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Lessons from Your Garden When It Is Dry

So much information!

garden path
A Very Dry Garden in July

There is a lot of advice out there from experts about how to add winter interest to your garden, primarily with structure like paths or pots and plants with interesting colors, shapes or bark. I never thought structure would be all my summer garden had to offer but here it is. In my gardening years, I can never remember a garden being so dry!

To be sure, I have not watered much -- only newly planted or moved trees, shrubs, containers and a few tomatoes. This has left a mass of dried perennials and established shrubs with browning leaves that are beginning to crisp. For established perennials, I am not too concerned. Like a lawn, once rain and cooler temperatures return, I expect they will recover. It's the established shrubs and trees I am focused on.

On the one hand, I'd like to have a garden where the plants are able to take care of themselves water

wise. I try to water newly planted or transplanted shrubs and trees very deeply once a week. A deep watering is said to encourage roots to grow deeper looking for water. Deeper root systems help plants be more tolerant of dry periods. Once they are established, I think of them as being on their own water wise.

On the other hand, some of these established trees and shrubs are struggling! A combination of no rain and very high temperatures in an urban west facing garden is challenging them mightily. I plan to step in judiciously with the hose. All that said, this is a fascinating time to really look at what your plants are doing. There is a lot they are telling us.

Which plants are struggling when it is dry?

In my garden, the trees and shrubs struggling the most with the dryness and heat are the plants that "prefer moister soils" but tolerate average soils. Planted in average soils, winterberry (Ilex verticillata), inkberry (Ilex glabra), and possumhaw viburnums (Viburnum nudum) are well established native shrubs that have always weathered dry periods easily. Not this year though.

All the native wild hydrangeas (Hydrangea arborescens) including the cultivars like 'Annabelle' (Hydrangea arborescens 'Annabelle') are drooping. Of the oak leaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia), only the oldest, most established straight species are faring well. The others have wilting leaves and brown flowers.

Which plants are not missing a beat when it is dry?

A handful of plants look like they have been watered every day for the past several weeks. Looking at them, you can't even tell it has been dry. Silver sedge (Carex platyphylla) along with seersucker (Carex plantaginea) and blue wood sedges (Carex flaccosperma) planted in shade, the location they are suited to, all look fine. Bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii) and wideleaf bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana) look as good as ever. Fragrant sumac 'Gro-Low' (Rhus aromatica "Gro-Low') looks as fresh as it does in spring. Redbuds (Cercis canadensis) and eastern red cedar 'Grey Owl' (Juniperus virginiana "Grey Owl') shrubs are doing well too.

The strugglers and the thrivers will probably be different for each of us because gardening is so site specific. This is why now is such a great time to collect some intel from your garden while the conditions are slightly less than ideal.

And despite all this dryness, your native plants are still doing their job!

Happy gardening.


We want you to be as excited about planting Chesapeake natives as we are. “Plant This or That” gives you a native alternative to popular plants. Other posts highlight really fabulous fauna native to the Chesapeake.

Nuts for Natives, avid gardener, Baltimore City admirer, Chesapeake Bay Watershed restoration enthusiast, and public service fan.

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