Not A Drop To Drink


In Saratoga Springs, where I live, water is definitely a problem.  Our leaders are always looking for new sources to drain: Saratoga Lake?  The Hudson River?  And there is always that moment in the summer when we’re supposed to cut back.

For me, July and August are real moral dilemmas.  No one thinks about xeriscaping in the Northeast.  But the soil in Saratoga Springs is so remarkably beachy pale and sandy that even in a season like this one–when we’ve had beating rain since early May–one hot dry day like last Saturday, and my garden is full of wilting flowers and shrubs.  At some point in every summer, I start muttering to my husband, “It’s like gardening in Phoenix.”

And this is the Northeast, after all.  We can’t do tropical, but we can do lush.  Our gardens are supposed to look lush.

So my neighbors all water without a thought.  In fact, one of my neighbors has the most wonderful ostrich ferns.  Hers are waist high, whereas mine top out somewhere in thigh range.  I asked her how she does it, and she pointed to a discrete soaker hose snaking among her plants.

But I can’t bring myself to do that.  It just feels wrong to be taking a hose to an ornamental garden, when I could just as well choose plants that might like my admittedly awful conditions.

So I tend to watch the wilting with a kind of perverse fascination.  Since I have a lot of shade, I have many theoretically moisture-loving plants.  Some of them are complete heroes in dry heat: hellebores, Solomon’s seals, cimifugas, aruncus, hostas.  And some of them are utter wusses: the astilbes.

I tend to fill up the watering can for those wilters that I truly love: the gorgeous brunneras, with their huge heart-shaped white leaves, my tall dahlias.  And I stint those plants that don’t fascinate me–astilbes.  In fact, I am thinking right now, no more palliative care for the astilbes.  If they dry to a crisp and blow away, so be it.

Of course, my friend in Atlanta informs me that it so hot in the summer there that without supplemental watering, there is no garden.  I don’t know the answer.  I just know there is something wrong in HGTV’s gentle reminder:

No matter what zone you live in, many common plants require more water than naturally falls.

Those plants deserve to be much less common.


  1. I’m not so sure you even have to water veggie gardens that much. I did an experiment in my old yard (mostly clay, with raised beds well-amended with organic material) where I didn’t water my veggie garden at all one summer.

    (Okay, it wasn’t really an experiment. I was in the midst of getting divorced and just neglected the darn thing after planting it.)

    I still got more tomatoes, peppers and basil than I could manage to put up for the winter even though the peppers were a bit smaller than normal. Beans and zucchini were fine, too. Made me kind of wonder whether I ever actually had a hand in the garden’s success in previous years or if I’m really just along for the ride.

  2. Mulch! Mulch! Mulch!

    Though it may be ugly to fastidious eyes, I am a recent convert to the benefits of grass clippings as mulch. Once the perennials have poked above ground, I try to lay a big bed of compost and/or manure down over a weeded bed, and then throw down some (seedy, non-aesthetic, yellowing) grass clippings. Even in my moderate climate with our clay soil, it seems the earth and the plants realy love a bit of cover. And I certainly snake the hose around a lot less.

    But it is about terroir, as you assert. This is NOT the solution for Oregonians with their slugs, or Phoenicians and their desert. But it MAY work in New Jersey!

  3. It looks like the people at HGTV didn’t read Sir Peter Smithers’ manifesto: “The plants themselves must do most of the garden work (in nature they do it all!)”

    My rule is that I will water perennials for the first year, then after that they’re on their own. Our grass gets no supplemental water at all (or fertilizer, or weed killer). So maybe it looks a bit tan and dusty in August – everyone’s on vacation then, anyway.

  4. I’m lusting after your hosta and ferns there. Is that Sum & Substance?

    I think the watering issue varies by locale. In Texas, like Atlanta, without extra water, the garden cannot survive the roasting it takes between floods. At least it’s a wet heat. Pfft. And unlike the more arid climates to the west of us, those dry-ground, heat loving plants don’t like the high humidity and regular flooding. I think every gardener has a catch 22 to deal with, if not several.

  5. The City of Austin actually offers rebates to people who replace their lawns with Xeriscape plants. Cool program, eh? My yard isn’t completely drought tolerant, but I only have to water every week or so to keep everything alive. (Otherwise all I would be able to grow would be bearded iris and cosmos.) Oh, and I don’t water my tomatoes but once every 4 or 5 days. So far, they’re fine.

  6. “But shrubs, perennials, and trees? The accursed lawn? They serve no purpose, other than beautifying the joint.”

    Well, I’ve been schlepping the watering can for my “working plants” — viburnum, elderberry, winterberry, spice bush, butterfly bush, bee balm, weigela, and clethra — because they’ll feed birds, bees, and butterflies, in addition to looking good for me. (I just planted all of them, so they do wilt if it’s hot and they don’t have water, but I’ve warned them that next year, they’re pretty much on their own, except for pruning, mulching, and composted manure.)

    I tried to pick tough wildflower annuals for the raised beds in the yard too, so once they get going I won’t have to work on them as much. I’m aiming for a garden that runs like an ecosystem and needs only a little bit of TLC now and again. I worked like a dog for six weeks to get it all set up, and I plan to enjoy it, not water it every time the sun comes out.

    As for the peonies, rhododendrons, hostas, daylilies, etc. bestowed on the garden by previous owners, I’m in total agreement — the hell with ’em. The hostas are starting to look like doilies from the slugs (thanks to the 17 inches of rain this spring, there are plenty of slugs), and even the peonies that I moved to a “full sun” location have botrytis and all the flower buds blasted. Who wants to run around in the heat applying slug bait and fungicides for things “from away” that can’t hack it on their own?

  7. Heather, good eye! Yeah, that’s Sum and Substance. I love them–this is their third year here and they are becoming enormous. Not sure I’m using them that well from a design standpoint yet, but they are spectacular.

  8. I may not be a gardener, but I play one on HGTV! Imagine how people might intepret “a constant flow”… uh, leave the hose on all day and night? That’s constant flow!

  9. yeah well, I will get a grand total of zero inches of rain between now and October or November. Ze-ro. Then it will flood until May. I’m still figuring out what survives in this climate (oh yeah–redwoods) and how little water I can get away with. More salvias!

  10. I agree with El. Mulch is the wonder drug of the garden.

    I added thick layers of newspapers to the flower beds first, then covered them with grass clippings to keep the neighbors’ yards neat. The grass fades to shades of yellow ochre and tan; much better than that nasty dyed red stuff from the big box stores that seems so popular around here.

    Even picky, wilty, prima donas like the ligularia haven’t needed watering this year. (except for a two week period with no rain)

    The three hours crawling under the lilacs and around the hostas were worth it when a friend looked at the yard and said “Where are your weeds?”

    My husband gets embarassed when I pull over to collect bagged clippings from the neighbors, so I carry paper bags in the car, and he’s free to put one on his head when he doesn’t want to be recognized.

  11. Almost forgot, caffeine kills slugs and snails that might be attracted by your mulch.

    A study done at UH found that weak solutions (1 to 2%) were effective on both slugs and snails. At least you don’t have to brew up espressos for the mollusks.

    Coffe grounds were not mentioned in the study, but they might work.

  12. Mulching is my most time-consuming hobby by far. I’m still not done shovelling the 7 yards I ordered in May. And I’m sure, in 20 or so years, mulch will improve my soil greatly.

    Okay, firefly, you’re right. Shrubs and trees do serve other purposes besides beautification: feeding wildlife and providing shade. But I’m not sure how it nets out in ecological terms if you have to baby them with the hose.

  13. I love mulching. I just took down some bamboo today, and I spent probably two hours crunching up the leaves with my hand pruners and mulching the bamboo left standing. The survivors will need the silica in those leaves.

    I like mulching with cocoa hulls. They smell like chocolate and the worms love them. Mold grows over the hulls in 7-10 days…I like that too.

  14. I have to agree with all the advocates of mulch, especially the newspaper/grass clipping variations.

    I have read in Mother Earth News that grass clippings release nitrogen for plants as well as helping keep them moist.

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