A rainy day could be the best time to water your newly planted garden

When people say they don’t like colour in their garden, David Glenn quite simply doesn’t believe them.

“People just get scared that if they have lots of colour it looks like they don’t have good taste,” says Glenn, the owner of Lambley Nursery where he has been leading the charge for water-wise plantings – and every colour in the book ­– for 31 years.

David Glenn has never shied away from colour at Lambley Nursery. Credit:Criss Canning

Walk around his garden at this time of year, and it is all yellow sunflowers, blue sages, red dahlias, carmine celosias, white windflowers, purple agapanthus, salmon agastaches, pink sedums, black-eyed golden rudbeckias and more. I could keep going. And going.

“People think of dry climate gardens as cactus and gum trees,” he says “But the palette is huge, it’s enormous. Plenty of plants will tolerate dryness.”

Ever since Glenn and his wife, artist Criss Canning, moved to Ascot, just outside Ballarat, in 1991, he has been steadily building up a collection of perennials and other plants from places like Turkey, Kurdistan and California.

David Glenn has devoted decades to expanding the possibilities for dry-climate gardeners. Credit:Ric Glenn

The arrival of the Millenium Drought in the mid-1990s only cemented his ambition for plants that can do it tough. In came salvias and santolinas from the south of France, phlomis from Israel and euphorbias from Greece. Glenn tried them out in his own garden, and then propagated them to sell in his nursery and thereby expanded all of our thinking about what it is possible to grow in places with hot and dry summers.

Now Glenn, who is about to turn 80 and who has recently been unwell, and Canning have put their house and nursery up for sale and are moving to central Ballarat. They hope the eventual buyers will keep developing ideas for what we might grow in against-the-odds spaces in an ever-changing climate.

In the meantime, during a recent visit to the nursery, the couple outlined their advice for anyone starting a garden.

“Get your trees in first and really look after them,” Glenn says. This includes thoroughly preparing the soil by digging it well and adding compost. He also recommends supporting a young tree by staking it “with two or three ties, so it can move but not too much”.

Given it can be hard to predict exactly which trees will survive a changing climate, he advises people to opt for as a wide a variety as the size of their block can handle. And then, especially given how dry conditions can get, he says to make sure your watering counts. It needs to be deep.

When irrigating in summer, Glenn tries to time it for a day when it is already drizzling to encourage the rain, which can barely penetrate in the warmest months, to sink into the earth as well.

And then, when it comes to the rest of the garden, he encourages you to take it slowly so that you can see what does and doesn’t work.

While “some things might surprise you” and do better than you expect, others won’t thrive at all and these, he says, “you have to rip out as fast as you can”. Canning says one of the biggest lessons for her has been to not want a garden instantly. “Your ideas change all the time,” she says.

As for their next garden, the couple already has many plans. Given the new – more compact – space contains a string of mature trees, Glenn is thinking more about what smaller plants might be incorporated.

He has to be selective, and he is narrowing his focus on the more than 10 plants that he has bred at Lambley, including the popular Agastache “Sweet Lili”, which thrives in a dry, hot summer, and the variegated Euphorbia x martinii “Ascot Rainbow”, which was awarded the UK Royal Horticultural Society’s highest honour. Geranium “Criss Canning”, with its dark blue flowers, and Agapanthus “Margaret Olley”, with even darker blue blooms, will also find a place at the new digs.

As for Glenn’s insatiable appetite for plant collecting (and he is still experimenting with new acquisitions at Lambley), he is going to focus on Australian alpine plants, which he will keep in pots. “That will be my collection.”

You can bet they will provide good colour too.

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