Being “water wise” could save your garden from hot, dry weather

By Rhiannon Allen

Are you spending too much time watering your garden? Are you feeling guilty about sucking the Seymour reservoir dry? Perhaps it’s time to switch to waterwise gardening.

“Waterwise gardening” might bring to mind the xeriscape rock, cactus and agave plantings of coastal southern California, the southwest and the Jersey shore. Unfortunately, most plants used in those gardens will not survive here. We share dry summers with those locations; however, our wet cool winters will rot plants like cacti. So what are the solutions for a winter wet, summer dry climate? Fortunately, the choice of waterwise plants is amazing.

For shrubs and trees, it’s hard to beat plants native to the Pacific Northwest, which are native precisely because they evolved in this climate. Dogwoods, red flowering currant and vine maples are good choices for a local waterwise garden. Their leaves can turn a little crispy in a very dry summer, but the plants will generally bounce back quite well the next year.

If you are looking for non-native plants, look to those from Mediterranean climates like South Africa, Chile, southern Australia, coastal California and the old world Mediterranean, where the dormancy period is mild and wet, but the growing and flowering period is warm and dry. The classic example is lavender. Most of our traditional culinary herbs also favor this climate, including shrubs like rosemary and small trees like bay.

Two Mediterranean plants whose non-edible foliage delights the senses with evocative aromas are ornamental wormwoods (Artemisia) and curry plant (Helichrysum italicum). The thin, slightly fuzzy gray or silver leaves of many of these plants are key to their ability to thrive in a warm, dry summer. The gray color reflects sunlight, reducing the plant’s need for water. The hairiness or fuzziness of the leaves traps moisture that would otherwise be transpired directly into the air, with the result that more water is retained for sustaining growth. The scent released by crushing or brushing these leaves is a good reason to locate these drought-tolerant plants where you can brush the foliage as you pass. Two low, shrubby Mediterranean plants that also often sport slightly fuzzy grayish leaves are the sun rose cousins Cistus and Helianthemum. Tolerant of a very wide range of conditions, the sun rose family is underutilized in the sunny garden, and in the rock garden in particular.

Of course, the master of the silver fuzzy leaf is lamb’s ear. Locate this plant also where you can softly fondle the leaves. However, place it where it can either spread or be contained, as it can be a bit of a garden bully. If you want something larger than these Mediterranean offerings, cultivars of California lilac (Ceanothus) seem to tolerate our wet winters and salt air rather well, as long as you do not plant them in a particularly boggy area. Moreover, they delight us with delicate blue-purple flowers and intense fragrance for up to three seasons, beloved by people and pollinators alike.

If you are looking for plants with a more dramatic color statement, some colorful plants have developed adaptations that allow them to survive our climate. High Country Gardens is a southwestern plant nursery specializing in waterwise plants, inclusive of plants that will do well here. Although it began as a nursery for people gardening in the high desert plains, it now sells nationwide, with a specialty in drought-tolerant ornamental perennials from around the world. As a special bonus, almost all plants are grown free of the neonic pesticides now known to harm bees, and the online catalog will note whether or not a plant is neonicotinoid-free.

High Country Gardens takes great care to specify how much water a plant needs, and whether it will tolerate western wet winters. It’s best to use both their print and online catalogues because the former makes it easy to browse for visually appealing plants but the later excels at grouping plants into categories like “hummingbird friendly” and “butterfly plants.” For example, I can use their website to search for deer-resistant plants and find that black eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida Goldsturm) is deer- and rabbit-resistant, likes full sun and will flourish with our amount of rainfall. This sounds like a great flower for Point Roberts gardens.

A personal favorite I found out about and order from this nursery is penstemon. This tough plant does well in my rock garden that is watered only once a month, attracting nectar-hungry hummingbirds to its blooms during the dry summer months.

For other ideas, visit the Earthwise Society Garden in Tsawwassen; since the society doesn’t use extensive summer watering. Please don’t forget that even waterwise plants will need adequate water their first summer. But after that, you can garden on guilt-free!

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