Gardening on the Planet, Lawn Reform

Benefits of Drought

It’s official: the “U.S. Drought Monitor”, a site co-sponsored by University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, lists southwestern Massachusetts, where I do most of my gardening, as locked in a severe drought. The withered crops in my vegetable garden tell the same tale, as do the stunted growth of perennials. Indeed, most of the Northeast is undergoing a drought or at least abnormally dry this summer. This is hard on gardeners in the short run, but it could be a boon in the long run.

Let me explain. I spent a good deal of time in California and the Southwest during that region’s long drought of 1986-1991. I was there as a journalist because it was the biggest story in horticulture of the time, perhaps of the last generation. The drought forced the gardeners there to stop doing what they had been doing, which was to use lavish irrigation to maintain European-style gardens. When the taps were turned off, those same gardeners had to come to terms with where they actually lived. As a result they began experimenting with plants native to their regions, and with species from similar climatic zones around the world. In Arizona, gardeners began to celebrate the desert in their landscapes, using desert natives and planting them in the patterns characteristic of desert vegetation. California gardeners similarly began to experiment with indigenous plantings, turning the state from a horticultural copycat into a world leader in gardening innovation.

The result of these innovations was not just gardens that were more in tune with the local climate and flora. Gardeners began to be connected with the place they lived as they never had been before, and this influenced their behavior outside as well as inside the garden.

Meadow of native wildflowers flourishing despite drought

Meadow of native wildflowers flourishing despite drought

We in the Northeast could benefit from a similar experience. When I learned to garden at the New York Botanical Garden, it was very much in a European tradition as well. We were not as absolutely reliant on irrigation as the Californians of that day, but we did (and do) lavish drinking water on our lawns all summer long to keep them artificially green. And we still tend to follow English traditions when planning and planting our gardens. I’m hoping that our current drought, which is hammering those Old World perennial borders, will prompt us to open our eyes to where we actually live, and encourage creative, locally oriented thinking.

Posted by on August 15, 2016 at 10:43 am, in the category Gardening on the Planet, Lawn Reform.
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17 responses to “Benefits of Drought”

  1. Margaret Allen says:

    “When forecasters last year warned of a massive El Niño, some Californians held out hope that a single extremely wet year could bust the state’s severe drought.
    But a study published Tuesday in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union, offered support for the argument that state hydrologists have been making for months: It will take several years to recover from the four-year water shortage.
    Specifically, researchers studied the Sierra Nevada and found that the lackluster snowpack there, year after year, created a sizable water deficit that the state may not recoup until 2019.” This was what Matt Stevens wrote in his article in LA Times.
    Surely we should be mindful of drought season. We do not want our plants and gardens ruined. Trees would also suffer. Now is the best time to look after them and make sure they are trimmed and looked after.

  2. anne says:

    There’s an old saying by French grape growers: If you have to water your grapes, you planted them in the wrong place. Clearly things have changed and most new world vineyards are in places where they must be irrigated. Ours are not, and have weathered our drought with minimal problems (most of the vines are 40 years old now). My garden is another thing, though…I’ll have to think that through now!

  3. Laura Munoz says:

    Sounds like a good idea.

  4. skr says:

    I like the way John Greenlee puts it, “more green without more blue.” There are all sorts of plants that could be used in the east that could maintain a green landscape during periods of drought. I see a lot of landscapes where there’s a big open back yard for an acre that’s kept mown like a lawn in a parterre garden. That’s fine if you have a nice formal area near the house, but wholly inappropriate when done in the part of the garden that is most closely described as English Picturesque. Sometimes you need to let your freak flag fly and let the grass get a little longer and visually softer, maybe even replace that turf with and ornamental clumper that gets a couple feet tall. It’s still green. It’s still grass but it’ll handle the lack of water a lot better than turf.

  5. Stephanie says:

    With respect, he wasn’t only talking about those parts of California; he also mentioned Arizona. As to “green and pristine” lawns, I had in mind the more ordinary turfgrass types. Good on those golf courses who replant with more appropriate species. I maintain that this dry weather is exceptional for us here in upstate NY–lush and wet has been the norm.

  6. Nar says:

    Great post and comments.

    I garden in Michigan and, like Laurrie, my challenge is heavy wet spring soils and years of alternating extremes – heavy rainfall years and drought years. A purely drought-tolerant planting is not a solution.

    For aesthetic and practical reasons, I plant a mix of natives, native cultivars, and non-invasive non-natives. So the thuggish native ostrich fern thrives in the wet years and brown’s off, dies back, and survives the drought years; as do the non-native astilbes. The drought lovers likewise alternately thrive or survive, or offer up the opportunity to try new plants.

    As to Hydrangeas, my Oakleaf and Paniculata Hydrangeas, some inherited and some planted by me, all native cultivars, have survived drought years well with little to no supplemental watering. A good thing since I would not want a garden without Hydrangeas!

  7. Tom Christopher says:

    I stopped mowing this summer in southwestern Massachusetts because the lawn was dormant and have had wild carrot (Queen Anne’s Lace) springing up and blooming all over the place — quite pretty. It’s deep rooted so that it seems to cope with drought as well as more typical weather conditions. It’s not a native, of course.
    Where irrigation is lacking, the meadow plants seem to be performing best this summer, which is a useful clue for future planting. Summer droughts punctuated with downpours seem to be becoming a pattern here. Though as always our planting will need to reflect the immediate topography and conditions. You are correct that planting dryland plants in areas that are commonly wet is not a good idea.

  8. Tom Christopher says:

    Upstate New York is certainly different from southern California, but nevertheless a drought helps to alert us to what are marginally adapted plants and regionally inappropriate styles of planting. I think, for example, that it is a good reminder that a common style of lawn, lawns that remain green all summer because of constant irrigation, are unnatural in our climate. I see those lawns suffering badly this year. Whereas the lawns that are accustomed to going dormant in the summer seeming to be weathering the drought much better. And native meadow plantings of warm season grasses are thriving. Drought can be a useful wake-up call.

  9. Saurs says:

    This was in response to Stephanie @ #4.

  10. Saurs says:

    With respect, the most heavily populated regions of southern California hard hit by last century’s and this century’s droughts–coast, basins, valleys–are not deserts at all. This is scrubland and chaparral country, mainly, and pristine lawns are perfectly possible, as Thomas Christopher notes. They’re just made from bouteloua, leymus, clover, and carex now, amongst other suitable turf substitutes. Make no mistake, micro-climate change will affect species and cultivar availability throughout the world in the years to come. Hydrangeas will adapt–that is, nurseryfolk will conceive of adaptable varieties or find more obscure but tough subspecies for use in hybridizing for beauty and maintenance–or they will be replaced.

  11. […] Benefits of Drought originally appeared on Garden Rant on August 15, 2016. […]

  12. Laura Munoz says:

    Are you saying the design needs to change or the plants need to change or both, David?

    I support the use of native and xeric plants, but honestly, does the actual design have to change? I don’t think it does necessarily. Couldn’t one simply keep the European design and change the plants used?

    I also live in the south, but I don’t care for cacti, agaves, succulents, etc (the desert look). This look and these plants are popular in certain droughty areas of Texas. I’m also not fond of the look of gravel with landscape fabric underneath and a plant planted here and there in the gravel although I support the choice of the gardener who does like this design.

    My preference for design (if you can call it that) is for a cottage-style or more naturalistic wild garden. I know this kind of garden can be created from other kinds of natives/Xeric plants. If there’s drought, couldn’t one use tons of mulch to keep the plants moist and water with grey water? (I personally already water with grey water supplemented with rain water when I can get it.)

    I think the watering practices and the plants need to change, but don’t see that the design needs to change.

    FYI – While living in Austin, I lost only a few plants in the drought of 2011, and I gardened on caliche. I watered my big oak trees with collected rain water and City water, and everything else with grey water. Most of plants were Xeric–Turk’s Cap, agarita, pomegranate, old roses, yaupon holly, Barbados cherry, iris, rosemary esparanza, Mexican oregano, an orchid tree, and so forth. The design, however, wasn’t of the desert type. Many of these plants weren’t watered at all in 2011.

    Oh, and the ubiquitous southern crape myrtle is actually pretty darned drought tolerant.

  13. Laurrie says:

    When I began my Connecticut garden many years ago I planted drought tolerant things — only to have them wither in our wet, humid weather. We got 11 inches of rain that one July and many, many wet months after that. Snowfalls leave our springs too soggy each year for anything but damp lovers. Now, this year we’ve had a rainless summer and native New England plants adapted to our normally wet northeast conditions didn’t do well this year at all — the wild asters in the meadow around us are blasted and the swamp milkweed shriveled up. No Queen Anne’s lace bloomed at all. My native blueberries and hemlock died. We’re wishing we planted Mediterranean sages and yarrows now!

    The issue here isn’t planting something more suited to a drier climate in case there might be a drought — usually we are far too wet in the northeast. The issue is that weather has become more extreme, with record rainfall years followed by severe drought years. What to plant that is both drought tolerant and wet loving? And hardy for record cold winters? Native plants are struggling with climate extremes.

  14. Stephanie says:

    I’m a little surprised by the argument advanced here. Drought is, by definition, a period of exceptional weather. I live in a part of upstate New York that’s currently experiencing severe drought and have been wondering if this is in fact our new normal, courtesy of climate change–and if so, our gardening strategies will have to change accordingly. I don’t, however, feel like my garden (which has always had a good number of natives) is suffering because I’ve made irresponsible plant choices in the past. Planting a hydrangea here is not on par with maintaining a green and pristine lawn in the desert.

  15. David mcMullin says:

    Right! We have, often, to extricate ourselves from the cultural landscape sometimes to be able to see and honor the natural one. Here I have allowed the ‘real’ cultural and ‘real’ natural landscape of my locale dominate the design – but southerners don’t like the strory of poor people and poor soil. We like the high cotton story!! Alas, I didn’t come from high cotton!
    Hardscrabble has a place too I think. Especially when drought comes!

  16. Thomas Christopher Thomas Christopher says:

    Change is a slow process, especially in a field as conservative as gardening. It sounds like you personally are making progress, though, and hopefully those who see your garden take away the germ of an idea. I don’t expect a sudden transformation here in the Northeast, either. But I’m hoping that the resilience of some new style gardens, such as the meadow in the photo above, will impress some people and help to encourage a change to a more sustainable — and locally oriented — type of design.

  17. David mcMullin says:

    Don’t hold your breath, Thomas! We here in the south had a magnificent drought (and are droughty now) in 2007/08/09. We had water bans and the governor prayed to baby Jesus for rain.
    We lost many old trees, most shallow rooted herbaceous perennials and heavy drinkers like hydrangeas all but disappeared. You’d never know it today.
    The nursery industry responded by patenting more hydrangeas and everybody resodded their lawns and dug wells and nothing changed.
    Interestingly it’s the average home gardener that seems very aware and is making attempts to plant the right things and use good practices but the “professionals” just keep going status quo.
    I have a big gravel garden that is full of drought tolerant and dry-loving plants but usually when the southern ladies (who run all things garden here) see it they say it doesn’t look “southern” enough. Even though at least half the plants are native. They mean it’s not green and wet and nostalgic. We don’t do “differnt” down here.
    (If you come to Garden Writers next month you’ll see plenty of those “southern” gardens – my apologies!)
    I’ve come to realize that it takes creative class communities to embrace design changes. I hope that describes your neighbors in Massachusetts.
    And my condolences on the drought. It’s very stressful.