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Create a gravel garden to beat the drought
7:00am Saturday 5th May 2012 in Homes & Gardens
A look at the advantages of gravel gardens and suitable plants to include in them - plus, find out what else needs doing in the garden this week.
By Hannah Stephenson.
While much of the country is now in official drought status and householders are being urged to use water wisely, there's no better time to create a low-maintenance, low-cost gravel garden which isn't going to demand masses of water or time to keep it looking good.
Gravel gardens don't have to look like desert-like areas with little interest. Indeed, many drought-tolerant plants provide plenty of colour. Deep red bergenias can be intermingled with white artemisias, dwarf mountain pines with pink-flowered Osteospermum juncundum.
Carpeting stonecrops, such as Sedum 'Ruby Glow' and 'Vera Jameson', provide colour to the gravel garden in the form of purple-tinged succulent leaves and crimson flowerheads from midsummer to autumn.
They are drought-resistant, attractive to butterflies and look their best planted en masse in gravel gardens.
Other good specimens planted in swathes include Sisyrinchium striatum 'Aunt May', an upright plant with spiky leaves and creamy flowers, while the sword-like leaves of yuccas and phormiums provide architectural interest planted as single specimens or in small groups.
Many herb garden plants, including thyme, sage, lavender and rosemary, are drought-resistant and can look amazing in a gravel garden, while bulbs including crocosmia, agapanthus and allium will add colour and form to the scene.
Think about good ground cover plants such as low-growing cistus varieties and vigorous alpines because they will cover the soil, keeping it cool and reducing water loss.
Plants with silvery foliage and some grasses are good choices because the gravel drains excessive moisture away from their stems, yet keeps the roots cool and moist. Euphorbias also provide interest in the gravel garden even in the depths of winter.
It's important to prepare a new gravel garden carefully, breaking up compacted soil and incorporating plenty of organic matter to give the plants a good start in life.
Many drought-tolerant plants prefer hot, sunny spots but they will still need some care while establishing, before they're happy to cope with constantly dry conditions.
You can place a membrane under the gravel to stop weeds coming up, but it's easier to plant without a membrane as then you don't have to cut through the fabric to put your new plants in.
Once you have dug out the area, finish it off by raking the soil to an even level and then add a 5cm (2in) layer of gravel over the surface.
Ideally, gravel gardens should be planted in autumn to allow the plants to establish their roots in winter, but you can also go for spring planting, although you will probably have to water the plants for a couple of months while they settle in.
If you are devoting your whole garden to gravel, plant intermittently, leaving large areas of gravel visible to create a more natural look, and add a few companion containers with permanent plants such as hardy evergreens, sinking the bottom of the pot into the gravel to encourage the plants to root through into the soil underneath.
Try to ensure that the type of gravel you use is in keeping with the surrounding environment. Locally quarried pea shingle may be suitable, or alternatively slate may be used. If you have a seaside garden, large rocks or driftwood might be used as focal points.
Gravel gardens really don't have to be a haven of mediocrity - and for those with little time and even less water, they will come into their own if you work with the prevailing conditions rather than trying to introduce massive soil improvements and costly irrigation systems.
Best of the bunch - Hebe (Shrubby Veronica) These reliable evergreen shrubs are among the most popular choices for gardeners as they come in a range of shapes and sizes to suit any garden.
One of my favourites of the moment is H. 'Heartbreaker', a dwarf variety ideal for containers which has cream-edged green foliage from spring to autumn, turning deep pink in winter.
Spikes of mauve flowers can be produced on older plants in summer. Other colourful types include the tall-growing H. 'Autumn Glory', which reaches around 60cm (2ft) and produces violet-blue flowers from June to November, and the excellent ground cover variety H. pinguifolia 'Pagei', which grows 30cm tall x 90cm wide (1ft x 3ft), bearing white flowers in May to August.
Hebes will thrive in any reasonable garden soil and do best in full sun. Many will flower all summer and autumn and they need little maintenance.
Good enough to eat - New veg guide There are many vegetable bibles on the market, but if you just want the basics, simply explained and in an exceptionally easy-to-follow format, go for the latest Which? guide, Growing Your Own Vegetables Made Easy, edited by Steve Mercer and Ceri Thomas.
The book features step-by-step instructions on sowing and growing a variety of veg, set out in sections including salad crops, the pea family, cabbage family and onion family, root crops and sun-loving veg including tomatoes, peppers and chillies and aubergines.
Each section also includes a sowing and growing calendar, recommendations on good varieties, problems to look out for and possible solutions.
This book may not be for the more experienced gardener, but it will certainly point the budding beginner in the right direction.
It can be ordered on 01992 822 800 (£10.99, p&p free) from www.which.co.uk/books or from bookshops.