News Column

Beautiful bloomers - just don't add water

August 15, 2014

By Virginia A. Smith, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Aug. 15--When you hear the phrase drought gardening -- or waterwise, low-water or xeriscape gardening -- what comes to mind?

Cacti and rocks, probably, which is great for the Mojave Desert look. But how about these beauties to do the job:

The fragrant and feathery agastache, beloved by bees and butterflies, in colors that channel a Santa Fe sunset. Or wild quinine, whose ultracool flowers -- tiny, dense, cauliflowerlike -- bloom their heads off from June to October.

Or the lovable Mediterranean "moon carrot," with its fernlike silvery-blue foliage and splayed clusters of white, buttony blossoms.

"Drought-tolerant plants can be lush and beautiful. Professionals I know drool over those plants," says Lauren Springer Ogden, coauthor with her husband, Scott Ogden, of Waterwise Plants for Sustainable Gardens: 200 Drought-Tolerant Choices for All Climates.

Ogden, of Fort Collins, Colo., knows our Mid-Atlantic climate well; she grew up in Rosemont, enjoyed Cape May in summer, and has degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania State University. For water-conserving gardens here, she recommends plants like aster, prairie coneflower, liatris, butterfly weed, perennial sunflower, and dwarf wild indigo.

They're colorful -- purple, orange, yellow, pink -- and, like all plants, need water to establish roots. But after that, unless conditions are truly dire, they can survive on rainfall, which in the Philadelphia-South Jersey region averages about 42 inches a year.

"They are not maintenance-free, but they need little or no watering," says horticulturist Lisa Roper, who's in charge of the dry Gravel Garden at Chanticleer, in Wayne.

Waterwise gardens can mean anything from the proverbial rock-and-cactus patch at the Jersey Shore to perennial beds in the city to shrinking lawns -- lawns being major water hogs -- in the suburbs. They've been talked up for 20 years in the dry Southwest and West, and especially now in California, which has been suffering a devastating drought for three years and recently instituted statewide curbs on water use.

But something is happening: People in parts of the country that are not especially prone to drought are planting gardens as though they were. It could be due to concern for dwindling resources, rising awareness of climate change, or growing availability of drought-tolerant plants, many of them native.

Whatever the reason, according to Richard Schulhof, CEO of the 127-acre Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden, which features a water-conservation garden, "we're beginning to recognize that our future is creating gardens that are in greater harmony with our climate."

And that climate is about more than drought.

"This means creating landscapes that can bear increasingly spotty periods of heavy rain and even inundation, as well as the growing problem of introduced pests and diseases," says Schulhof, a graduate of the professional-gardener program at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square.

Which brings us back to our aromatic agastache, quirky quinine, and other highlights of Chanticleer's Gravel Garden.

The name is literal: The garden is planted in a huge swath of pea gravel, tiny stones that both retain water and promote drainage. It's a sloping, no-shade zone, hot and dry, with a loose Mediterranean look and feel.

Roper tends to a long list of plants, including bulbs, ornamental grasses, herbs like lavender and thyme, succulents, creeping ground covers, tall perennials, and shrubs.

Besides color, there's texture. Mexican hair grass, also called feathergrass, grows in wispy, fountainlike clumps. Wand flower has a loose, airy form. Purple poppy mallow's cup-shaped blooms form a thick mat under foot.

In the hotter months of July and August, Roper adds annuals for color. Coreopsis is a favorite. So is a rare lavender foxglove with purple pinstripes that she first saw in South Africa last winter.

"And if you have tropical house plants, bring them out in pots," says Roper, who did that with a favorite pachypodium, a cactus shaped like a fat cigar with lancelike leaves coming out at the top.

"It's beautiful, textural, and architectural," its caretaker says.

Asters, butterfly weed, columbine, coneflower, cosmos, white California poppy, moon carrot, and others seed voraciously in gravel, which "gives the sense that it's all one garden," says Roper, who cautions that waterwise gardens must still be weeded and deadheaded, if that's your preferred look, and the gravel occasionally replenished.

"The garden can get too overgrown. You want to be able to see the structure," she says.

You'd be weeding and deadheading no matter what you're growing. With a drought garden, at least you won't be watering.





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