Friday, July 20

Drought Effects

Allow me to preface this by saying that I am relatively mean to my plants. The vast majority of them--especially those which do not produce food for me--exist here on a "survival of the fittest" agreement. During a plant's first year, I will supplemental water it as it gets used to its new home and not being on a nursery watering schedule. I begin with several good soakings a week that gradually taper off to once per week, and the latter only happens when Ma Nature fails to pitch in and water it for me.

This summer, I did have to break my own rule and water a few extra things--namely, the 'Hillside Black Beauty' cimicifuga and the lobelia cardinalis in the full shade bed. They were sprawled horizontal across the mulch and neighboring plants when I came home from work one day, so I thought that was probably a sign they needed some water. (I don't miss a thing, do I?!) Since our drought this year is fairly extreme, I'll give them a second chance before I do any shovel pruning on these two. But I do have a little black mark against them in my mental plant Rolodex.

There are many things chosen for their toughness that have gotten along fine without any extra water from my hose, however. Take this golden variegated sage that brightens up my front bed. I don't use it for eating (the traditional silver culinary sages taste much better, IMHO) but I love its coloring so I have a few clumps of it. It seems oblivious to the fact that this summer's conditions are stressing many plants in my garden. If you look hard enough, though, even these plants are showing some drought effects.

Compare the picture above, taken this evening, with the picture on the left that shows the entire front bed just after planting last year. In the 2006 picture, you can see that this same clump of golden sage (the one to the right of the blue sea kale foliage, behind the lavender) was already as tall as the path light by early June. In comparison, Golden Sage version 2007 has another inch or so to grow in order to reach that benchmark. It is also not as wide yet as it was last year in June.

I also noticed that the sage leaves are more compact this year. That makes sense, as less leaf area = less loss of water due to transpiration. There is not a good closeup of last year's leaves, but even at a distance you can tell that there is either 1) A lot less golden variegation, or 2) More pronounced, darker green on the inner part of each leaf this year. I wouldn't have guessed this one, but it may either be a drought coping method or a reflection of how a higher number of sunny, no rain/no clouds days can bring out different coloring. Anyone know which it could be?

Whatever its coping methods are, I'll take them. It's definitely nice not to have too many prima donnas (as lovely as some of them are) that need constant attention with the hose... both for environmental and practical reasons. And when they not only cope but look as full and happy (at first glance) as this golden sage does, I suppose I can't really ask for more.


Carol Michel said...

Interesting observations. Even though we aren't talking about "the d word" around here, our rainfall is way down. I've noticed some plants that are smaller leaved, a little shorter than last year. They are adapting as best they can.

And I agree with you, no molly-coddling the plants... they need to make it more or less on their own once they've had a chance to establish themselves.

Carol at May Dreams Gardens

Anonymous said...

I love how practical you are about it all. This is a wonderful post, full of the kinds of details that get me thinking in ways I don't usually think. And I'm not even done with my morning cuppa!

lisa said...

I enjoy your observations as usual, and you've blown my mind-I have that same sage AND pathlight! (Great minds and all ;-) I actually tend to be overkill with the hose during wetter years, so all my "drought-loving" plants are happier this season. But I'm seeing the same kinds of coping mechanisms that you are in my plants. I'm just glad they have ways to get through it!

Annie in Austin said...

Wow, Kim! You are much tougher than I've ever been, and have obviously thought about your watering philosophy for a long time. I can admire it, but not practice it.

All my gardens have been in parts of Illinois and Texas that swing between drought and flood. In some years even native plants die without help, so I've always accepted moderate supplemental watering as part of gardening. Because I make mixed borders, whene I water ornamental trees and shrubs the water spreads out to everything in the bed.

I don't think of it as molly-coddling, though - but as an extension of my maternal nature!

Annie at the Transplantable Rose

kate said...

I adopt your approach with houseplants and with many garden plants. There are some I do give some extra watering attention to ... especially when they are first being established. This year, I've done very little watering because of our regular and plentiful rainfall. In past years though, when we've gone for weeks without rain, it would be the deathknell of some of my favoured plants. I'm not much for growing prima donnas, but I will give my favourites some water ...

Anonymous said...

I think that is a great philosophy and one that I also adhere to although with exceptions. There are always exceptions! Love the sage next to that light!

Digital Flower Pictures said...

I always water during the establishment period, that is a given. I also water a lot during the season especially if it is dry. I have to admit I like the lush, deep green look. I also think if plants are getting the proper amount of water than they are slightly less at risk for disease and insect attack. I am surprised that your area is so dry, we have had a lot of rain this summer (4+ inches in July), compared to most years. We have another 1 to 2 inches in store for tomorrow. I wish I could send some to you.

kris said...

Here in Minnesota, we are very dry. And I'm getting mighty tired of lugging a hose and sprinkler around, but I do water regularly if we aren't getting regular rains. I'm lucky enough to have a lake pump so that helps ease my conscience a little! I agree with your tough love philosophy - but I also feel like I get a very short growing season, and I want everything to be as gorgeous as possible before I (and the plants) suffer through another super long winter. (Plus, my plants take a beating from two overly-active big dogs - how much can you ask from plants and expect them to keep on keepin' on??)

A wildlife gardener said...

Our garden is so large i must say that I agree with your maxim...the palnts must 'sink or swim'. Ones which require to much fussing are not replaced if they 'die' on me, as I'm too busy with all the other garden chores. that's why i love geraniums, which are the best 'doers' in our area, requiring little or no maintenance.

Unknown said...

Carol, we are definitely deep into the d-word here. For some reason, my suburb often stays dry even when suburbs to the south are getting drenched. Probably due to the effects of the lake, I would guess...

kelly, thank you--I really like the idea that I'm practical, because changing my entire yard over to plants from grass sometimes "feels" like it's rather fanciful instead of practical, if you know what I mean! (Do share your thoughts on this, please... I like to pick up tips from you and your blog as well.)

lisa, how funny that your drought-loving plants are happier this year! Do you have the path light and the sage together, by the way? I love the way the colors work together.

Annie, that's a lovely way to think about it. :) I guess if we extend that metaphor then I would be the one practicing "tough love," eh?! lol.

kate, thanks for chiming in. It's so interesting to read about all of these different watering philosophies... although I think that you and I aren't so different. When I play favorites, it's with the plants that feed me, that's all.

layanee, amen to that. There are definitely always exceptions. :)

digital flower pictures, I wish you could send me some of your rain as well! It is very dry here... I believe that we're down at least 6 inches since the beginning of May, and we need 4 inches now (spread out over 2 weeks) in order to reverse this drought.

By the way, I love the lush gardens in your photos as well. (It is well documented via the comments I leave that I drool over them regularly! *grin*) I am lately turning to groundcovers to help add some lushness to my own garden since I'm stingy with the hose... I'll let you know how that works out.

kris, I hear you on the short growing season up there. I have long admired people who garden their butts off in zones 2-4... you all have to be some special brand of resilient optimists, and I aspire to that! I have a large dog myself and I know that they pose a special challenge, too. I'm still working with mine...

wildlife gardener, your comment gave me pause. I have never thought of geraniums and such that way, but... why haven't I? Methinks I've been a little shortsighted there! Must go think about that a little bit more...

Garden Wise Guy said...

Kim: We share the same Darwinian approach. My philosophy about watering is based on our Mediterranean climate here in Santa Barbara, CA. Our rainy season generally starts in December and lasts through early April. My approach is to "start winter early" with a few soaks in October and November, and end winter late, with a few more soakings through May. Other than that, it's once a month at most through summer and our scorching fall. If they don't make it, tah-tah.

As for your comments at my Garden Wise Guy blog this week, I hope you and Coco enjoy the High Country turf substitutes you're intending to plant. Lemme know how it works. I'm continuing with a series of posts on what to do after you murder your lawn. Stay tuned.

MrBrownThumb said...


I'm the same way with watering. I have a small space so I could afford to be more generous with the water but I'm thinking long term since my family owns this house and one day I won't live here and would hate to come by for a visit and see my first garden dead from lack of water.

I figure if they can survive my benign neglect they'll survive my family when I'm gone.

chuck b. said...

You're really stingy with the water; I wish I had your discipline.

When I see my little babies in the garden, I often can't resist giving them a little drink. I tell myself I'm only doing this to help get them established, but I'm not really sure if that's still true or not.

Sweet Home and Garden Carolina said...

Can't say that I agree with your watering philosophy, Kim. The garden is a human creation and as such we are in charge of tending its needs. When my flowers droop from lack of essential moisture I give them a nice cool drenching.

I figure Mother Nature is very busy with a lot of issues so if she doesn't give my garden the necessary one inch of rain a week then I will. I don't consider it coddling because I only plant the hardiest I can find to endure the Chicago winters. Plants, like people, get thirsty in the heat.

Plus, plants are an investment of time and money and I make every effort to protect them.

lisa said...

Y'know, my sage is not by my pathlight, but that's an area I COULD plant up, and I cannot believe it hadn't occured to me before! Thanks! BTW, I do tend to agree with Carolyn about the investment part of keeping up with watering-this addiction IS expensive!

Kati said...

My philosophy would be to "mother" the new plants until I figure they should be tough enough to make it on their own. But I don't live a gardening life of integrity because at times, the watering gets forgotten, or I just need to stand out there and play with the water for some incomprehensible needs of my own, not at all relevant to the needs of the plants. Poor garden. It's always a delight to me anyhow, the will of things to grow inspite of me. I did lose a golden variegated sage a few years ago to a very wet early summer and although I have the tri-color, maybe it's time to try a golden one again.

Unknown said...

So, Garden Wise Guy, you trick nature a bit--or at least your plants, eh? Here we're so dependent on the temperatures that I don't know if that would work so well. I try to do it with plants that I am going to bring inside for the winter, though. I will definitely let you know how it goes. Due to construction (more on that later) the new grass won't go in until late spring (it's a warm season grower, so I can't do it much earlier) so it may be a year before you get the full report.

mrbrownthumb, I never really thought about it that way, but that's interesting. I guess I figure that whoever lives here after me will rip out what they don't want and keep what they do. Hmm.

chuck b., lest you think I'm a saint... I admit to having sent a little extra spray the way of a plant now and then. And I do rue my watering goals when I see how sloooowly the lily-of-the-valley is filling in on the north side of my house. I know it would make better strides with a little TLC.

Carolyn gail, thanks for weighing in on the other side of the issue! It's been interesting to see what people think about watering, hasn't it? And as far as losing plants go... maybe it's because I have a small garden, but I just figure that losing a plant here or there means space to try a new one that may be hardier in my harsh conditions.

lisa, is it more expensive than all the rest of your projects?!! ;) (By the way, I'm going to build a vermicomposter for my basement this fall... prepare to be bombarded with questions.)

kati, if you were closer I'd give you a few cuttings... :) I know what you mean, sometimes watering puts me in that "zen" kind of contemplative place. And occasionally I neglect even those plants I do water, too. Somehow, it all works out in the end.

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