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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Learning About the Advantages of a ‘Xeriscape’ Garden

CRL's gardening expert demystifies the water-saving garden type.

August is the month for lounging by the pool, sipping lemonade and enjoying vacations.  This usually results in playing hooky from gardening chores. Weeds get pulled less frequently, deadheading is a second thought and staking is half-hearted, if at all. But there is one activity that gardens will not tolerate being overlooked – watering. As a rule of thumb, most gardens need about an inch of water a week – either from rainfall or man-assisted watering. So how can we tip the water-wand in our favor to reduce time spent watering and save money, especially during this blazing hot month?

Think xeriscaping. Here in the northeast we are typically blessed with plenty of natural rainfall. Not so in many areas of the country. We need to learn from gardeners in more water-starved regions.  The great thing about xeriscape gardens is that they are ‘camel-like’ in nature, as well as less maintenance. And despite common misconceptions, xeriscape gardens can look as beautiful as ‘traditional’ perennial gardens.

Xeriscaping involves:
Amending the soil with organic matter. Water-retentive soil supports healthier plants that are more resistant to insects and disease

  • Grouping plants with similar watering needs
  • Mulching to conserve water
  • Using efficient irrigation that reduces water loss from evaporation (i.e., soaker hoses, drip irrigation)
  • Watering in the early morning and not during the heat of the day
  • Using plants with low water needs
  • Re-thinking lawn area.  Lawns traditionally require a lot of water and fertilizer. Reduce the size, replace with drought-tolerant groundcovers, stepping stones or use low-water turf grasses
  • Position water-demanding plants close to the water source

In general, drought-tolerant plants have one or more of the following characteristics:

  • Succulent leaves and stems to store water. Examples are sedum, cushion surge and prickly pear cactus (yes, we can grow cactus in upstate New York).
  • Thick roots that store more, or long tap roots that dive deep into cooler soil. Plants with canteen-like roots include peonies and daylilies.  Those with tap roots include baby’s breath, malva, butterfly weed (Asclepias), wine cups (Callirhoe) and false blue indigo (Baptisia).
  • Silver or gray leaves plus foliage with a ‘hairy’ surface. These colors help reflect intense sunlight while the ‘hairs’ shade the leaf surface.  Examples are lambs ear, salvia argentia, snow-in-summer (Cerastium), speedwell (Veronica) incana and silvermound.
  • Small or narrow leaves. There is less surface area for evaporation.  Examples are flax (Linum), rockcress (Aubretia), thread-leaf coreopsis (Coreopsis verticillata), and most ornamental grasses.

Full sun beds that are also near heat-reflecting surfaces can be one of the toughest places to garden. Most perennials planted here would weep in defeat by early afternoon. Not so with the following sun-worshippers: Globe thistle (Echinops), sea holly (Eryngium), dianthus, catmint (Nepeta), lavender, Russian sage, yarrow, butterfly weed, daylilies, Siberian iris, German bearded iris, sedum, black-eyed susans, yucca, balloon flower, rose campion, herbs and most grasses. Roses are another outstanding choice. They ‘eat up’ sun and heat. My favorite shrub roses are any in the Knockout series.

Dry shade is another tough gardening assignment, especially if maple or pine trees are creating the shade. You need to enlist perennials that can compete with tree roots for the limited amount of water and nutrients. Deadnettle (Lamium) is a good choice. These short (4” – 8” tall), spring blooming perennials have pretty pink, white or purple flowers and showy leaves.  My favorites are the silver-leafed varieties such as ‘Pink Pewter’ or ‘Purple Dragon’ and ‘Pink Chablis’. Another top perennial pick is Barrenwort (Epimedium). These form a tough groundcover with pink, yellow, white or bi-color spring flowers. Their elongated, heart-shaped leaves glow with a pretty burgundy tinge in cooler weather. Epimedium makes a stunning, weed-smothering groundcover that will give Pachysandra and Vinca a run for their space.

Hostas also rise to the dry shade challenge.  They range in size from miniatures that are only a few inches tall like ‘Pandora’s Box’ to behemoths like ‘Big Daddy’. Given that there are so many beautiful, exotic hosta on the market today, there is no reason to only plant common green and white varieties.

Foam flowers (Tiarella) are another winner. Flower colors are creamy white or pink, but it’s their foliage that is the main attraction. Leaves are decorated with rich, burgundy-black markings that become more pronounced after flowers fade in summer. ‘Crow feather’, ‘Black Snowflake’, ‘Neon Lights’ and ‘Spring Symphony’ will have you singing their accolades.  Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum) is the 2013 Perennial of the Year.  It has graceful arching stems with dangling white fragrant flowers in spring that age to black berries. They are definitely a conversation starter, as the emerging plants have a unique, alien-looking presentation. I prefer the variegated cultivars, ‘Variegatum’ and ‘Double Stuff’ to those with solid green leaves.  Geranium macrorrhizum is a hardy geranium to zone 3.  Unlike its cousins, ‘Mac’ thrives in dry shade with deliciously fragrant leaves that provide nice fall color. It has white or pink spring flowers and reaches 12″.

Finally, when planting drought-tolerant plants, it is important to water them consistently their first season as their roots get established and spread mulch around the crowns to reduce weed competition and minimize water loss from evaporation.  After the first year of light coddling, tough love can prevail.

So put a dent in your water bill and reduce maintenance time with the magic of xeriscaping.

Kerry Ann Mendez is a garden designer, speaker, teacher and writer and the owner of Perennially Yours in Ballston Spa. Visit her website at www.pyours.com.

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