News Column


August 15, 2014

By Virginia A. Smith, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Aug. 15--They might not grow or flower as well, but most established perennials in your garden can survive the occasional dry spell.

If occasional turns to frequent and your water bills spike, or if you just want a more sustainable garden, it's time to consider drought-tolerant plants.

"You have droughty summers in Philadelphia. I lived through one of those," says Richard Schulhof, head of the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden and a graduate of the Longwood Gardens professional- gardener program, "but if you have a garden that's prepared for that, you're going to get through it."

Look for plants with water-storing, fleshy stems and leaves (sedum, sempervivum, prickly pear) or waxy leaves (rosemary); sun-reflecting silver or bluish foliage (artemisia, lavender, catmint); or prickly leaves, such as globe thistle.

Water-trapping dense and hairy, such as lamb's ear, is good. So is lacy (Russian sage), which has less surface for water evaporation. Plants with narrow leaves, such as gaura, or wand flower, and ornamental grasses, need less water overall.

Stacy Tornio, editor of Birds & Blooms magazine in Milwaukee, likes yucca for drought-tolerance. "It has spiky leaves, but it also has gorgeous blooms," she says, "so it looks like a succulent and you get plumes, as well."

Yucca is a North American native, which is no accident. "The best thing I can say about a drought-tolerant garden is go native," says Tornio, whose magazine has a circulation of one million. "Native plants, by default, have been around for many, many years, so they've been able to survive in dry conditions all on their own."

Well-draining, loose soil is important for growing deep roots for water retention, but the soil issue can be tricky, according to Lisa Roper, a Chanticleer horticulturist.

"It is true that adding organic matter to clay soil makes it drain better. However, it also makes the soil more rich in nutrients. Some of the plants in our Gravel Garden need a lean soil, poor in nutrients," she says, citing mullein, Russian sage, lavender, thyme, Mexican hair grass, and Tennessee coneflower.

"In too rich a soil, they will flop."

Many other dought-tolerant plants -- butterfly weed, purple poppy mallow, purple coneflower, wild quinine -- will grow in either. They might be more robust in soil enriched with compost or other organic matter, but they're OK without.

"The key," says garden designer Kathleen Harvey of Plant Artistry in Merchantville, "is understanding the conditions you have to work with . . . what sun, how much space, what kind of soil."

She acknowledges that is sometimes easier said than done. So, for the "done" part, Harvey has a suggestion: "Hire somebody."

- Virginia A. Smith


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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer (PA)

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