'Tough plants for tough times'is motto of Arboretum director

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September 01, 1991|By Linda Lowe Morris

For a long time now we've been trying to avoid the reality of our gardens, so each year when the heat and drought hit we pour gallons of water onto our delicate plants in an effort to coax them through yet another summer.

But more and more gardening experts are beginning to say that we've got to give up coddling and adapt a new attitude, a kind of survival-of-the-fittest toughness, toward our plants.

"My motto is tough plants for tough times," says Henry Marc Cathey, director of the National Arboretum in Washington. "I no longer routinely water my garden and I don't believe that we can use drinking water that way."

We need to accept the inevitability of the periodic droughts we've been having, he explains, and to respond not by buying a better sprinkling system but by changing the kinds of plant we put in our gardens.

There is a group of plants that can survive drought without added water and still have clean and lustrous foliage even into August, the yearly acid test of the garden.

"We used to call them ironclad plants," Dr. Cathey adds.

Among the perennial groundcovers, he picks sedum Autumn Joy. "Actually it's better this year than it's ever been. It flowered early this year because of the weather, so it will actually have a longer display season than normal."

Then he picks liriope, or lily turf, which grows in deep shade, either moist or dry. "Liriope, whether it's dry or wet, it still flowers. And the foliage doesn't burn."

He compares the leaves to "glistening swords" and adds, "It's like putting light reflectors under everything."

Among the bedding plants he recommends lantana and the new vincas. "The No. 1 bedding plant that has survived all of these changes is lantana, which is becoming more and more important for summer color."

Even if it's hot or wet or dry or cold, lantana still thrives.

The new vincas, called Pretty in Pink, Rose and (the newest) Pretty in White, are interspecies hybrids with beautiful, pure colors. "They were all around the White House, all around the Capitol building, and they've been spectacular this year. I have never seen better vinca."

The best tree for these variations in climate is the red maple or swamp maple, in particular the variety October Glory.

"It absolutely defies everything else. It's well adapted to sites but also has absolutely beautiful fall color," Dr. Cathey said.

Another is Magnolia virginiana. "Unlike its big-leafed evergreen cousin, the silver foliage is more adapted to stress than Magnolia grandiflora."

His favorite evergreens are Foster's holly and nandina, the heavenly bamboo. "They are just thriving through all this stuff."

For flowering shrubs, he recommends the Arboretum introductions of rose of sharon, forms of hibiscus which bloom throughout the summer.

"Rose of sharon flowers year in and year out regardless of whether you're caring for it or not," he says.

Another hibiscus, the mallow rose, produces 10- and 12-inch flowers throughout the season.

There are two small trees that are doing beautifully, he says. "One is sophora, the Japanese pagoda tree. It has been the best year it's ever had. It has the lime-green flowers in the summer. And then it has the seed heads which turn sort of a pale yellow. And it is a small tree so it can be put in many small spots and it will do well. The other ones are the crape myrtles and the Arboretum is introducing 19 new crape myrtles. They're mildew-resistant and cold-resistant and they've got beautiful bark."

You don't have to wait until next spring to replace dead or damaged plants because autumn is a very favorable time for gardening, Dr. Cathey explains.

"I always say this is the second season, starting now. Roots grow as long as the soil is not frozen. And so in the mid-Atlantic, the roots will still be growing into November. So you can really get a head start on '92."

Ten or 15 years ago, he continues, garden centers were almost empty of plants at this time of year. "But now they're fully stocked."

*

You'll be able to find some of these and other extraordinary plants this Saturday when Cylburn Arboretum holds its eighth annual exotic plant sale from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The nurseries and groups that are bringing plants to sell this year include Quinn's Kingsville Nurseries, Carroll Gardens, Foxborough Nurseries, Forney's Greenhouse, Cavano's Perennials, John Bartlett, Stillpoint Gardens, McLean Nurseries, Azalea Hortico, Alloway Gardens, the Cactus and Succulent Society, Richard's Roadside Garden, Kurt Bluemel Nurseries, Exterior Design, Fieldstone Nursery, Homestead Gardens and the Country Plant Store.

The sale will be held rain or shine at the Arboretum, which is located at 4915 Greenspring Ave. There is no admission or parking fee, and both the mansion and grounds will be open.

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