Sequim nurseryman Ian Barclay seeks out plants that'll endure both our winter cold and summer drought, specializing in nonthirsty plants.
NURSERYMAN IAN Barclay proclaims his preference for drought-tolerant plants with the name of his Sequim nursery. “The Desert Northwest” may seem counterintuitive for a region that endured record rainfall last winter, but Barclay points out that even soggy Forks has a droughty period in August.
“There’s a real push toward practicality now,” Barclay says of his customers’ plea for plants that’ll tolerate both winter cold and summer drought. He specializes in nonthirsty plants from California, Arizona, New Mexico, the Southern hemisphere and Mediterranean climates.
Barclay’s collection of tough plants began when he went off to college at Washington State University, leaving his plants behind in Olympia. He became fascinated by what plants survived extreme neglect. After college, Barclay started a small nursery in Poulsbo, then bought land and moved his enterprise to sunny Sequim in 2008.
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One of Barclay’s goals is to get people to think more about where plants come from. “Nearly half of the plants in our nurseries are native to Asia, where they have summer monsoons,” says Barclay, who tracks down and propagates plants from drier areas of the globe with climates more similar to ours.
After our last three extra-cold and wet winters, I’m looking a little askance at plants like eucalyptus and hebes. Yet we all realize the era of thirsty hydrangeas and azaleas is waning. What does Barclay suggest for the drier areas of our gardens? What plants take less summer water yet also dependably survive our increasingly erratic winter weather?
“You can’t go wrong with manzanitas,” Barclay says, noting there are 130 species, hybrids and cultivars. He’s at work selecting superior strains to cultivate, including his favorite Arctostaphylos x media, which grows only 2 or 3 feet tall and 8 feet wide.
Not many plants are both shade- and drought-tolerant, but Barclay says the tall shrub Leptospermum grandiflorum can endure such adverse conditions. Also called the Autumn Tea Tree, it has white flowers in autumn and is dependably hardy here.
Less thirsty plants are great for pots that otherwise require such frequent watering. Unfortunately, potted plants are more susceptible to winter cold. Barclay suggests ceanothus, manzanitas and yellow-flowering fremontodendron (California glory flannel bush) as sturdy, drought-tolerant candidates for large containers.
Whether grown in pots or in the ground, the less summer water these plants get, the more likely they’ll harden off enough to live through the winter. “Don’t be too nice to this stuff!” Barclay says.
As for succulents, he says, “Many of these yuccas, agaves and cactuses aren’t really desert plants; they grow in dry, rocky habitats in forests and mountains.” Spiny blue Yucca schottii is native to the mountains of New Mexico and Arizona, where it grows in snow. He’s a big fan of cacti like the prickly pears (Opuntia spp.), explaining that “cactuses aren’t novelty items, they’re part of our native flora.”
How to care for succulents successfully? For the best chance of survival, grow them in pots until they reach a 2-gallon size before planting them out in the garden. Plant them in the sharpest drainage your garden offers, whether that’s at the edges of raised beds, in containers or at the top of a rockery. Drag potted succulents under the eaves in winter so they don’t drown in rainfall. To prevent water from collecting in the plant’s crown and rotting it, Barclay suggests taking a clue from nature and planting succulents at an angle, as they often grow in their native hillside habitats.
The Desert Northwest is near Sequim, and is open by appointment only (firstname.lastname@example.org). Plants are available by mail order at www.desertnorthwest.com; look for Barclay and his plants at regional plant sales.
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “The New Low-Maintenance Garden.” Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.