The Back Yard

Justin Newcombe's tips for creating a gorgeous and productive garden

Gardening: Heat and dust

By Justin Newcombe

Justin Newcombe's list of drought survivors will keep your garden blooming through an arid summer.

The Poor Knights lily. Photo / Supplied
The Poor Knights lily. Photo / Supplied

Summer's only just begun, but already I'm thinking about long dry days in the garden, even, God forbid, drought. There are a surprising number of drought-tolerant plants available but there's a huge difference between plants that only just manage to survive in dry conditions and plants that really look the business, and dazzle and shine. When you're looking for peak performance the list starts to shrink drastically as we shed the ninny-hammers and nearly-ran's that survive but perform poorly in a dry garden.

There's a tendency in thinking about a dry garden to focus only on hot, exposed sunny areas, when in fact filling dry shady garden spaces can be a real conundrum. A plant we will all have heard of is that darling of the 1990s, the yucca. What a ray of sunshine this indestructible triffid has been to gardeners who believe in gardening-free gardens. That coupled with an infatuation for river pebbles gave us the gardening look of an entire generation. A garden so robust you could back a boat over it and still make a 150 per cent capital gain on your house the next morning.

Another life member of this rarefied stable is the agave attenuata which will do well in many different conditions but does best in the dry heat.

This robust squat succulent can grow a very handsome crown indeed. Its impressive proportions give a striking form and importantly, a reliable aqua-green colour. Despite my mocking of these two dry garden mainstays, I've planted plenty in the past and have found there are oodles of colourful associates to give them interest and variation. Hibiscus can perform well, but if the conditions aren't quite right, will lose condition. They are hardy and easily revived, but can look pretty sad when they're stressed. A more reliable option would be leucadendron or protea which grow to similar dimensions and handle the dry with aplomb.

Many natives will perform in the dry including pseudopanax (the native lancewood) in its many forms and colours. Groundcovers such as the rata vine with its deep red pohutukawa-type flowers and muehlenbeckia axillaris look after themselves. Libertia offer a range of strong colour in the miniature flax-like foliage and a dandy, tiny iris-type flower. The Poor Knights lily has an erect sword-like foliage and a long, deep red bottle brush-type proboscis which comes out in the spring. The Marlborough rock daisy is a small shrub with silver glaciated, elliptical foliage and a bold flower. It does best in hot dry conditions.

Larger exotic versions include beschorneria yuccoides and the massive doryanthes excelsa. For colour, gazanias offer a robust bright option, while in the dreaded dry shade you can't go past clivia with its thick green strap-like foliage and cluster of orange, cream or red bells to look forward to in spring.

California poppies are now available in numerous bright colours. These are particularly useful for softening the hard edges of succulents with their interesting, powerful forms. My last dry garden star is a grass. It's the Australian native Lomandra. Lomandra is a stayer and will hold its lush green colour and strong linear form in even the most dehydrated environmen; however unlike most of its competitors, Lomandra will handle quite a heavy track as well.

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- NZ Herald

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