Q: Last summer I watched in horror as half my garden wilted, withered, and wasted away in the drought. It was almost enough to make me give up gardening altogether. What can I plant that will survive — and not look awful — if the drought returns? — Karen Barron, Rising Sun, Md.
A: Whether it’s a six-pack of lettuce or a gallon container of drought-hardy sedum, plants fresh from the nursery will need water every day or two for the first two weeks after you plant them. They have tiny root masses and are used to being watered every day in the nursery. As their roots spread with each passing week, the frequency of watering can decline. Most garden plants like to get the equivalent of an inch of water a week — it’s an old rule of thumb and a good one almost everywhere, unless you’re living in a hot, dry region and growing native plants. (A good way to measure the amount of water your plants are getting is to place an empty tuna can wherever you’re watering, and simply notice how long it takes to fill to an inch depth.)
Once established, some plants are certainly more drought-tolerant than others. Watering is a fact of life for annual flowers and vegetables, except for hardier plants like squash, beans, peppers, and tomatoes, which do fairly well with less water than salad crops. These are all native to the Americas, which perhaps explains their stamina. (I’ve also had great success with a tough little immigrant: Turnips, scattered in the dust in late July, germinated quickly without a sprinkle of water for a good four weeks.) Native annuals such as salvias, zinnias, marigolds, petunias, portulaca, and California poppies can limp through a drought better than impatiens, lobelia, coleus, or sweet peas. When you think about an investment in more permanent plants, look first to the native Americans. Most can survive wild temperature swings and periodic droughts. You almost can’t go wrong with any native that’s adapted to your cold-hardiness zone.
But plenty of classic garden plants from the other continents are strong candidates, too. For starters, consider this partial list of good bets, native and not. For shrubs: fragrant sumac, oakleaf hydrangea, witch hazel, mountain laurel, chokeberry, butterfly bush, rugosa roses, juniper, elaeagnus (olive family), cotoneaster, and holly. Perennials include butterfly weed, purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan, baptisia, rattlesnake-master (Eryngium yuccifolium), sea holly (and other eryngium), yucca, phlox, daylilies, asters, crocosmia, artemisia, perovskia, and several ornamental grasses.
I grow many of these plants, and last summer my special drought-watering program sorely tested them. My ugly secret is that, except for my container plantings, I didn’t water at all last year. It’s not that I’m an especially good citizen or a devotee of gardening with nature (whatever her mood). I didn’t water because my garden is big and spread out. My hoses aren’t long enough, and like a lot of gardeners, I just didn’t have the time. When the drought hit, things in pots stayed in the nursery area where I water always, no matter what the season. I stopped planting anything new and doled out an extra ration of mulch to all the troops. As depressing as it is to contemplate life without rainfall, it’s important to remember that there will be another, better season. Sure, my shrubs and perennials didn’t put on as much new growth as they would have in a normal year, and at times they looked downright pathetic, but not a single thing actually shriveled up and died.