacias, Banksias)

Xeriscape was a term coined to describe landscaped gardens that have low water requirements. It is a concept that has become popular in the drier parts of Australia and North America, where water is in short supply.

It uses many of the features of the desert landscape such as mounds and raised beds, but allows for a wider range of design styles. In fact, about the only thing you won’t find in a xeriscape garden is an irrigation system. Garden beds are often mulched with organic material such as wood chips. The plants can be arranged close together and plants such as oleander, with its glossy green foliage, are often included. Paving, furniture and even a small gazebo, can be added to the design.

Australian Bush Garden
Not all Australian plants are appropriate for a dry garden – but many are. Look for plants that come from the drier parts of the continent, rather than the wetter coastal areas. Many of these, such as Darwinia and Eremophila, have spectacular flowers. Many well known native genera include both plants that do well in dry gardens, and others that prefer more moisture (eg. Melaleuca, Acacia, Banksia). In these instances, you need good advice from an expert to ensure you are planting the appropriate variety.

When setting out your garden, provide plenty of light to your plants. Avoid plants with dense vegetation and don’t place them too close together. This also allows you the space to create features with rocks, ground formations and old logs.

If you are including trees in your garden (every bush garden should have at least one gum tree), make sure they won’t shade out other plants that require sunny conditions.

Cacti and/or Succulent Collections
Just because you have a dry garden, doesn’t mean you can’t have plenty of colour. Succulent ground covers such as pig face and sedum can blanket the ground with a carpet of foliage or flower colour.

Many of the different types of cactus will give your garden that dryland look, while providing magnificent brightly-coloured flowers. Even if you only have succulents in one garden bed, there is still the opportunity to include a fabulous array of plant shapes, sizes and textures. Because of their architectural shapes, these plants suit both a semi formal or informal garden design style.

If you live in wetter climates, you can still enjoy cacti and succulents. Grow them in raised beds or under cover – under the eaves of the house or beneath the roof of a hot house.

Minimalist Landscapes
Another style of dry garden is the minimalist landscape. These can be formal or informal in design, with an emphasis on hard landscaping features like paving and outdoor structures. When plants are incorporated, they are few in number, but stunning in appearance. For example, large palms, Yucca, Cactus, Cordyline or Agave in a pot.

Where are Dry Gardens Found?
  • In dry climates (low rainfall)
  • In very sandy soils – that don’t hold water well
  • Under the eaves of a house or against a wall (in a rain shadow)
  • In pots that dry out easily (especially terracotta).
  • Under the canopy of a large tree. The canopy stops rain, roots compete for water etc.
  • On a steep slope, where water is lost quickly.
  • In hot paved areas.
  • Coastal sites.
Tips for Water Conservation If you’ve got a problem with a dry garden or a dry spot in the garden, there are solutions. These include:
  • Improve the soil’s water holding capacity (add organic matter, water crystals, water deeper).
  • Decrease water loss (with mulch and shade).
  • Grow more dry tolerant plants.


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