Beautiful lessons from the drought

Water: Gardeners should consider native plants, which don't have big thirsts

In The Garden

October 10, 1999|By Ann Egerton | Ann Egerton,Special to the Sun

Perhaps the best thing about the summer of '99 was that it was too dry for Japanese beetles. The summer drought was a whopper, followed so far by a wet, blustery fall. Plants withered, flowers died and trees crashed to the ground.

Gardeners are accustomed to dealing with nature's force, but these days have tested even the hardiest among us. Yet good gardeners know there are lessons to be learned from the earth -- and elements -- even during challenging times.

"The most important thing we've learned ... is that water is a luxury," says William Stine, chief horticulturist for Baltimore's Department of Recreation and Parks. The department has struggled to maintain the trees, shrubs and plants at its 30 horticultural sites around the city, including the Conservatory at the Baltimore Zoo and Cylburn Arboretum.

The department cut back on its watering in mid-summer and substituted mulching to hold the moisture in, Stine says. Shredded hardwood mulch is best, but anything -- grass clippings, fall leaves, cornstalks -- is better than nothing.

We've learned that plants newly planted need more water while their roots are getting established. When it's hot (and Indian summer might bring us a little more heat again), hold the hose closer to the ground to allow the water to go into the ground and not the air. Pay attention to where the low areas and moisture-catching sections of your gardens and lawn are.

Long-term effects of the drought on the plant world boil down to survival of the fittest. Stine says that the drought culled out plants that were weak or had other problems. Shallow rooted plants and newly planted ones as well as new lawns suffered the most. Remember that plants have mechanisms to per-petuate themselves. This year, for instance, many may produce an abundance of seeds, fruits and berries to make sure their species survives. This year was a great year for peaches, and various maples are producing many winged seeds, while oaks are producing a bumper crop of acorns.

Stine believes that the trees have been in a dry cycle for a while, and many have had time to adjust. He says: "You may see a number of trees lose their leaves or needles to cut back on leaf surface in order to survive. And then in the spring they leaf out well again. They can adjust to gradual extended change such as drought fairly well, but we won't really know how the trees and shrubs fared until next spring. Some may bloom beautifully, and then after expending all that energy, suddenly die."

In the meantime, we're learning which plants do and don't tolerate drought, and more often the most tolerant ones are native. Barbara Hansen, past president of the Guilford Garden Club and current president of the Garden Club of America, is a staunch proponent of native plants because they've been through many droughts and can survive on not much water.

The GCA believes it's wise to have less grass and more native plants, thereby reducing waterings, fertilizing and mowing. When it's hot and dry, don't water the grass; let it go dormant until it rains. The reward for all this cutting back is less work, more free time for the gardener and a more interesting individual garden.

Maryland's natives

There is much to choose from among native plants in Maryland.

Ground covers

Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia)

Wild geranium (Geranium maculatum)

Wild ginger (Asarum canadense)

Hardy native perennials

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Stonecrop (Sedum termatum)

New England aster (Aster novae angliae)

Native trees

Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)

American holly (Ilex opaca)

River birch (Betula nigra)

White oak (Quercus alba)

Drought-tolerant shrubs

Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia)

Lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium)

Bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora)

Sources

* "Going Native," Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Inc., 1994

* The New American Lawn, Garden Club of America brochure, www.gcamerica. org

* William Stine, chief horticulturist, Baltimore Department of Recreation and Parks, 410-396-0180

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