Chelsea Flower Show designer Tom Massey's top tips for a water-wise garden

rhs chelsea flower show 2024 wateraid garden
5 tips to create a water-wise gardenWaterAid/ Alistair Thorpe

Landscape designer Tom Massey and architect Je Ahn celebrate water as our most precious resource in their gold medal-winning WaterAid Garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2024.

The WaterAid Garden addresses the challenges presented by an ever-changing climate (a staggering 90 per cent of all natural disasters are water-related), focusing on sustainable water management. It features a colourful range of plant species designed to deal with varying amounts of rainfall, as well as materials that are reclaimed and repurposed for a lighter carbon footprint.

'In recent years, British horticulture has felt the effects of extreme weather – including heatwaves, drought and flooding. As our climate changes water scarcity and insecurity is becoming more commonplace – here in the UK and around the world. We can all do things to help mitigate climate change, such as improving soil health, planting greenery to provide shade, and, most importantly, managing water sustainably,' says designer Tom.

The WaterAid Garden design highlights

Planting in the garden includes red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora), which is perfect for drought resistant gardens, and alder trees (Alnus glutinosa laciniata), which are approximately 16m tall, making them the biggest trees on a Chelsea garden this year. The trees have nodules on its roots that can absorb nitrogen and toxic-heavy metals from the ground, improving soil health and fertility.

The centrepiece of the garden design is a rainwater-harvesting pavilion inspired by WaterAid’s work with communities around the world to develop sustainable water solutions. The garden's features allows all water that falls on the garden to be stored and utilised, rather than flowing into drainage systems.

rhs chelsea flower show 2024 wateraid garden
WaterAid/ Alistair Thorpe
wateraid garden designers, architect je ahn and landscape designer tom massey
WaterAid Garden designers, architect Je Ahn (left) and landscape designer Tom Massey (right)WaterAid / Fiona Hanson

Tom has included elements of The WaterAid Garden that can be used at home, so we can all help our gardens to thrive whatever the weather.

Tom’s top tips for a water-wise garden

Gardeners are now noticing the effect that hotter summers and sometimes never-ending rainfall is having on their gardens too. According to a new survey by WaterAid, four in five British gardeners (82 per cent) are concerned about this change – and both the extreme heat and non-stop rain can create their own set of problems.

Two-thirds (66 per cent) of gardeners say that excessive rainfall has caused issues for their lawns, plants and homegrown produce. Over a third have also noticed heat stress in their gardens, while simultaneously struggling with water shortages during the warm weather.

Garden designer Tom reveals some of his top tips to create a water-wise garden – and thankfully there are some relatively easy and affordable changes to implement.

rhs chelsea flower show 2024 wateraid garden
RHS / Neil Hepworth

1. Collect rainwater

'Installing a simple water butt to gather rainwater run-off from garden buildings or downpipes is a must for all domestic gardens,' says Tom.

Ensure that there is an overflow pipe which redirects the excess water to any vegetable patches or ponds that might require some more water. Doing so should have the added bonus of reducing your water bills and mitigating unnecessary water waste.

In the last five years alone, almost a third (31 per cent) of gardeners have installed a water-saving system in their garden, according to WaterAid, while the same percentage use wastewater from their house to help irrigate their lawns during dry spells.

2. Plant the right plant in the right place

'Selecting plants adapted to site-specific conditions and planting the right plant in the right place ensures garden resilience without expensive retro-fitting of structures to protect plants from adverse weather,' says Tom. 'If you are on a windy exposed site, then plants that will tolerate a battering from wind and rain, or if you know you are in an area prone to flooding, then trees and plants that can tolerate boggy or wet conditions are really important choices.'

rhs chelsea flower show 2024 wateraid garden
Olivia Heath

3. Slow the flow

It’s also important to think about the way in which water moves through your garden or outdoor space, as this is an important way to manage excess surface water. 'Designing swales, depressions or channels can keep water in the landscape, providing seasonal habitat for invertebrates and amphibians,' says Tom.

4. Garden with flooding and drought in mind

'If you know your garden is prone to flooding, introduce one or two natural swales or water channels that can help store and redirect water away from areas you don’t want to become waterlogged,' explains Tom. 'These more "boggy" areas can be planted with things that thrive in moist conditions, such as trees, which can draw a lot of moisture from the soil.'

5. Nurture your soil

‘Healthy soil is the best foundation for a climate-resilient garden,’ reveals Tom, 'and we should all take steps to protect and nurture it.’ Mulching is one of the most effective and cost efficient ways to protect your soil as it creates a protective barrier to help insulate the soil and keep it hydrated, while also protecting against any erosion.

You can opt for organic mulch, such as homemade compost or composted bark mulch, or try inorganic mineral mulch like gravel or other natural aggregates to achieve a similar result.

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