Water-Smart Gardening (Part Two) – (Google / mLive)

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Water-Smart Gardening (Part Two)

Posted by Monica Milla July 05, 2008

Water-smart gardens aren’t just for the desert. Jupiter’s beard (pink) and salvia (purple) are perfect low-water plants, as are bee balm (top far-left, not yet blooming), blue fescue grass (bottom right), and liatris (top center-left, not yet blooming).

Although some desert plants do flourish in Michigan (such as prickly pear cactus and some species of yucca), they are not the only low-water plants available for Midwest gardens. On the contrary, many common perennial plants do quite well without routine watering or fertilizing.

In part one of this article, I mentioned I don’t water my garden that often, and I want to clarify what I mean. Primarily, most of my plants get their water when it rains. (Plants growing under my two-feet wide roof overhang also get watered when it rains, via a soaker house attached to my two rain barrels.) If it’s really, really hot and/or it hasn’t rained in a while, and my poor plants look droopy and sad, I will water them (hey, I’m cheap, not mean!). I use a hose and water at the base of the plants. Also, and this is important, I do regularly and thoroughly water vegetables, seedlings, plants in pots or containers, and anything newly planted or transplanted. Veggies and seedlings need to actively grow, so they need water. The soil medium for pots and containers drains well and quickly dries out. Newly planted and transplanted plants are struggling to adjust to their new environment and need some extra help. I water seedlings, veggies, and containers once a day the entire season, but have a minimum of these kinds of plants. I water newly planted/transplanted things at least once a day for a good week, and then gradually reduce watering until they look like they can deal with the rain-only regime.

Of course, some plants just require more water. This is normal and natural; I just choose not to grow too many of them, because I’m not the type of gardener who likes to fuss over plants. I do love my peonies, though, and they bloom much larger when watered more. And I planted swamp milkweed next to my rain barrel’s overflow valve, and Siberian iris do exceptionally well in a weird wetter area in one of my front beds. I try to work with nature, not against it.

I was surprised by how many water-smart plants there are. My list easily reached 96 (mostly perennials, some annuals, and some shrubs), and I know there are many more. I compiled this list using a) the proven scientific principle of direct observation (I walked around my garden and took notes), b) the finely-tuned power of memory (I racked my brain for other plants I had grown or tended in previous gardens), and c) the highly standard and familiar information organization tool (I alphabetized the list for you).

Even though people often think of cactus as the great water miser, they often don’t realize there’s one cactus that grows in Michigan: prickly pear cactus. It takes a little while for the pads to root and send up new sections; it took mine two winters before it bloomed. It shrivels up in winter (looking kind of like a balloon that’s lost air), but it revives in spring.

If you’re a regular waterer, you may be surprised by some of the plants appearing on my list, but you are welcome to see them flourish without so much water by visiting them in my garden. (Seriously, I am always happy to show fellow gardeners around my garden–just don’t show up unannounced. That would be stalking and stalking is bad.) If you want to experiment and start watering less, make sure to transition gradually into lower watering. If plants are used to a certain amount of water, they will need a little time to readjust.



Published by

Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.