I am asked all the time about low maintenance plantings, about gardens that don’t require irrigation, and it gives me pause, especially when they’re showing me photos of rolling green lawns, masses of hostas, billowing roses and hydrangeas. Frankly, most people want all the beauty but don’t want to put in the effort that goes along with it, nor do they want to spend the time or the money, However, every once in a while, I meet someone who is trying to create a landscape that won’t have a huge impact on the environment, who believes that in the next century, “water is going to be the next oil,” and so wants a garden that isn’t an energy and resource suck hole. This column on xeriscaping is for them.
The term ‘xeriscape’ does not mean no water, it means water conservation through water-efficient landscaping. You will still have to figure out how to get water to your new trees and bushes and perennials, it’s just going to be less water. You will need to mulch plants to keep the moisture that’s in the soil there, and you will have to choose the right plant for the right place, so that water needs are met. In other words if you have sandy soil you will not be planting a weeping willow, but if you have heavy clay you can. Beach plums and hawthorns, perfect for those with nutrient poor, sandier soils.
Often, when I tell people I’m going to talk about xeriscaping, people roll their eyes and say they don’t want a gravel garden with a bunch of succulents stuck all over the place, but it’s really about the right plant in the right place, and choosing tough plants that are drought tolerant, low maintenance and natural looking. Certainly sedums and hens and chicks can work into that garden, as can native plants (if it grows on its own in an environment when the irrigation system is provided by the heavens, it will thrive in a garden with limited water provided by you.) However we’re also talking about spirea, cotoneaster, lilacs, dogwoods and mountain laurels. Crape Myrtles and Locust trees are good candidates, as are junipers and daffodils. Leyland cypresses, not so much.
Again, I’m not talking about a landscape with no water. That’s called a desert. Plants need to have water to live, and a new plant, planted by you, not nature, will need water for the first couple of years, no matter what. People always think they can just stick a bunch of grasses in the ground and not worry about them any more. Then, when their grasses curl up and brown from desiccation, they get frustrated. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I’ve told them, people just don’t want to believe you have to water a miscanthus. Once it’s established, a miscanthus grass with a good root system will not need constant irrigation, but if you are planting a large plant that’s been grown in a nursery in a pot getting water every day, or every other day of its entire life, I guarantee it’s not going to thrive with a smattering of rain drops in the third week of July. A lavender could handle it. In fact most of the death I see with lavender has to do with it rotting or freezing in wet soil. You can’t have a lavender under planting a hydrangea, the two plants have too disparate water needs. You can put a rugosa rose in a lavender bed and get by with significantly less watering, and that’s sort of the basic tenant of xeriscaping.
It’s also about accepting what does well without being forced. Butterfly bushes love it out here; they thrive in the sun and couldn’t be happier. You want a low growing ground cover? Use liriope, it’s tough, it can handle most soil conditions, it doesn’t require a ton of fertilizer and it’s drought tolerant.
If you have sun, you have lots of choices including most of the plants that do well in Mediterranean areas, all the silvery and fuzzy foliage plants perform better with less water than with too much. Iris do surprisingly well with less water as do all the fescue grasses, some of which can ever take a little shade. Gallardia and yarrow both rock through drought conditions as do daylilies. Hydrangeas don’t. Artemisia and salvia, centranthus and nepeta, Sea Holly and Russian Sage, what we’re looking for are plants that are easy to care for, and successful in a variety of different soil types and climates. Not the specialty plants, not the half hardy or the temperamental, but the toughies, the thugs, the workhorse. Yes to sedum no to phlox. Asters do fantastic is you can remember where they are in spring and not weed them up as I am so guilty of doing.
And yes sedums and hens and chicks rock a low water landscape. I have lately become overly fond of the hens and chicks, but am having a hard time working them into my existing planting scheme. So they are going to be this year’s potting solution. As I am a terrible waterer of containers, I end up putting all my potted plants through a prolonged and painful desiccation death. This year, I’m going a different way with the various sempervivums, sedums, aloes, kalanchoes, echeverias and other fleshy-leaved species that make up the succulent family. These plants are at their best when grown in hot sun and poor soil, as these are the conditions in their native homes. An unwatered and forgotten dish on the front porch in the baking sun isn’t a death sentence like it’s been for my petunias, instead it just reminds these plants of their grandparent plants.
If I want to limit myself to those that are hardy I’ll have to use either sempervivums (also known as hen and chicks) or sedums. The two types of sempervivums, either tight and rounded, with what appear to be cobwebs across the leaves, and thus called s. arachnoideum (note the spidery word) or s. tectorum, which is larger and more open. Both are very graphic and architectural and both have become super popular in the last few years.
Sedums are more likely to run or creep or spill in their habitat and thus make a great textural connection of continuity throughout the pot. The taller ones also bunch and group nicely, and make great centerpieces. I however, always add some of the more sexy tender succulents when I design these kinds of pots. They have the more varied colors and textures that can really make a planting sing, whether it’s lavenders and pinks or corals and blacks or even electric orange, the shapes and colors are startling, foliage that looks like branched coral, like strung together lobster claws, like Takashi Murakami flowers, they’re all incredible. These varied echeverias, aeoniums, pachyphytums, kangaroo paws and graptopetalums are like spices in cooking, they can really make a planting sing.
Paige Patterson is using the drought tolerance of Coneflowers, Lambs Ears Coreopsis and Zinnias as an excuse to plant more in the sandier sections of her garden. She has no excuse for all the dahlias that arrived in the mail last week.