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Drought resistant Plants

Echinacea, Purple Coneflower

According to my records we had 4 inches of rain in August, more than half of that on August 22 and 23. No rain so far in September, at least not here in Heath.

The result is incredibly dry soil, and a hose that ran dry last week while I was filling the chicken waterers. Granted, I had watered the vegetable garden with a sprinkler for 45 minutes before that, but this has never happened in the 30 years we have lived here at the End of the Road.

It was not long after we were rejoicing that this summer was not cold and wet like it was last year, that we began complaining about the heat and lack of rain. We gardeners are never satisfied.  Yet the weather has been such, that for the first time I began thinking that planting a few drought tolerant plants in the borders might be a really good idea. It gives me no pleasure to see the peonies browning so early, or parts of  rose bushes dying off.

I began by looking through Plants and Landscapes for Summer Dry Climates published by the East Bay Municipal Utility District.  I am fascinated by the idea that a municipality is encouraging gardeners to save water and giving them good advice about plants to use. We are not San Francisco, but some of the information is useful even here.

First, I want to say that I have never watered a lawn in my adult life, even when I had town water.  Now that I depend on a well, I try to water only the vegetable garden, although we have been timid about that as weeks have gone by with only a shower or two.

Recently I walked around my Lawn Beds to see which plants have been fairly happy, without rain and without watering. I am not surprised that the echinacea (purple coneflower), dianthus, artemesia,  agastache (hyssop) and the bee balm are thriving, because these flowers are known for liking well drained soil and being tolerant of dry spells.

I am surprised that the summer blooming phlox still look pretty good, as does the crocosmia, both of which are supposed to like dependable moisture. I can’t even credit good mulching for their appearance.  Which goes to show that there are always mysteries in the garden.

Still, I’d like to suggest a handful of perennials that are known to be drought tolerant.

This summer I visited Elsa Bakalar’s garden, now owned by Scott Prior. One of the beauties of that garden is the lavender hedge.  I confess I never had much luck with lavender myself, but I am thinking about trying again. Lavender can handle dry summers. After all, think of  Provence and the south of France where acres of lavender grow to satisfy the fragrance industry.

I planted perovskia, or Russian sage this spring and it is doing well. When I drive through Charlemont I always admire a double border of this airy plant with its lavender flowers along the walk of one of the roadside houses.

I have several achilleas in my garden, and it seems more varieties are on offer every year. Achillea is the proper name for yarrow. A white wild variety grows on the roadside, but ‘Coronation Gold, and ‘Moonshine’ have been staples for years. I have pink, and plummy red varieties, as well as the newer ‘Terra Cotta’ which is yellow gold with a little orange. I am trying to find a really orange variety.

Cosmos and salvia, both annuals

Salvias are also tolerant of dry seasons. I have an unnamed variety that I have grown for years, as well as a new ‘May Night’ in the perennial garden and an annual purple blue salvia. Of course, I also have culinary sage, and a variegated sage. All happy to be hot and dry.

Echinops or globe thistle with its spiky flowers even dries well and can be used in dried arrangements.

Echinacea 'Papaya'

Coneflowers, echinacea, used to be pink or white, but now there are wilder colors like the raggedy orange ‘Papaya’ I saw in some gardens this summer.

Familiar annuals like cosmos, marigolds, zinnias and dusty miller are also drought resistant. I have been especially happy to have cosmos and zinnias in the garden this year.

Just remember, the quality of your soil will make a difference even in a drought year. If they are well nourished plants can better withstand other stresses.

Usually there is sufficient rain in the early spring so plants do not begin to feel a drought until late spring and early summer.  It is always important to water new shrubs and trees throughout their whole first growing season, even if the weather is very dry. Once they are  well settled in, it will not be urgent to keep them watered.

No matter what kind of plants you put in containers, it is important to water them daily, and fertilize them every week or two.  Plastic or resin containers will hold moisture for a slightly longer time than clay pots, but even so, daily watering has to be the rule.

Also, if a vegetable garden is going to be productive it will need regular watering throughout the summer or all your investment in seeds, plants, labor, and hopes for putting food by will be wasted.

Too wet or too dry. We gardeners can always complain, but we also can stop to enjoy our successes.

Between the Rows   September 18, 2010

4 comments to Drought resistant Plants

  • Looks like you will have a California garden soon Pat! I hope you get rain before too long though. No water for plants is one thing…no water for people is another.

  • Pat

    Leslie – The hill is damp this morning and we are hoping for wet!

  • Pat – interesting reading because I too have been looking what has done well this summer despite the worst drought in my gardening lifetime. We also have a well and so I will only water veggies and any perennials or shrubs planted this year…evereything else has to tough it out on its own, all we ever do is add some compost to beds once every year or two. Most interesting for me is the annuals that I plant for drought-tolerance..the zinnias and marigolds have bloomed their heads off but my salvia was very disappointing despite getting a bit of water when I felt really sorry for them….

    I too have never had luck with lavender but have been noticing them thriving locally so perhaps they are worth a try…

    Hope you’re enjoying this rain we are finally receiving….

  • Pat

    Ellen – I am thrilled with the rain 1-1/2 inches here, and look forward to more later this week. I am not so thrilled with the Farmer’s almanac that my husband brought home that promises a dryer fthan usual winter, spring and summer next year.

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