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Tough out the drought with evergreens
7:00am Saturday 21st April 2012 in Homes & Gardens
Tips on growing drought-tolerant evergreens during the summer months - plus, find out what else needs doing in the garden this week.
By Hannah Stephenson.
We are all by now aware of the various hosepipe bans in place and the prospect of drooping bedding plants and shrivelled vegetables.
But all is not lost because canny gardeners can make use of evergreen flowering shrubs, topiary and textured plants during the summer months, which will still look good in the winter, according to landscape designer Lucy Summers, author of Evergreen Plants, the latest in the Greenfingers Guides.
"As a young gardener, I avoided evergreen plants like the plague, so distracted was I by the endless species and varieties of showy perennials," she says.
"But all gardeners' tastes mature and change, rather like throwing out the chintz and Victoriana and updating with modern fabrics and furniture.
"With experience, I learned that a garden without evergreen scaffolding is destined for ordinariness."
But how will evergreens fare in the drought?
"Once they're established - more than three years old - most of them will do reasonably well," she says.
"How often do people water their hedges? Hardly ever. They are very drought tolerant.
"If we have weeks and weeks of drought they may suffer a bit, but they are tough contenders. And all the plants from the Mediterranean are very happy. They've been brought up on meagre and they are used to meagre."
Berberis, box, choisya, helianthemum (rock rose), hebe, potentilla, viburnum, rosemary, lavender and honeysuckle are among shrubs which can do well with little water, while ornamental grasses such as Stipa gigantea and Stipa tenuissima also need little maintenance.
"Many people think evergreens are dull and green - but so many have a flower. Grasses like Stipa gigantea give you a big clump of green throughout the winter and a beautiful shimmering curtain of flowerheads in the summer. Cut it back once a year and the rest of the year it looks after itself," says Summers.
Phormiums (New Zealand flax) are drought tolerant, wind tolerant and will happily grow in coastal conditions.
Aloe striatula, the hardy aloe, is also an architectural winner which bears tall, candle-like yellow/orange flowers in midsummer if placed in a sunny, sheltered spot.
Other drought-tolerant architectural stars include Astelia 'Silver Spear', its strap-like leaves reaching around 1.2m in height, while purple sage also looks exotic, with its purple leaves and accompanying flowers.
All of these plants make fantastic statements and are suitable for most gardens, although the crowns of phormiums may need protecting in winter with a layer of straw.
However, most evergreens should be mulched before the ground dries out too much. Those who've stockpiled water in water butts will benefit from giving beds a water before mulching with organic matter, to suppress weeds and conserve moisture.
"If you water once a week, heavily and thoroughly, it's much better for plants because it encourages them to root deeper," Summers maintains.
"If their roots are deeper they can find water more easily, but not surface water."
Many low-growing, spreading evergreens thrive in poor, well-drained soil and sunny sites and once established become very drought tolerant.
But it's important to give newly planted evergreens some TLC to get them off to a good start.
Before planting, thoroughly soak the plants in their pots in a bucket of water until the bubbles stop rising to the surface.
Tease out any roots circling around the edge of the plant's rootball, which will help the roots to grow out into the soil.
Dig a hole and place the plant in before filling the hole with water until at least a watering-can-full has soaked in. Some will need additional organic matter when you infill, but not all evergreens need an extremely rich soil, so it's best to check with your garden centre beforehand.
They will need watering well once a week (twice a week in dry, hot spells) to survive, but should become low-maintenance once they are established.
"One of the biggest differences you can make is by mulching your soil - go for a really meaty organic compost that's almost fibrous to touch," says Summers.
"Most shrubs really are perfect for the lazy gardener. They are able to thrive without your interference."
:: Evergreen Plants by Lucy Summers is published in hardback by Headline, priced £12.99.
Best of the bunch - Hyacinth They are famed for their tubular bell-shaped flowers and incredible scent, planted at the front of beds and borders or in single colours in pots, preferably near your patio door, so you can appreciate the delicious fragrance when you open your doors.
The cultivars of Hyacinthus orientalis come in a mass of colours, from white and soft yellow to pink, red and purple. Bulbs should be planted in autumn, 10cm (4in) deep and 8cm (3in) apart, unless you are planting them in a pot, in which case they can be placed a little closer to each other.
They will grow in sunny or partially shaded sites in any moderately fertile, well-drained soil.
If you're growing them in pots use a loam-based potting compost and plenty of crocks or other drainage materials at the bottom of the pot and stand the pots on feet so that the moisture doesn't come up through the pot in the winter months and rot the bulbs.
Good varieties include 'City of Haarlem', which produces soft primrose-yellow flowers in late spring, and 'Delft Blue', which bears soft, violet-flushed blue flowers with a heady scent.
Good enough to eat - Carrots They are among the most popular root vegetables and are particularly favoured by children, who love their crunchy texture when eaten raw and their sweetness when cooked.
Provided you have taken all the stones out of your soil and created a fairly fine tilth before you sow, you shouldn't go far wrong, and if you plant rows among onion crops, you should deter the dreaded carrot fly, which will be put off by the scent.
Those with small, sweet roots are good for successional sowing, while maincrop varieties store better.
Sow them thinly, 1cm (1/2in) deep in rows 15cm (6in) apart every two to three weeks from spring until midsummer and keep moist.
Thin out plants when they are big enough to handle until they are about 7.5cm (3in) apart. Keep the area well weeded and mulch after thinning, then harvest as soon as the carrots are large enough.
Maincrop varieties can be harvested later and stored.
Three ways to... Enjoy success with beetroot 1. Give the seeds a good soaking in water for about an hour before sowing to improve germination.
2. Sow about a month before the last frosts and continue to sow every four weeks until summer.
3. Thin seedlings at an early stage to encourage a good crop.
What to do this week :: Prune hybrid tea and floribunda roses to prevent bushes becoming woody and bare at the base.
:: Prune dogwoods to encourage a flush of new shoots.
:: Continue to sow parsnips, beetroot, kohlrabi, peas, mangetout and spinach outside, if soil conditions are suitable.
:: Plant new asparagus crowns.
:: If you haven't yet done so, mulch beds and borders with organic matter to help keep the weeds down and conserve moisture.
:: Protect greenhouse wall-trained peaches and nectarines with horticultural fleece on cold nights.
:: Remove pond heaters once the risk of thick ice developing has gone.
:: Replace worn or damaged lawn edges with new turf, keeping it well watered.
:: Boost strawberries with a general purpose feed.
:: Continue to scarify lawns with a spring-tine rake to remove all remaining debris, including moss.
:: Ventilate cold frames by opening the lids in the morning and closing them at night.