How did the Beth Chatto Gardens survive the record-breaking 2018 summer heatwave?

PUBLISHED: 18:49 05 October 2018 | UPDATED: 18:49 05 October 2018

Beth Chatto Gardens

Beth Chatto Gardens

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With one of the warmest and driest summers on record, this year has been a difficult one for gardeners. Susie Bulman from The Beth Chatto Gardens at Elmstead Market shares some top tips for plant survival, even in these conditions

Looking out on a garden where plants are dry, dying and the grass… well the grass bears little sign of life (unless you’ve managed to keep it watered), can be a depressing sight.

The weather we’ve had so far this year has challenged our plants and our gardens considerably. Here in Essex, we had a fairly mild winter and just when spring was announcing its arrival, we experienced record snowfall. Plants which had already pushed their way through stopped growing and many will have succumbed either to the cold or may have been damaged by the weight of the snow.

Beth Chatto GardensBeth Chatto Gardens

A short spring meant little time for plants to put on their full growth. Then, just as many were beginning to flourish, they were hit with heat. And what heat it has been, with seemingly never-ending days without rain.

We recently posted an image on social media when we hit 50 days of no rainfall.

Beth Chatto GardensBeth Chatto Gardens

While it wasn’t a tribute to Beth Chatto, who sadly passed away on May 13 this year aged 94 (and who was out enjoying her garden just the day before), it did draw attention back to her great gardening experiment: the creation of a garden that is never watered, the Gravel Garden.

This reminder on social media of the fact that the Gravel Garden is never irrigated, meant we were inundated with messages about our plants. Which have survived?, Which look the best?, Can we really not water them?

Beth Chatto GardensBeth Chatto Gardens

Beth always told us to reach for the secateurs in times of drought, rather than the hosepipe.

So that is exactly what we have been doing here at the gardens which bare her name, and that’s what plants will be grateful for if you do it at home. You can cut many of them right back by half, or even right to the ground, depending on how much they are suffering.

Beth Chatto GardensBeth Chatto Gardens

This year we’ve cut back several clumps of astrantia, phlox, rudbeckia, nepeta and salvia. They may not put on a great show this year, but should at least produce fresh foliage (and hopefully some flowers) once the temperatures drop and the weather turns wetter.

We recommend reserving watering for new plants. We have a bore hole here at the Beth Chatto Gardens, and we also have spring-fed ponds.

Beth Chatto GardensBeth Chatto Gardens

We don’t water the grass (although it remains green in the Water Garden) because we know that grass is a great one for recovering once the wetter weather arrives. We don’t water the Gravel Garden, but the Reservoir Garden has been planted fairly recently and so we have been irrigating that to help plant survival.

All the plants in Beth’s garden are in the environment that suits them best, it’s what she became most well-known for — ‘right plant, right place’. So in times of drought, we prefer to work with nature rather than against it.

Beth Chatto GardensBeth Chatto Gardens

There would be little point in us watering the whole garden and creating something that could be considered artificial. The gardens should survive the elements and grow with the changing climate, so it’s important to know the type of weather you will be dealing with when you plant up your garden.

Don’t try to grow plants that need full sun, in part shade and keep shade-loving plants out of the sun. Beth wrote many books on the subject and her extensive plant nursery here sells plants according to the conditions that they prefer.

Beth Chatto GardensBeth Chatto Gardens

The plants in the Gravel Garden are suited to drought conditions: they were planted in what was once a car park, on dry, gravely soil, but this weather has put them to the test.

Dave Ward, our gardens director, who worked together with Beth for more than 25 years, says: “Many of these plants are still doing well, but several won’t make it. They would have done in their younger years, but they are older now and less able to cope with extremes.”

Beth Chatto GardensBeth Chatto Gardens

Just as we get older and our cells become less able to tackle physiological challenges, plants, it seems, are the same.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN DROUGHT TOLERANT PLANTS

To give your garden the best chance of surviving any future drought, choose drought tolerant plants. Characteristics should include:

- Very small leaves to reduce the surface from which water is lost.

- Silver or grey leaves reflect the harsh sunlight, thus reducing the heat and evaporation.

- A coating of fine hairs helping to trap any available moisture, such as early morning dew.

- Glaucous leaves often have a waxy, protective coating.

- Long tap roots go deep into the soil and can locate water deep underground.

- Succulent plants store water in their fleshy leaves.

- Some plants, such as Acaena inermis ‘Purpurea’, look dead but retreat underground during prolonged periods of drought and re-emerge once the weather turns wetter.

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