From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on February 8, 2006

Easing the Worries Over Dried Out Plants.

With five of the last nine summers being droughty, and more and more frequent talk of global warming resting on our minds, we had better face the fact that the moisture needs of plants require our attention as never before.

This very situation was considered in the late 70s at the Cold Spring Water Utilities Center in Colorado. The manager at the time, Ed Bailey, teamed up with a landscape architect and a conservation planner to develop the first ever xeriscape garden in the United States. All of the planting at this first time ever combination educational garden and water facility was done by the employees; five thousand plants encompassing ninety species in all. Water conservation was already a public issue at the time. Droughty summer after droughty summer sparked Mr. Bailey's and his colleagues' imaginations, and answered the challenge.

By 1983 the nation's oldest established Xeriscape Demonstration Garden in the U. S. was opened at 1600 W 12th Avenue, in Denver, Colorado. Master Gardener Volunteers are to be thanked.

The Greek word "xeros" means "dry", and xeriscape refers to landscaping using water conserving methods. Sometimes referred to as water wise landscaping, this technique of addressing plant watering challenges in every landscape situation has spread around the world and embraces every design style and sense of aesthetics

So, here we are in 2006, with increasing emphasis on community beautification initiatives. Having the very same concerns about plants that may suffer from long dry spells, we should consider this method of employing plants that are drought tolerant and disease resistant so we might still enjoy lush landscapes that not only conserve water, but also, don't crave it. There are a few rules to follow in order to be successful.

Preparing the planting site is the key. First, select a site that is normally dry to begin with. Here you know there is no great water accumulation and the soil is well drained. Most plants do not like wet feet anyway, and you will be choosing plants that prefer dry soils more of the time than not.

Improve the soil to a depth of at least six inches by adding copious amounts of organic matter. This may be aged compost or well composted manures and a shredded aged bark mixture. These soil amendments will both allow excellent drainage while retaining moisture, and serve the nutrient needs of your newly planted subjects.

"The right plant for the right place" has never been more important. You do not want to replace plants once they are put in place. Consider using native plants whenever possible. Select drought resistant or tolerant plants as insurance against the summer dry spells that are increasingly more common. (See the list below for suggestions.)

If absolutely essential, there are several methods used to supply supplemental water needs. These include subterranean drip irrigation, bubble emitters, and the use of hydrogels (polymer crystals) mixed with the soil amendments. What I would prefer to see is the garden landscape that is completely independent of any supplemental irrigation once plants are established. This means irrigation only the first season, in the absence of rainfall, to help the newly planted get accustomed to their new location well enough to go on and flourish.

The rest is straightforward. Weeds compete for water, space, light, air. Get and keep them out. Unmulched soils invite weed seed germination, heat up, and dry out. Mulch to a depth to at least two inches, three or four is even better. This helps keep the soil cooler, moister, and smothers weeds by blocking the light they require. Weeds are easier to pluck out, too, when the soil is soft and moist. Shredded bark and other organic mulches work better than mineral choices, even though the former eventually break down and need to be replaced every season. They do become part of the soil as a benefit.

Congratulations! You are on your way to creating a drought proof landscape. And you won't believe the variety of trees, shrubs, annuals, herbaceous perennials, and ground covers at your disposal. Before I submit a nearly foolproof list, I want you to go back to the drawing board for one last look.

Plant care is required, whether you are in the desert region of the Southwest or the Catskills on New York. So, in addition to the above mentioned weeding, deadhead spent blossoms so more will continue to come in and please. Apply low nitrogen, slow-release fertilizers, sparingly if at all. Remove damaged or dead leaves. Group together plants with similar moisture needs so if remedial attention is required, it can be handled easily without disrupting the rest of the garden. If possible, place pales or 5 gallon containers to collect rainwater. Cover with screen to prevent mosquito breeding. These can be camouflaged very easily and provide much needed water at the site, without having to transport it. This is especially important the first growing season when getting new plants established. Irrigate infrequently but deeply, and do so in the morning, avoiding over head methods whenever possible. A rain gauge on the site is an invaluable aid. Trees and shrubs selected for drought resistance or tolerance should be watered if they begin to wilt. Once established, they will do just fine.

The other advice is to not forget pests that might do serious harm if left to their own devices. These might be the six legged arthropods with or without wings, the eight legged spider mites, and the four legged herbivores. You know of which I speak.

What follows is a list of best bets for drought resistant and drought tolerant choices: some ornamental trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals. This list is abbreviated. There are many more candidates out there.

Trees include: Austrian pine (Pinus nigra); Amur maple (Acer ginnala); Cornelian cherry Dogwood (Cornus mas); Green Hawthorn (Crataegus viridis 'Winter King'); Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis); Maidenhair tree (Ginkgo biloba).

Shrubs include: Bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica); Fiveleaf Aralia (Acanthopanax sieboldianus a.k.a. Eleutherococcus sieboldianus); Nannyberry Viburnum (Viburnum lentago); St. John's-wort (Hypericum frondosum 'Sunburst'); Bush Cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa).

Perennials include: Yarrow (Achillea sp. too many to mention); Southernwood (Artemesia ludoviciana) ; Tickseed (Coreopsis verticillata 'Moonbeam'); Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea); False Indigo (Baptisia australis).

Annuals include: Spider Flower (Cleome sp.); Globe Amaranth (Gomphrena 'Strawberry Fields'); Four o'clock (Mirabilis jalapa); Love in a Mist (Nigella damascena); Creeping Zinnia (Sanvitalia procumbens).

I just read about a new Twilite Prairieblues (TM) False Indigo. Very drought resistant, beautiful, a likely winner. And then too, there is Bearberry or Kinnikinick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) for an outstanding ground cover. There is much to choose from that can be counted on in the absence of rainfall and the presence of a lot of hot weather. Go to it with little fear if you prepare.


From The Garden of Ed. Submitted for publication in The Towne Crier on February 8, 2006

© 2006 Ed Mues. All Rights Reserved.