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4 things you should know about maintaining a beautiful dry garden

When thinking of climate change, consider cultivating a dry garden at home as we learn to put the environment first

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By House & Garden South Africa | February 29, 2024 | Gardens

In less than a generation, our gardens may have very few remaining lawns by the mere fact that to keep a lawn in pristine condition requires an over-reliance on both water and chemicals. The former is increasingly short supply and the latter we should no longer be prepared to do at the cost of our environment’s health.

What to do in summer

In summer rainfall areas, it is possible to create an ecological meadow, dubbed a ‘freedom lawn’ instead. This is essentially a grassy surface that still caters for family life, a mix of grasses and flowering plants which is mown as infrequently as possible and to which chemicals are never applied. In Africa, we have the benefit of being able to mix tufted local grass species with traditional runner types, low-growing dandelions, bulbs and daisies all of which take care of themselves. A wilder, more relaxed look requires a bit of a perception shift, this is no cricket pitch, but once you have made the leap you will never look back.

How to handle winter

In winter rainfall areas, lawn become impossible without irrigation during the dry summers. Replace them with tightly knitted local groundcovers such as Osteospermums, clumping succulents and low-growing helichrysums interspersed with fragranced Mediterranean herbs like creeping thyme and marjoram which can be walked on sporadically. Alternatively, use indigenous clumping grasses interspersed with pathways and earth or gravel clearings for play and circulation.

This beautiful agave plant is great to include in your dry garden, Image: Pexels

Creating a gravel garden

Gravel gardens can be very lovely, especially if finer gravels are used and the plantings are imaginative. Gravel acts as a mulch and conserves water by preventing the soil beneath from drying out as fast. Many plants adore these conditions- try lavenders, rosemary, Pelargoniums, Salvia clevelandii, Verbenas and Malephoras to name just a few. The list of plants, both local and Mediterranean that thrive in dry conditions are enormous. As the plants fill out over time the ratio between gravel and plant cover will tip decidedly towards plant cover and the overall effect will be soft and gentle.

Areas that are extremely dry

In really dry areas, a xeriscape approach can be taken. The work of Steve Martino in Arizona and the American south west is beautiful and more and more of an inspiration as water use and scarcity escalates. Desert plants are often structurally beautiful and have great drama. They are difficult to put together though, and require some skill in curating groupings of smaller plants juxtaposed with larger architectural varieties such as aloes, euphorbias and trees. Walls, stone and gravels all make great bedfellows with this look.

Text originally written by Franchesca Watson for the H&G November 2022 issue.