There is one big hurdle to overcome when designing a garden in the city of Cambridge in that it is the driest city in the UK. Combined with rain shadow and global warming, Cambridge is climatically en par with much of the Mediterranean. A bit odd when almost an island surrounded by all things watery: River Cam, The Fens, Grantchester Meadows etc. But take a walk through some of the college gardens, such as Pembroke or Peterhouse and you can see exotic plants thriving when normally restricted to the Temperate House, Kew.
However, these exotics all require water, and lots of it. Really, the planting designer should be looking towards the climatically similar Mediterranean for inspiration rather than relying on this precious resource.
Enter one trusting Cambridge client who allowed me to experiment with such a scheme in a small courtyard sheltered garden not too far from the city centre. I developed a plant palette with quite a bit of help from the wonderful Olivier Filippi (www.jardin-sec.com) using plants normally found in some of the most arid parts of the Med. Now in its second winter, I can safely say that most plants have thrived. Cotula lineariloba and Artemisia lanata would be the first things to rot at the slightest hint of damp weather, yet here they are rapidly colonising in the gravel forming silvery carpets that look fantastic all year. The trick is deep gravel, so that if if there is rain, it does not hang around. The pay off is that once established, you never need to water the plants again and what’s more, the deep gravel means there is minimal weeding to do.