Horticulturists turn to ‘desert gardens’ at UK flower shows amid climate crisis
Wilting flowers, dried-up soil and sweltering tents have become the norm at flower shows in England as the country faces more frequent heatwaves and droughts in summer.
Now, “desert gardens” featuring cacti and other succulents are being used at top shows as horticulturists struggle with a changing climate.
This year’s Royal Horticultural Society Hampton Court flower show will feature gardens using creative methods to mitigate against heatwaves.
The show, held in July, faced struggles last year with plants coming into bloom too early, wilting and having to be swapped out. An RHS spokesperson said: “Whilst the heat did pose challenges, the designers managed to keep on top of it. The drought-tolerant gardens are a reaction to last year’s heat. Caroline and Peter Clayton, who designed a garden called Nurturing Nature in the City, have used drought-tolerant planting as a means to create more resilient gardens and to reduce the need to water.
Last year, show designers had to install a new ventilation system to help cool the tent down, and exhibitors had to set up extra gazebos to keep plants cool before planting them in the gardens, and were watering in the early morning or late evening when it was cooler.
As climate breakdown hits the UK, plants that once thrived in a typical garden are struggling, and garden designers have for some time been experimenting with plants from hotter climes. While Mediterranean flowers and shrubs have recently been a popular choice, gardeners are this year taking inspiration from deserts.
One new garden, America’s Wild, features plants grown in the arid conditions of parts of the US. It uses dry planting to exhibit interesting drought-tolerant plants suitable for growing in the UK. These include agaves and Dasylirion serratifolium, a spiny Mexican succulent. The desert area of the garden draws on principles for dry terrain known as xeriscaping, using sandy substrate for a free-draining soil, creating conditions ideal for drought-tolerant plants. The garden also features a specimen tree and cooling walls to create shade and protect plants from being scorched.
The Claytons’ garden, Nurturing Nature in the City, features drought-tolerant plants such as echinacea, verbena and achillea and will be mulching soil with waste stone to help seal moisture in the soil below. After last year’s drought, many gardeners are expected to showcase creative ways to lock moisture into the soil and store it in the back yard, whether that is in ponds or water butts. It takes inspiration from inner-city green developments along disused urban railways such as the High Line in New York City and Parkland Walk in Highgate, London, with plenty of pollinator-friendly plants.
Another garden, The Inghams Working with Nature, demonstrates how to reduce additional watering needs by using water runoff. It is directed into a dry riverbed and then flows into plant-packed swale pits. The garden also features drought-tolerant plants at its highest points, from which water will naturally drain away.
Helena Pettit, the RHS director of gardens and shows, said: “Climatic extremes are becoming increasingly common in the UK and our green spaces will need to adapt to weather them. The gardens at RHS Hampton Court provide plenty of inspiration for visitors to try at home to help make their own gardens more resilient.”
Climate has become a leading theme at RHS shows, with a deliberately messy “rewilding” garden winning the best in show prize at Chelsea flower show last year. The designers were attempting to show how gardens could be left wild for nature, and in future even become a beaver habitat. This year at Chelsea, slugs and snails will be the stars of the show as gardeners try to demonstrate how to attract wildlife and demonstrate the benefits of species often considered pests by gardeners.
Specialists at the RHS have been receiving more calls from members for advice on climate-resilient planting. Last year, a survey of more than 8,000 RHS gardeners found that plants were scorched and destroyed in the heatwave, with the worst-affected being hydrangeas, acers and fuchsias.
Drought gardens: best plants for a climate that is heating up
The RHS experts say: “Many drought-tolerant plants have silver or grey-green leaves, their light leaf colour reflecting the harsh rays of the sun. Some have a coating of fine hairs on their leaves or stems, helping to trap moisture around the plant tissues.”
Five examples of plants that will thrive in drought conditions:
The pretty, pink palm-like shrub Cordyline australis brings some colour while being tolerant to heat.
Juniperus conifers are drought-tolerant and many varieties have an attractive gold hue.
The Judas tree, Cercis siliquastrum, has heart-shaped leaves and does not need too much water.
Jasmine plants provide pretty little flowers and a heady scent, and are also able to grow in warm climes.
The Abelia × grandiflora is recommended by the RHS as it provides dainty, well-scented flowers over a long period in summer, and tolerates heat well.