Get Growing with Mickey Rathbun: Lessons learned in a time of drought

  • Although ajuga is not a particularly showy plant, it’s a reliable workhorse in the garden. PHOTO BY MICKEY RATHBUN

  • Planters provide welcome color in the garden. PHOTO BY MICKEY RATHBUN

  • Juniper and sedum aren’t fazed by drought. PHOTO BY MICKEY RATHBUN

For the Gazette
Published: 9/9/2022 1:01:13 PM
Modified: 9/9/2022 12:57:27 PM

I’ve been brushing up on my Italian this summer, and one word that keeps popping up in the Italian press is ”sicitta.” It means drought. We’re not the only people suffering from lack of rain; all of Europe has been dry as a bone all summer. But this time feels different to me, verging on apocalyptic.

According to meteorological data, the climate crisis will bring hotter, dryer summers to many parts of the world, including New England. We gardeners ignore this grim fact at our peril. Continuing to plant and maintain water-guzzling plants seems to me a fool’s errand, unless one can afford an elaborate automatic watering system and ample water to use it. But that’s hardly feasible for most of us. Local water supplies around the Pioneer Valley are so low that some towns have banned watering.

Along with many gardeners I know, I spent the summer with my eyes glued to my iPhone’s weather app and working triage in the garden. I’ve had to decide which plants I really want to save, leaving the vast majority of perennials and shrubs to tough it out on their own. My watering priorities included a few pricey new shrubs and a newly planted redbud. I couldn’t bear the thought of losing the redbud; its predecessor had died last year at the hands of a teenaged garden helper. (He’d been told to tear out a patch of blackberries and to mulch the redbud, but somehow signals got crossed and I returned home to find the tree wrenched from the ground and hacked to pieces.)

Unless we’re ready to risk losing large numbers of plants every summer, it’s time to embrace principles of xeriscaping. The term was coined by the Denver Water Department in 1981 to define the creation of water-conserving landscapes. The concept is hardly new; in areas of the country where water is scarce, people are well-accustomed to gardening with little water.

I confess that until this summer I didn’t think much about xeriscaping. I viewed it as one option, but not the only option. The term brought to mind artfully arranged cacti and interesting rocks, a harsh aesthetic did not seem compatible with the densely planted perennial beds I’ve created around my house. Now by necessity I’m considering its possibilities for my garden.

Many books and papers have been written about xeriscaping. From these I’ve culled several practices that seem reasonably doable for an average gardener like myself. First, it’s necessary to assess your garden site. If it’s steep, you might consider hardscaping to make some level terraces where water can soak in better. If that’s not possible, scout out plants that prevent soil erosion in steep places.

Consider how much sun and shade you have, and how those areas change from spring to fall. Are there places that are drier than others? There are parts of my garden in lower-lying areas that naturally collect more water. This summer I’ve noticed that perennials including dicentra eximia with its fringe-like foliage, sedum, veronica and some hostas have done pretty well on their own in those places. In higher, drier parts, epimedium, astilbe and heuchera have burned to a crisp.

While garden experts have always promoted soil amendment for healthier plants, the practice is also a key to successful xeriscaping. Sandy soil doesn’t hold water in the plants’ root zone, so thirsty plants stay thirsty. To decrease the soil’s porousness, add compost or well-rotted manure and peat moss, which is highly water absorbent and helps to keep the soil from compacting. Unlike composted materials, it has little nutritional value, so a combination of the two is best. At the other extreme, clay soil is relatively impermeable so it promotes run off. The same materials that improve sandy soil also make clay soils lighter and more water-retentive. Pine bark and leaf mold are also helpful.

Of course, soil amendment takes time and labor. But where water is scarce, it pays to have the most absorbent and retentive soil possible to give your plants the best chance to get the water they need.

After addressing site and soil issues, consider plant choices. Notice which plants in your garden are drought-tolerant. The ones that don’t look like brown leafless skeletons are the winners. Do some research at local nurseries to find other plants that deal with dry shade or sun. In my experience, local experts provide more trustworthy advice than mail order outfits.

Drought-tolerant ground covers are a great place to start. These low-maintenance, often underappreciated plants come into their own when used to replace swathes of water-guzzling lawn grass. They also fill in empty spaces in garden beds where weeds would otherwise take root. For dry shade, vinca minor works wonders. Its thick blanket of glossy, dark evergreen leaves and cheery spring periwinkle flowers provide a wonderful groundcover under trees and shrubs. It spreads, and I’ve heard that some varieties can be thuggish, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing in dry shady areas where nothing else will grow.

Sun-loving groundcovers for our zone include Angelina sedum, Bearberry cotoneaster and ajuga. Angelina sedum bears small, bright yellow flowers in summer and its pointy greenish-yellow foliage turns orange and red in the fall. It’s an enthusiastic spreader, but it’s easy to keep in check if need be.

Bearberry cotoneaster is a low-growing, spreading evergreen shrub with small glossy green leaves. In spring it’s covered with tiny white flowers that turn into bright red berries in summer that attract birds and provide cold-weather interest. The cotoneaster needs a fair amount of water in its first year, but once established is extremely drought-tolerant. Both plants can take sandy or clay-heavy soil conditions.

Although ajuga is not a particularly showy plant, it’s a reliable workhorse in the garden. It comes in different colors from deep purple to green and interesting variegated patterns. Ajuga grows in sun or part-shade, isn’t fussy about soil quality and spreads quickly. What more could you ask?

It’s been a difficult summer. We lost a dear family friend, Frank Murphy, as well as our beloved dog of many years, Allie. As I write this, much needed rain is falling, reviving those wilting plants that have not already succumbed to the dry weather. With fall hovering at the doorway, I’m looking forward to rethinking my garden spaces. I can’t stand another summer of praying for rain and playing eeny-meeny-miney-mo to decide which of my plants is most worthy of water.

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the “Get Growing” column since 2016.


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