PDT Outdoor Columnist
In other landscape articles, the topic has had the focus primarily on aesthetics. We’ve talked about pink and blue butterfly bush, gold leaf spirea, red leaf crabapple, red berries on blue holly, etc. When we talk landscape, it’s usually about color, right? Yes, that’s pretty typical.
Many times we look back and wish we had paid less attention to the pretty picture on the plant’s tag and more attention to the fine print. It’s in these details of survival that you learn the plant’s hardiness zone and tolerance for sunlight, shade, wet or dry.
Xerscape is all about nature. It is a term applied to a particular approach to landscape design. In a xerscape landscape, you pick color and texture for looks, but it’s all be based on plant selection that fits what Mother Nature wants to give it. I’ve been doing this for 35 years. We have thousands of trees and shrubs at the nursery, but no greenhouse. If it thrives at the nursery, it should do well also in your yard.
In terms of xerscape, we think of hardiness. That means we try to stay in the middle of the road and don’t drive off in the ditch. If a hardiness zone of 6-8 is listed for the plant and you plant it in zone 7, that should be perfect. If you plant it in zone 5, it freezes in the winter and you’re off the road and in the ditch. This is the scenario that most of us consider when we shop in terms of hardiness and survival, but we need to consider the other end of the hardiness spectrum, also.
We should ask ourselves, “How much heat or drought can this plant take, and what am I realistically going to do to offset the heat or drought?” Now that you have your own attention you might ask yourself, “Self, what’s the proper hardiness zone for the plant? Will I give it shade or sun? Will I be willing to water it regularly?” These might sum up your realistic expectations of the plant and yourself.
Let’s look at some smart plants for our area and the good old summertime.
The list of drought-resistant plants would apply to trees, shrubs, and perennials. Why would a pine tree and an artemesia perennial both be drought resistant? First, define drought – weeks months or years of dry spell. What’s a dry spell? Lack of moisture. Lack of moisture in rainfall of course results in lack of soil moisture.
This is where it starts with the plant survival. A vigorous and deep root system will create more survival to drought, but there has to be some water available. Another parallel that artemesia and pine can draw would be long narrow needle leaves. They lose much less moisture transpiring from their leaf surface than do broadleaf plants such as oak, maple, rhododendron, etc. The rhododendron is also called the thermometer plant because in cold temperatures it will curl its flat leaves tightly. This narrow, rolled-up leaf loses less transpired moisture from its surface.
Another feature of drought resistance and xerscape is the natural water-holding capacity of the plant. The more your plant can resemble a barrel cactus or saguaro cactus, the more it can suck up and hold water. This is key to handling drought issues where rainfall is few and far between. In our recent weather scenario, it seems that we have to ask ourselves just what is supposed to be normal. I’m sure that since man first walked upright, stepped into the desert, or fell off the boat on our shores, he’s had that very thought on his mind. Just what weather is normal here?
With today’s plant list, technology and broad-base communication network we think we know how to plan the work week or the landscape. As usual, most of our best plans can go asunder with the weather.
With xerscape, let’s hope for the best and plan for the worst. Let’s select the plants that are listed in hardiness zones of our coldest and warmest. Let’s not foolishly stretch those limits. Let’s look at leaf shape and sun/shade requirements. We can further protect these plants with location to an east exposure, moisture in a swale and dry feet on a mound. Landscapes with proximity to trees get a half day of sun and shade. These are all a “natural” approach to landscaping and we now call it xerscape. The Native Americans called it common sense and survival. It still works.
Some of the best drought resistant trees on my list and 35 years of growing would be:
These trees can take minimal care after planting. Why? They are planted in good soil when transplanted and they all do a great job of acclimating to Southern Ohio clay soil. The cypress, pine, redwood, spruce and fir all have the deep root system and narrow leaves. This means they will find more water and lose less. The redbud and crabapple are native and just plain tough to kill.
In essence, we’ve done six downtown renovations and six new schools. We’ve done numerous parks, camps, and athletic fields. You know when you see these projects in the rear view mirror, the T.L.C. is over. You had best hope you’ve selected plants that can make it on their own.
Some shrubs that you will find on these jobs for the same low-maintenance reasons are:
Blue Rug Juniper
In these shrubs you have color, texture, vigor, fragrance; and a resistance to drought, disease, cold and insects. These are proven winners and those are the ones you put in the starting lineup.
The supporting cast of the landscape is the perennials. They are the specialty teams or the seasonal color you need to give year round interest to your landscape design. They will do their thing from the end of winter to the beginning of winter. They will range from the yellow of daffodil and pink of dianthus in spring, to the broad spectrum of daylily color through summer, giving way to the rainbow of color choices in butterfly bush, sedum, and cone flowers summer and fall.
Other backup players coming in off the bench could be lavender or sage for lavender color and fragrance. Yarrow, poppies, aster, salvia, phlox, yucca, coreopsis and blanket flower all have a place in the good ol’ summer time.
When you think of the long narrow pine needle concept and its correlation to drought resistance, use the same analogy with ornamental grasses. Their long, wispy blades are drought resistant and they remind us of the shores and beaches which we associate with vacations and heat.
In winding down the drought theme, remember they call yucca and sedum “live forever” and “the rocks live forever.” We guarantee our boulders not to dry up, die, or outgrow the space we’ve planted them in. This is all part of xerscape and “The Landscape Design of What’s Happenin’ Now.”