Delightful, delovely and dry

Drought-tolerant gardening lets you cut your water bill without cutting your garden color

Drought-tolerant gardening lets you cut your water bill without cutting your garden color

April 26, 2008|By JULIE E. GREENE

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Five summers ago, drought conditions led Donna Berard to take desperate measures to save the flowers in her cottage-style garden that featured tight plantings of daisies and foxglove.

"I had to use a lot of water and they didn't grow very well," Berard said.

By coincidence, Berard, a Franklin County master gardener, had done some reading about drought-tolerant gardening just a few months earlier. Faced with the dry summer of 2003, she decided it was time to take action.

The next spring, she and her husband, Rene, ripped up the perennial garden alongside their Chambersburg driveway. They divided the plants and gave them away or sold them at the Franklin County Master Gardeners' plant sale. Then they started a drought-tolerant garden.

"It was a little skimpy, but actually the plants filled in pretty quickly," Berard said.

The new plants required regular watering the first year to establish root systems, said Berard. But by the 2005 season, the garden filled in nicely. And last spring and summer, she didn't have to water her drought-tolerant garden at all.


Berard recently presented a class about drought-tolerant gardening, also known as xeriscaping. She said xeriscaping is a sensible way to address the dry conditions of summer, but she emphasized that gardeners shouldn't oversimplify the technique

"People can't think that because a plant says it's drought-tolerant, that they can put it in the ground and not water it," Berard said.

Annette Ipsan, horticulture extension educator for Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County, said it's up to the gardener how much to baby the plants with water. But once the plants are established, drought-tolerant plants shouldn't need additional water.

If a plant looks like it's suffering during a sustained period of dryness - looks crispy or limp - it could use a drink, she said.

'Drought-tolerant' does not mean brownb

When people think of a drought-tolerant garden, they probably think of cacti, rocks and a garden without much color.

Berard does have a prickly pear cactus that she has to handle with kitchen tongs when she divides it because the needles can reach an inch or longer.

But her garden has colorful blooms from summer to fall, including the cactus, which in May has big yellow blooms.

The coreopsis have yellow blooms, her variegated coral bells are shades of burgundy, the dianthus and penstom bloom pink, and the May night salvia blooms purplish blue. The lavender and sea foam artemisia have silver-colored foliage.

The blooms last as long as the flowers she used to grow, particularly if she dead-heads them after the blooms wilt.

The plants also have the benefit of attracting butterflies and bees.

"Sometimes when I come out here in late afternoon, early evening, the place is alive with the bumblebees and butterflies," she said.

Her drought-tolerant garden also has opened doors to plants she hadn't tried before.

Some plants didn't work out - either they didn't flourish or Berard didn't like them. She loved a small orange-blooming agastache that attracted hummingbirds, but it didn't tolerate winter well.

Weathering dry spells

"I really see a change in the weather patterns," Berard said. "We haven't had a really rainy summer for a long time."

Robert Kessler, horticultural extension agent for Penn State Cooperative Extension in Franklin County, said residential gardeners have had some dry conditions in recent years leading to more watering.

The average rainfall for a year might be above normal, but if there isn't enough rain during the summer, it can get too dry for many plants.

Kessler encourages gardeners to use rain barrels and drip irrigation, such as soaker hoses, rather than overhead sprinklers. Drip irrigation is more efficient because the water goes to the plant's root system and less water is lost to evaporation that occurs when water lands on the leaves.

Berard uses soaker hoses.

"The sooner people learn to conserve water the better," she said.

The Berards have several garden plots around their home, three of which consist of drought-tolerant plants. These gardens are further from the water source; something Berard recommends when gardeners are deciding where to put drought-tolerant plants.

The other factor she considered when constructing her large drought-tolerant plot was the late afternoon sun that part of the property received. The area also was affected by additional heat as the sun was reflected off the adjacent driveway.

The previous garden "was pretty beat up from the hot sun," Berard said.

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