What, Me Water? Notes from a Drought-Stricken Suburb


But there’s this question I’m hearing almost daily: What’s wrong with my
(Name the Plant)?" Then after I bring up the topic of, you know, no rain, they
follow up with: "I’m supposed to be doing something about it?" And the body
language conveys annoyance or resignation at the sight of their landscaping
investment going up in crispy brown leaves, never to be green again.

What accounts for this lack of attention to the plants growing just outside
the front door?  It’s all part of the disconnect that folks in urban areas have
with nature, a problem that’s in the news a lot lately thanks to Richard Louv’s
best-selling Last Child in the Woods and the many schools that are
creating gardens and natural areas for the kids to tend. (North Carolinians are
campaigning for designation of an official "Take Your Child Outside Week," the
very need for which reveals our sorry condition as a species.)  And when kids
grow up totally indoors or on sports fields, without experiences like camping or
growing plants or just digging in the dirt, they grow up to be nature-ignorant
as adults.  Unlike the 4-H kids I see at the Montgomery County Fair, who I can’t
imagine letting their new trees and shrubs burn up and die before their

So everyone and their cousin wants a
low-maintenance garden and by that they mean no-maintenance and what a bummer it
is to be told by yours truly that no such thing exists.  Even patios and decks
require maintenance; it’s just the nature of anything being outdoors.  Granted,
most people have time limitations, but I’m also seeing signs of a strong
aversion to physical labor.  I get looks of horror at the suggestion that a
plant can be moved if it isn’t in the right place.  "You do that yourself?" I’m
asked.  Oh, yes, repeatedly; that’s what gardeners do.

But there’s something else going on here.  There’s a certain leftie,
go-with-the-flow attitude that’s very appealing (to me, too) and when it comes
to imperfectly gleaming kitchen floors, I’m fine with it.  But it can also lead
to this mistaken notion – that you can just leave a garden alone and it’ll
eventually look like a painting by Rousseau, not the weedy mess it will actually
become.  Chores like fertilizing the lawn are dismissed as out-dated, but
turfgrass is not a sustainable plant and when it’s not fed it becomes spotty and
weed-filled, well on its way to reverting to forest.  So people, maintenance
must be done –
either by you or, if you can afford it, by someone else. 

But worse than patchy lawns, the real heart-breaker is to see the trees and
shrubs that have been neglected to death this summer. That’s a crazy waste of
not just money but of the time those plants have spent in the ground growing for
you.  Oh, I forgot.  Reputable nurseries guarantee their plants.  But PLEASE
don’t take your dead plants back to a struggling independent nursery, swear to
them that you watered them enough, and ask for a free replacement.  Because you
probably did NOT water them enough; the nursery people know that and you may not
yet but probably will after you’ve killed a few more.  Give the nurseries a
break and just assume that YOU killed it, and learn from your mistake.

And the next time you’re
choosing plants for your garden, do yourself and your nursery a favor and choose
ONLY those that are drought-tolerant.  That way, even if you’re unwilling to
coddle your plants during our increasingly perilous summers, they have a good
chance of surviving.  Google "drought-tolerant shrubs" or whatever you’re
looking for, or the word "xeriscaping" to get plant suggestions, and then stick
to them.  (The NC State sites on the subject are excellent.)  Local
recommendations are great, too, from neighbors, the local gardening Yahoo group or staff at the garden
center.  Or check out High Country Gardens.com, everyone’s favorite
supplier of drought-tolerant plants, in Santa Fe.

My own personal drought-tolerant favorites are:
     -Perennials like
sedum, aster, purple coneflower, rudbeckia (black-eyed susan), daylilies,
hostas, lamb’s ear, salvia, Russian sage, yarrow and ornamental grasses
-Shrubs and small trees like aucuba, nandina, spirea, weigela, beautybush
(kolkwitzia), lespedeza, butterfly bush, juniper, English laurel, rugosa rose,
oakleaf and Tardiva hydrangeas, caryopteris, forsythia, crapemyrtle, Asian and
hybrid dogwoods, sumac, and hybrid boxwoods.

While all these plants are doing fine, none are
sitting in low, wet spots.  Many drought-tolerant plants are from mountainous
areas or the Mediterranean region and will die if left to wallow in wet soil,
especially during winter.  And climate change is causing more extremes of
precipitation, so don’t forget that Maryland really ISN’T New Mexico and our
garden plants need to survive the occasional wet period, too.  Make sure to give
them good drainage, by using raised beds or mixing organic material into the soil, or even placing the plant slightly above grade.

Before buying a plant, find out what it’ll take to keep it alive and
thriving.  Is it thirsty, buggy, disease-prone?  Does it flop without staking or
spread to kingdom come and back?  Then only buy that plant if you’re willing to
give it the attention it needs – honestly.

And it’s a good time to ask yourself the same question about the plants that
are already in your garden: Are you willing to coddle the weaker, less
drought-tolerant ones?  Maybe not. This year I resigned to let two rhododendrons
meet their maker and sadly accepted the same fate for three American
dogwoods that are far from a water source.

For more information about coping with drought, see Joel Lerner’s excellent
article on the subject in the Washington Post:
"Strategies to Beat the Heat."

Photo of Death Valley by Oxyman.


  1. An excellent article, Susan, and one that ought to be required reading for all gardeners, regardless of expertise or where they live. Bravo!

  2. Great read, Susan! I’m so glad you hit on how disconnected so many of us are from the natural world. Gardening is a great cure for that. The more people we can get to fall in love with gardening, the better. And helping them be successful at gardening, by giving them advice like this, is exactly what the world needs more of. You rock 🙂

  3. Austin had its drought over 2005/2006. In 2007 while much of the rest of the USA is suffering what has become typical for us, we’ve been blessed with rain–almost twice our normal rainfall. Of course, now it’s our xeriscape landscapes that are drowning, rotting, and mildewing away. As you say, good drainage is an important factor for successful xeriscape. Depending on which side of Balcones Fault one gardens in Austin, you’ll find yourself on thin gravelly limestone or thick black clay. But many of our problems result not just from plants getting wet feet in standing water, but from the humidity.

    For those of you suffering from the drought, I offer a bit of hope via my link. I’ve put up a video showing the changes in the garden after the rain came back.

  4. Yeah, I do get to see a lot of that funny look of slow realization when I mention our (WashDC-area) drought and that it might just be the cause if those brown-tipped leaves. When you go from AC at home to AC in the car to AC at work and back again — you never connect to the real weather situation.
    At an all-day & night BBQ I just attended, everyone stayed inside a big backyard tent and loaded on the bug spray even though it was perfect weather (80 degrees with a light breeze)and I never saw a hint of a mosquito (and I’m normally filet mignon for those little jerks).
    People talk constantly about children being disconnected from nature – but I worry more about the parents.

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