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Rainless in Seattle
It's possible to plan and plant for those dry days
Pale, willowy Russian sage, smoke trees, sedums, silvery senecio and chocolate-centered rudbeckia have grown up in only two years to fill the dry garden stretched across a hot, west-facing slope in Stacie Crook's Innis Arden garden.
DESPITE THE SIREN song of new nursery catalogs, I can't forget that last summer was the driest in 109 years. How to justify ordering a hydrangea or a hosta?

Every time I put pencil to order blank I all-too-clearly recall how my plants suffered during that 61-day stretch over 70 degrees. I'm as successful at forgetting the water bills as I am at dismissing the cost of plants, but how to overlook the dragging of hoses, and the wretchedness of plants that needed more water than they got? On the other hand, how to squelch the craving for the golden-leafed Hydrangea quercifolia 'Little Honey'?

My agonies over the desire to garden responsibly versus the desire to embrace new plants culminated in the search for a garden recipe that emphasizes "no water needed." We can draw inspiration from English pioneers like author-gardener Beth Chatto and curator Matthew Wilson of Hyde Hall in Essex. Clearly, neither has sacrificed plant lust for environmentally aware gardening. Here is a list of tips and techniques scoured from reading about their extensive drought-proof gardens and from my notes on local gardens that held up surprisingly well through day after rainless day last summer:
Illustration Now In Bloom
The ruby colors and glowing stems of 'Bright Lights' Swiss chard elevate this familiar vegetable to the category of winter ornamental supreme. A member of the beet family, Swiss chard is easy to grow autumn through spring, and seldom bolts as the weather warms. 'Bright Lights' is so decorative that it's hard to believe it's a vegetable, despite the familiar crinkled leaves in shades from green through burgundy. The vivid shades of the stalks are showy in near-neon yellow, pink, orange, red and purple, making these small plants ideal for brightening the winter garden in containers or at the front of borders.
• Don't fertilize much or at all; it causes plants to grow quickly and crave water to sustain that lush new foliage. The borders at Hyde Hall are only fertilized with compost worked in at planting time.

• Mulch, mulch, mulch. At Hyde Hall and at Chatto's garden, the beds are mulched with up to a foot of gravel. Many gardeners here prefer a layer of compost or a feeding mulch of manure and rotted-down bark. The point is to keep the soil from drying out, and a whole range of materials can be effective for this. It depends on your topography, kinds of plants and what pleases you aesthetically.

• Don't feel that your whole garden needs to be dry. Most of us have boggy areas or damp, shady spots, and these are ideal for moisture-loving plants like ligularia and hostas. Pay close attention to the conditions in your garden as they are, not as you'd like them to be, and group thirsty plants together, so you can water efficiently.

• Most drought-tolerant plants prefer full sun, thriving on hillsides and parking strips and in west- and south-facing borders; look for plants native to New Zealand, South Africa or California. If drainage is a problem, create raised beds or haul in some big rocks, and always add organic matter to the soil at planting and top dress every year.

• Drought-tolerant plants have evolved over millennia, and it shows. Look for plants with hairy leaves, silvery leaves (that reflect sunlight), leathery or waxy leaves and needle-like or tiny leaves to prevent water loss. These plants are so various, colorful and architectural that they're every bit as easy to covet as more familiar temptations, minus the guilt:

Ornamental grasses such as Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima), the panicums, pheasant tail grass (Anemanthele lessoniana) and Stipa gigantea are flamboyantly gorgeous and easy to care for.

Along with the grasses, shrubby plants like rosemary, lavender, phormiums, yuccas and ceanothus carry the garden through the seasons.

Ornamental oreganos like 'Kent Beauty,' 'Barbara Dingley' and 'Hopley's Purple' are striking for months.

Sedums add late-season color and stature, or creep to cover the ground.

Most bulbs go dormant in the summer, preferring dry conditions just when nature provides them. So go ahead and pack the garden with daffodils, tulips and allium.

Perennials and annuals that tolerate drought include the yarrows, sages, salvias, euphorbia, catmint, eryngiums, nigella, Russian sage, artemisia, verbascum and California poppies.

To learn more about the dry garden at Hyde Hall see, or track down the article about it in the August 2003 issue of The Garden: Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society (available at public libraries and at the Miller Horticultural Library, 206-UW-PLANT). Beth Chatto's "Gravel Garden: Drought-Resistant Plantings Through the Year" (Viking Studio, $35) is her latest book.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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