Great garden - Less water!
Here in Malta we all love the long hot summers and we are all aware of the shortages of drinking water. Most of our drinking water comes from reverse osmosis which, sadly for plants, remains very salty and lacks crucial trace elements which plants need to survive and flourish. We all know plants can thrive on our islands, however they need water and lots of it! So, how do we give our courtyards and gardens the much needed splash of colour in those balmy months of July and August when clouds and rainfall seem like a long and distant memory?
Should you be fortunate enough to have a well that holds rainwater, then this really is the best water you can use for your plants, I always encourage my clients to utilise such resources. If, however you are in the position of needing to use tap water to maintain your garden then thoughts should turn to plants which require minimal amounts of water whilst still remaining lush and vibrant.
Over the past 18 months attention is shining its light onto native plants, which over millennia have adapted to live in our extreme climate. Sadly, in order to survive the heat of summer, our native plants lie dormant and burst forth with fresh green growth in the autumn months after that much needed first rainfall, marking the end of summer. So here we are with the problem – water is in scarce supply and our native flora hide below soil level in the months we are enjoying the great outdoors.
We should all be responsible for our usage of water and treat it as the precious resource it is. The old adage “water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink” sure springs to mind! However, this does not mean you cannot get a great summer display without needing endless supplies of fresh water. I find the following plants thrive in such climes and will add that much needed colour:
Plants that still remain verdant in extreme climates include Aloe, Aoneum, Crasula, Agave, Euphorbia. All these plants have stunning foliage colour and flowering interest throughout the summer, and they require minimal watering. For some additional height you can always use the old favourite, the Olive. It will happily survive in a planter but shelter it from the strong winter winds. You can under plant these with rosemary, but rather than using the normal Rosmarinus officinalis why not try Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Prostratus’ which will tumble down over the edge of pots as it grows. The added plus is you can use the rosemary in your cooking, which tastes great with roast potatoes! Alternatively use Artemisia which will give you lovely silver/grey foliage.
Rudbeckia and Verbena Bonariensis (as grown on some roundabouts) have proven to give stunning summer colour growing in full sun and will happily continue into the autumn, but they are a little bit on the thirsty side. I have found both of these can be grown from seed relatively easily.
Another key element is to conserve water whilst watering, the type of pots is crucial: through experience I have learnt that plain, unglazed terracotta pots will require a substantial amount more water compared to a glazed planter as the unglazed pots are porous and water will evaporate through the sides of the pots leaving the plants dry and thirsty. So invest well in some beautifully glazed pots, the initial expense will soon be recovered.
The local soil here in Malta is another factor to bear in mind as it has very low organic matter contained within and as such will bake hard in the summer - you could almost make bricks from it! It helps to add plenty of compost from a renewable source, this will aid water retention, air capacity in the soil and keep you plants looking their best. Also due to the soil type here in Malta crucial elements are locked in the soil and the plant is unable to absorb certain nutrients, mainly iron, hence you will notice a lot of yellowing leaves, say on Hibiscus. This is known as chlorosis and to help remedy it you can feed your plants with chelated iron which can be bought in powder form and watered around the plants.
So how best to keep those pots and plants looking fab? Remember:
- Choose the right plants for the right location, you can always seek advice from the islands garden designers or quiz the staff at your nearest garden centre.
- Plants are very specific in their needs, for example Bella Donna is a shade tolerant plant but Bird of Paradise thrives in full sun.
- Group plants together by their water and light requirements for best effect.
- The bigger the pot the bigger the plant will grow - an olive tree in a small container won’t thrive!
- Don’t over water your plants. You can easily kill your plants with kindness.
- Also remember a small container will dry out faster than a larger planter.
- Irrigation systems are excellent, but very often low-tech domestic versions can't gauge how wet or dry your plants are so you will need to monitor the plants needs regularly.
- And most importantly, enjoy your wonderful garden or courtyard!
Dean Grant works in both Malta and the UK as a garden designer and landscape consultant and can be contacted through his web site www.deangrant.co.uk