Several plants can survive with less water during the summer and still tolerate our wet winters. Finding them, and taking care of the soil, will produce a healthy, colorful garden.
GARDENING IS NOTHING if not local. It’s all about the sunlight, soil and weather conditions in the very specific place where you live. So as a lifelong Northwest gardener, you can imagine I never would have expected to seek gardening advice from a nurseryman in New Mexico.
But that was before the parched and sizzling summer of 2015, which set records for both heat and drought around here. I’m afraid it’s probably past time for those of us who grow roses, hydrangeas and other thirsty plants to rethink how we garden.
And who could better help us chart a course through the challenges ahead than David Salman, founder and chief horticulturist at High Country Gardens in Santa Fe? He’s spent more than a quarter-century seeking out plants that quite literally will blossom in xeric landscapes. Long before we questioned the waste of flip-flop sprinklers spraying precious water off into the wind, or realized how crazy it is to water lawns at all, Salman was all about eco-friendly landscapes and water-wise gardens. He had to be. And now, so do we.
So on a recent pouring-down-rain Seattle afternoon, I sought Salman’s wisdom on how we can best adapt to new realities.
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“Drought is the new norm here rather than the exception. Water is limited and very expensive,” Salman says of gardening in New Mexico (and most of the West). He advocates not only for the environmental savvy of low-water-usage gardens, but also their beauty. “My gardens here in Santa Fe are as lush as anything in the Northwest,” Salman declares, before adding, “Well, of course, the trees aren’t nearly as large.”
Lush xeric gardens? Salman draws a useful distinction between drought-tolerant and xeric plants. The former, once established, can survive a period of time, maybe even a growing season, without supplemental water, but those conditions are not what the plant would prefer. Xeric plants are right at home in drought, growing happily even in Santa Fe (with an average 14 inches of rain per year) without additional water.
“Caring for the soil is the overlooked component in water-wise gardens,” says Salman. “The key to a healthy garden is living soil.”
He recommends adding compost and fertilizers with trace minerals to boost microbial activity, while avoiding all poisons and chemicals.
“We do water; you can’t have a garden without it,” says Salman. The key is paying close attention and not using a drop more H2O than needed. While drip irrigation is effective, it’s also maintenance-intensive. He advises gardeners to find an efficient watering method they’re comfortable with.
And what about drought-resistant plants that are cold-hardy enough for our climate, but still can tolerate wet winters? Salman ticks off dry-land beauties from cold-weather deserts. “We introduced licorice mint hyssop (Agastache rupestras) and kicked off the hummingbird mint frenzy,” he says of the pretty, water-wise stalwart.
Salman is keen on twice-blooming lavenders; ‘Buena Vista’ and ‘Sharon Roberts’ are two of his favorites. He recommends Salvias such as ‘Gregii’, ‘Ultra-Violet’ and ‘Raspberry Delight’, all of which are long-blooming and cold-hardy.
But Salvias and lavender require sharp drainage, a condition sometimes difficult to come by in our often too-heavy soils. His answer: red hot pokers (Kniphofia spp.) in all their many colors and sizes. “They love heavy soil,” says Salman. “If you can’t grow a red hot poker, you need a new hobby.”