It's the Plants, Darling

Great Weather For People, Not Plants

The first time I’d ever heard the term "xeriscaping" was 16 or 17 years ago in my friend Mira’s lovely garden in the Hollywood Hills.  Mira did many things earlier than the rest of us, including xeriscaping.  She met a really great guy early, a guy with a really great job in television that meant that she could give up on the world of work early.  So she mastered many domestic arts way before any of my other peers, including gardening and cooking, and did them with such style and humor that she left me, at 30, breathless with admiration.

Anyway, I had never even raised a shovel at this point, and her garden looked miraculous to me–a hillside full of grey-leaved plants with subtle straws of flowers in smoky colors.  And then, on the deck, a hot-tub and a several huge pots filled without the most outrageous, lush-looking rose bushes.

It was really well-managed.  It was really Californian, too–a great combination of rugged and absurdly civilized.  Xeriscaping could be gorgeous, I learned, but it struck me as an L.A. thing, like seeing bands on the Sunset Strip and having coffee at the beach on a Sunday morning.

Or so I thought until this last month.  The weather has been glorious this summer in upstate New York–Elizabeth will confirm–cool, sunny, but very, very dry.  As far as I can tell, it has not rained here in Saratoga Springs, NY in an entire month.  Given our sandy soil, a week without rain is a disaster.  But a month?   

I’ve had a sudden realization. In the sunnier parts of my yard, even ordinarily tough plants like daylilies and baptisa are not cutting it.  On my hell strip, the crocosmia–supposedly a drought-loving bulb–dried to a crisp without ever blooming.  It’s gone beyond everybody’s perennials wilting.  That happens on any hot day here.  People’s shrubs are now dying.

I suddenly understand that I need to think like a Westerner…margaritas and xeriscaping.

Posted by on September 7, 2007 at 10:28 am, in the category It's the Plants, Darling.
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13 responses to “Great Weather For People, Not Plants”

  1. Susan Harris says:

    I was just chatting with the folks at the local paper I write for and their desperate request for my next column is the topic of xeriscaping.

  2. Susan, is it dry in D.C., too?

  3. shira says:

    In Southern New England it has been very dry too!

  4. A xeric plant scape is a thing of beauty and a necessity of function here in arid California.
    But we have it a lot easier than the rest of the country in planning these xeric plantscapes because of our relatively warm winter months.

    Besides our own native plant palette that is fairly large in variety to choose from we also can choose from other similar climatic growing regions such as South Africa, Australia, Mexico and the Mediterranean regions of southern Europe.
    Many of the plants from these areas adapt better to off season/ summer time planting than our own tempermental natives .
    Anyone that has tried to plant the Californian native ‘Ceanothus’ during our summer months will know what I mean by that last statement.

    A lot of our Californian natives prefer to live without any summer time water once they are established.
    This means that when you plant a new native plant during the summer months you are going against their normal watering desires and often times failure results in over or under watering in order to get the plant established.

    On the other hand we normally do not have that problems with establishing Australian or South African plants during the summer months.
    Some have therorized that it is due to their origin of their hemispheric location.
    A drought resistant southern hemisphere native plant can more easily estabalish itself in the dry season in the northern hemisphere. Something about the pre-programming of the cell structure.

    I’ve lived in Calfornia for so long now that I think I would have a long hard learning curve to climb in knowing how to plan for a Xeric garden outside of a mild winter climate.

    Harsh winter climate gardeners have my respect.

  5. Susan Harris says:

    It’s HORRIBLY dry in DC. Dead plants everywhere.

  6. Trey says:

    I sympathize with those of you who normally would have rain to water their gardens. Here everyone has irrigation systems of one type or another, allowing us to water during the dry months. Of course the next time we have a prolonged drought in California irrigation systems won’t mater much as we have not increased our water storage for over 20 years, yet our population has exploded in that same time period. If our winter this year is short of snow and rain like last winter, we will be in the beginning of a serious situation. You’ll see the interest in xeriscape explode then.

  7. emma - an English Gardener in New England! says:

    Here in on the North Shore in Massachusetts we are watching the weather forecasts like hawks – we may be in luck Sunday/Monday, but today was a glorious 96F ( well, if, like me, your hubbie had a day off, and decided the beach was the way to go! Yay for Crane Beach in Ipswich !) or a miserable 96F if you were stuck in High School with no AC like daughter! Any form of sprinklers/irrigation is banned, hand watering only at night or early morning. I’ve sacrificed all veggies except the tomatoes,all annuals, and the grass is on its own! Yet, come Spring, I bet we get floods again!

  8. Jodi says:

    Here in MN we had a very dry winter and then straight into summer. Spring – never saw it. Record highs in the 90’s and no rain – fires and watering bans. My soil is sand. I don’t know how many pails of water I lugged to keep my plants alive, and then just barely. I live in the country and the well couldn’t keep up. Only my husband cared about the lawn and boy did it get brown and crisp! The rain came in August and flooded the southern half of the state, a total disaster. If there is no snow this winter its going to be pretty serious around here next year. All my plants bloomed earlier than normal and for a very short period. Only my grasses and sedum did well and I am very happy for that. Oh yeah and some yellow flower that I lost the tag on. Its been blooming for a long time. I may need to rethink what’s been planted in my garden. Maybe some rocks that don’t need watering. sigh………

  9. Kathy says:

    That’s what I was thinking, Emma, dry this year, and as soon as you xeriscape the garden, it rains buckets and they all rot. It’s already been yo-yo-ing between drought and abundance over the past decade.

  10. squirrelgardens says:

    Jodi, I love reading you posts. I live in Duluth. Just had rain but not enough to save the trees, lawns and new shrubs.

    Five years ago I started to go native for the sake of birds in our area. There is a ban on deer feeding and of course bird feeders attract them. The idea of starting a native garden seemed the solution. Except for the nwighbors who have complained that my “yard” is looking weedy to them.

    It is one thing to become enlightened. How to do educate others to at least try to understand that lawns and perfectly manicured shrubs do not contribute to the ecosystem?

    Really frustrated in Duluth?

  11. Kim says:

    I wish I had an answer for frustrated in Duluth… anyone else?

    As far as xeriscaping goes, I have lots of tough, drought-tolerant plants, but I have an advantage over most other Ohioans when it comes to xeriscaping: sandy soil. As Michelle has trouble imagining doing xeriscaping outside of sunny California, I have trouble imagining it in the clay that most everyone else here has in their yards. A rainy period doesn’t rot out my sedums or stress out my sages.

    Could raised beds be an answer on how to xeriscape in wetter areas or clay soil? At my old house, I gardened in clay and I lost lavender for multiple years in a row until a neighbor told me her trick: Mound up soil at least a foot high and plant the lavender in the top. It looks silly until it fills out and other things fill around it, but it keeps the roots from rotting over the winter. So would doing that on a larger scale work so long as you kept the soil within the raised beds fairly well-draining?

  12. eliz says:

    Ok, but what about xeriscaping and shade? That’s what I want to know. It’s been INCREDIBLY dry in WNY, but those plants recommended for xeriscaping usually want full sun.

    I can’t/won’t limit myself to the 3 plants that love dry shade.

  13. Tibs says:

    Besides X-caping, I would love to see enlightened building codes that would allow use of grey water for landscaping. Not just saving your bath water and lugging in outside, but a plumbing system for grey water connected to an irrigation system. I know this happens in some of the more enlightened areas of the country, but not in my town.

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