The Dry Garden: Frenchman’s guide to (not) watering


This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

Coffee table books on gardening are generally so useless that it has been tempting to ask publishers to send review copies straight to the dump. Yet when Joan DeFato, retired librarian of the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden came to lunch bearing a big specimen that was not so much glossy as positively lacquered, I sat down and read it. Disbelief mounted with every turn of the page of the Thames & Hudson offering, “The Dry Gardening Handbook: Plants and Practices for a Changing Climate.”

This was a beauty queen with brains.

The author is nurseryman Olivier Filippi. A Frenchman, Filippi betrays an understandable fondness for the dry plants of his native garrigue, the French version of our chaparral. His writing is most poetic when touching on the “thick and sticky smell” of rockroses and the like. Yet as he pushes out beyond the south of France and beyond the Mediterranean basin to countries around the world with similar climate zones (most of California included), it becomes clear that this Frenchman’s true regard is for dryness. Drought, Filippi begins, is not a limitation, but the source of untold diversity from regions in the Mediterranean, South Africa, South America, Australia and California.


The only way to enjoy plants that are adapted to dry climates, he argues, is to withhold water. “Many dry-climate plants are in fact easy to grow if we respect the conditions of their native habitat, but become extremely capricious as soon as we try to water them in summer,” he writes. “The cistuses of the garrigue, the ceanothuses that cover the hillsides of California or the capers that billow down Sicilian cliffs quite simply cannot tolerate the combination of heat and moisture.”

Soon comes the thing that makes this book worth its frankly shocking cover price of $60: hands-on garden wisdom.

At the design stage, Filippi advises earth-moving to create raised beds and berms that can emulate the free drainage common in the natural settings of many of the best-loved Mediterranean climate zone plants.

Don’t put in irrigation, Filippi says, put in plants that don’t need it.

Once choosing those plants, he warns readers to beware of using acid-loving types. Most Mediterranean climate zones around the world are dominated by alkaline soils.

Instead of splurging on big, luscious specimens at nurseries, he says, buy small, “hardened” plants that haven’t become root-bound or addicted to water.

His most controversial advice is to not use sprinklers or drip irrigation. Rather, he would have us sink the plants in holes and give them long slow waterings when we water (not in summer).

For readers who doubt Filippi’s third way, he provides a graphic, right, of what he thinks happens to root systems under the three types of watering: shallow root development with sprinklers, unbalanced growth with drip and strong deep root systems with occasional deep soakings.

And what of the garden porn element? Picture drifts of lavender without telephone poles, the neighbor’s fence and parked cars.

It is this combination of hands-on gardening tips and fantasy splendor that makes this book so special. That and a certain cunning. Filippi seems to be reaching for the elite who can most afford to waste water.

-- Emily Green

The Dry Garden, Green’s column on drought-tolerant gardening, appears here weekly. She also blogs on water issues at

Illustration, top: A shrub’s roots should grow down, as shown in the first cell. But when cultivated too long in containers, roots can become tangled before they even make it to the ground, as shown in the second cell. The last image shows the effect of deeper, better containers that allow roots to grow as nature intended.

Cover photo and illustration credits: Thames & Hudson