The Drought Tolerant Bed

Using drought tolerant plants in the garden are important in the arid parts of our country, and in some areas they are the only ones that grow successfully. In our Mid Atlantic climate we typically have hot and humid summers, but it is not unusual to have periods of drought. Drought resistant plants need far lower amounts of water to successfully grow and bloom, and since many are natives, they are excellent additions to the home garden. Many are foraged by our diverse populations of pollinators.

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The Drought Tolerant (DT) bed at the Teaching Garden is  beautifully maintained by Linda Ligon and Charlene Tolose.  Linda has been the bed leader for 5 years, along with Sally Peterson for the first few years. Together, Linda and Sally volunteered to work in the bed as part of their internship. This year, Charlene volunteered to be the co-leader and has already made excellent suggestions to improve some of the problem areas. Charlene is the one who made the baskets to protect the Sedums from the ever present deer at the Monastery. In addition to these ladies, interns have helped with edging and weeding, and special thanks this summer to Collin, the intern from VTech. You can find Linda and Charlene out at the TG on Tuesday mornings. Linda can be found taking accurate notes about the weekly changes and environmental conditions. Charlene can often  be found pulling a wagon of freshly baked, juiced and strained goodies that are made from the Cook’s Gardens’ bounties following recipes from her monthly collections that feature the vegetable of the month.  This month it is the tomatillo!

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Linda describes the DT bed as a beautiful and easy to maintain garden that is attractive to pollinators. She is also an apiarist, or beekeeper and keeps her hives in West Virginia. The DT bed is a great place to experiment with pollinator attracting and drought tolerant plants, and good examples of this are fennel and Liatris, which bees love.

Linda and Charlene water new plantings twice every week, but once established, the entire bed needs water only during an extended dry spells of three weeks without rain, or longer.

I asked Linda what were some of the bed’s best features. She responded that everything is perennial, and reseeds/spreads easily from year to year.  It rarely needs supplemental watering.  The variety of colors of the flowers  attract numerous pollinators all year long. The shrubs are somewhat unique and attract a lot of attention when in full bloom, such as the complete coverage of white blossoms on the mock orange in late spring, and the copper-colored blossoms and leaves of the two Ninebarks.

Some of the bed’s environmental challenges that homeowners might also have include   plants that reseed or spread prolifically,  e.g.,  Nepeta. It smells great and pollinators are all over its beautiful purple blossoms, but it is a mint that grows and spreads rapidly, so they have to work to keep it thinned and pruned in order to stay confined and not take over other plants.  The Rudbeckia hirta (black-eyed susan) reseeds very well, and seedlings pop up all over other areas of the bed, so they just keep pulling those.

When I asked Linda to describe some of the changes made over the years she wrote, “First year we removed the very aggressive Oenothera “Mexican primrose”, which was reseeding throughout the bed and still is sending up seedlings all these years later.  We planted many more daffodil bulbs (donated by Nancy Hanrahan from her White Garden), and we designed the Nepeta to grow in a swirl pattern from one end of the bed to the other, in order to tie together what was once three separate beds into one long curving bed.  About three years ago, we added a Sedum Rock Garden section to the bed, near the mock orange – the tiny plants have filled out well among the rocks that I brought from WV and the bed is very well established now. There are now four types of Sedums in the  Drought Tolerant Bed: Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ (delicate bright pink flowers on large heads) is getting ready to bloom, Hylotelephium ‘Matrona” (an old English variety with purple heads),  Sedum spectabile ‘Variegatum’, and Hylotelephium ‘Purple Emporer” (the one that hides!) There are lots of ground cover Sedums like ‘kamtschaticum‘ [aka Golden Carpet], ‘spurium‘ [aka Dragon’s Blood], Sempervivum’ tectorum [aka hen & chicks], as well as some miscellaneous unnamed succulents that we put in our small rock garden section.  Technically, the 3rd and 4th ones are a type of showy stonecrops called Hylotelephium.”

Future changes Linda and Charlene have been considering are adding more red-flowering perennials, such as Salvias, to the already numerous and pollinator friendly  purple flowers.  They have had good luck in past years with annuals such as Celosia “cockscomb” because they grew tall and were very striking.  This year they added some of those again, as well as some orange/apricot “Mango Tango” Agastache perennials. No pollinators on them yet since one or two plants of something is not really enough to attract too many pollinators.

Problem spots including wet spots have been an occasional problem for some of these drought tolerant plants.  They have lost lavenders, an Artemesia, some Gaillardias in past years.  So they replaced the lavenders and Gaillardias a couple of years ago, and they have done better.  This year they added another Artemesia, relocated to a dryer, sunnier spot. There haven’t been any invasives in the DT bed yet, but plenty of aggressives.

 Deer have been a problem, and rabbits – always chewing on the Echinacea and Sedums, and the lower branches of the mock orange.  Ruth has sprayed them as much as possible as a deterent,  and they added some netting over the Sedums this year, which has made a big difference.  The Echinacea have survived the chewing, and they sent out more numerous side shoots with flower buds, which are flowering now.  

Beneficial insects in this garden include lots and lots of pollinators:  Bumble and honey bees, butterflies all the time, even visiting dragon flies.  This spring they found four praying mantis egg cases, but they don’t seem to have hatched quite yet.  

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Linda gives the following recommendations for homeowners wanting to start a drought tolerant bed:  “Stachys monnieri is an excellent, compact plant with striking fuschia-colored flower spikes in June, very deer and insect resistant.  It doesn’t spread like the Stachys byzantine (lamb’s ear), which some people don’t care for.  Also, the Buddleia davidii “white ball” that we have is a compact, non-aggressive, non-invasive butterfly bush with pollinator-attractive white blossoms.  One of our favorites, is the Sedum “autumn joy” – it’s a gorgeous plant all season long, if you don’t have deer or rabbits!  It will soon be full of large, flat-head pink/red blossoms that the pollinators will be all over.  It’s one of the best-looking, low-maintenance, drought-tolerant plants that a gardener can have.”

For more information on growing drought tolerant plants:

https://www.pubs.ext.vt.edu/content/dam/pubs_ext_vt_edu/426/426-713/426-713_pdf.pdf

https://www.pubs.ext.vt.edu/content/dam/pubs_ext_vt_edu/430/430-010/430-010_pdf.pdf

https://www.pubs.ext.vt.edu/content/dam/pubs_ext_vt_edu/426/426-322/426-322_pdf.pdf

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