Down to earth — doing the rain dance

(Originally published October 1, 2014 in EastBayRI newspapers.) 

I lived in blissful denial for most of the summer, thinking that our periodic rain showers, always overnight or when I needed to go back inside and clean the kitchen, were making a dent. They were not, though the amalgam of plants that constitute my lawn stayed green through August. We are nowhere near as stricken as poor California, but we need more rain than we have had. My garden tells me so.

Butterbur looking better than it should during a drought.
Butterbur looking better than it should during a drought.

The first to wilt were the plants I put in this past spring. I should have been watering them all along — and I did but only now and again — rain or not, to help their transplant-damaged roots recover and connect to the earth. Next to go limp were the enormous leaves of my rice paper plant (Tetrapanax paperifer), which have a large surface area to support. The even bigger butterbur (Petasites japonicus) leaves might have wilted too but those benefit from extra soaking from my rain barrels. It’s amazing how much collects off the roof even during the briefest of showers. By now, under the trees, where only the heaviest rain reaches the ground, even the weeds have wilted.

I am not inclined to provide supplemental water to my garden, and would never, ever, share such a precious resource with my lawn. I enjoy the break from mowing and would rather fill my garden with plants that thrive in this yo-yo climate of ours. That said, I learned my lesson last year when I lost one of my favorite evergreens to drought stress followed by a bitterly cold winter. This time around I have set the sprinkler on my youngest trees and shrubs to help prevent the bummer of losing something I spent great gobs of money on and/or watched grow from a cutting. As for the rest of my garden, I’m prepared to mourn the passing of anything that can’t tough out a dry spell, and replace it with something sturdier.

Itea virginica 'Henry's Garnet' beginning to color up.
Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’ beginning to color up.

Generally speaking, Northeast natives are bound to be good bets. Even though I had to transplant my bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) last spring, and haven’t been very kind to it water-wise, it hasn’t missed a beat. And although some of my ground covering bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi ‘Massachusetts’), planted in the leanest, meanest soil my garden has to offer, looked like goners after last winter, they too bounced back with new growth and are beginning to sport their fall colors. Sweetspire (Itea virginica ‘Henry’s Garnet’) would prefer moist soil but even it hasn’t (yet) shown any sign of unhappiness in my bone-dry garden.

Boltonia 'Nally's Lime Dots' slouching over the shoulders of Goose
Boltonia ‘Nally’s Lime Dots’ slouching over the shoulders of Goose

Of course, sedum, sempervivum, and herbs like catmint, sage, and lavender are made for rainless summers but a lot of my other favorite perennials are looking as if they don’t mind the deprivation either. Right now Boltonia ‘Nally’s Lime Dots’ is a bubbly froth of petal-less green flowers on 5-foot stems. (They’d have grown even taller if I didn’t give stems the Chelsea chop back in late spring.) Burnet (Sanguisorba tenuifolia) looks great too even though the six-foot spikes have begun lean like drunks and their late-summer burgundy flowers are beginning to fade. The foliage of false indigo (Baptisia australis) is a lush blue-green, and the green-green thread leaves of eastern bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii) are making promises to turn bright yellow right on schedule by the end of October.

According to the Farmer’s Almanac, we’re in for another long, cold winter. Big sigh. In the meantime, before the snow starts, my fingers are crossed for a decent amount of rain. As I write this, the forecast looks good but just in case hopes are dashed, I recommend that you soak your favorites now if you haven’t already. And start making wish lists to try again, if necessary, with tougher stuff come spring.

Since writing this, it has rained about two inches and we’re due for more tonight/tomorrow. Huzzah! Has your garden gotten the rain it needs? 

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