Drought tolerant plants
James Basson has been inspired by dry gardening guru Olivier Filippi to create a planting system that is suited to the hot climate of the French Riviera, and which needs no irrigation. Here's drought tolerant plants from both James' and Olivier's gardens
At a small private garden in the foothills of the Alpes-Maritime overlooking the coast at Villefranche-sur-Mer near Nice, designer James Basson has been honing, since 2009, a planting system that is suited to the climate, and which needs no irrigation. He is realistic about its limitations: “In the end you just can’t have flowers if you’re not going to water.” Instead, he has formulated a look inspired by the botanical drought tolerant discoveries of his mentor, Olivier Filippi, the French nurseryman based near Montpellier. “Olivier taught me how to plant a landscape,” James says. “My technical approach is based on the model of his nursery. It means that gardens in this climate can exist for more than just three months of the year.” This is a philosophy of gardening that embraces the idea that the garden will ‘dry out’ in summer.
In their remarkable, experimental, Mediterranean garden Olivier and Clara Filippi have developed a drought-resilient planting style that is increasingly relevant to many gardeners. It is the plants that have led the design of their garden, in an approach akin to the concept of Gilles Clément’s Le Jardin en Mouvement. Below are drought tolerant plants from both James Basson and Olivier and Clara Filippi's gardens.
Key drought tolerant plants
Phlomis purpurea ‘Torcal de Antequera’
A phlomis that James finds really reliable with pale-pink flowers as opposed to the typically darker pink flowers of this species. The drought tolerant phlomis is happy in full or partial sun and chalk, sand or loam. 1.2m.
Helichrysum italicum subsp. microphyllum ‘Lefka Ori’
This small-leaved curry plant creates a reliable cascading groundcover. In James' drought tolerant garden it is doing well in the bright shade of an olive tree. 15cm.
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An upright spurge with bright-yellow flowers in early summer, although it is a very successful self-seeder with the danger of escape to the wild. It needs full sun, as with many drought tolerant plants. 60cm. AGM. RHS H6, USDA 7a-10b.
This reliable, evergreen shrub with pale-blue flowers is long-lived, long-flowering and adds a silver tone to the garden – and is one that James finds hard not to use. However, this drought tolerant plant can quickly develop a shaggy look, so demands regular attention. 1m. RHS H3, USDA 9a-10b.
“Our absolute favourite of 2019,” says James. A low-growing, drought tolerant shrub with long-lasting dried flowerheads and a gentle approach to its neighbours. 10cm. AGM. RHS H3, USDA 4a-8b.
A slow but remarkable groundcover cushion. “I love a flower that floats,” says James. This perennial cornflower is happy in full sun or partial shade and drought tolerant. 25cm.
Here a short-lived annual, but not a bully, so a welcome invader of empty space. 50cm.
A drought tolerant phlomis with leaves that are darker than most. Its large flowers almost form yellow pompoms. 90cm. RHS H6, USDA 5a-9b.
Although this evergreen, drought tolerant shrub has become a familiar plant, it is in James’s opinion too often overlooked for its mature cloud-form shape and exquisite peppery jasmine scent. 4.5m. AGM. RHS H3, USDA 9a-10b.
A shrubby evergreen perennial from southern Africa that adds a splash of highly original colour to the garden, and seems quite at home in the Provençal, drought-prone landscape. 1.5m.
An evergreen, drought tolerant shrub that James describes as “an absolute winner”. It is good in both sun and shade, a happy companion among others. It bears brilliant fresh-green leaves at just the right height. The flowers are a moon-pale yellow. 30cm. USDA 7a-9b.
This pale-flowered Cape mallow is tall, light, pink, airy and short-lived. Drought tolerant and happy in full sun to partial shade. 2m.
Drought tolerant plants from jardin sec
An evergreen spurge with silver-blue leaves, arranged in regular spirals. Spectacular, bright-yellow flowers, from January to April, take on pink hues followed by intense red in May to June. Needs well-drained soil in full sun. 60cm. AGM. RHS H6, USDA 7a-10b.
Sometimes known as French honeysuckle, this robust perennial is able to fix nitrogen and survive in very poor soils. Clover-like foliage covered with downy hairs is topped with fragrant racemes of bright reddish flowers. 90cm. RHS H5.
This compact evergreen shrub has small leaves and provides an important structural foil to the more floriferous and ephemeral plants in the Filippis’ garden. Slow growing, but a tough plant that can cope with chalky soil and salt spray. 2m. RHS H4.
Salvia ‘Mas de Lunès’
A hybrid between Salvia officinalis and Salvia fruticosa with aromatic, felty green, foliage, which in April and May bursts with a profusion of pale-mauve flowers. Handles seaside winds and freely drained chalky soils. Short lived on richer soils. 80cm. RHS H5.
Cistus x purpureus f. holorhodos
A compact shrub with narrow, dark-green foliage and dark fuchsia-purple flowers produced in April and May. Its sticky emerging shoots have allelopathic properties that suppress weed germination at the base of the plant. 1.2m.
An easy and beautiful phlomis that is ideal for poor, well-drained soils and which Olivier describes as having “unfailing value” for its allelopathic properties. It needs excellent drainage, but offers perfect pale-pink flowers. 1.2m. RHS H4.
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This unusual salvia forms low clumps of grey-green aromatic foliage with lavender-purple flower spikes, that begin in March but fade to leave the dramatic purple calyces that in Olivier’s words is, for a few weeks, “the most spectacular plant” in the Filippis’ garden. 40cm. AGM. RHS H3.
Native to the western Mediterranean, this perennial grass is justifiably popular for its long flower stems that stretch up between April and June before turning gold and persisting until December. Will self-seed on stony soil. 2m. AGM. RHS H4, USDA 5a-10b.
An adaptable perennial produces dense clusters of thin stems topped with masses of delicate blue flowers. These blooms emerge from an equally ornamental papery bract marked with a distinctive dark stripe. 60cm. RHS H5, USDA 4a-7b.
Sometimes sold as Salvia triloba this salvia produces masses of pale, purple-pink flowers in March and April over a rounded mass of aromatic foliage. Copes well with salt spray but requires perfect drainage. 1m. RHS H4.
Early in spring a rush of light green foliage emerges each leaf marked with a white stripe and an attractive red flush to the stems. Acid-green to yellow flowers from April to July. Can handle chalky soils and free-draining ground. 1m. AGM. RHS H4.
This seemingly modest, silver-leaved perennial is one of the best plants for a low groundcover. Quickly forms a dense mat of foliage from which pale-pink cornflower-type blooms emerge on slender stems from March to May. 35cm.
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