Round Robin: Death by Drowning

DENVER, Colorado–In the West, ­especially in Colorado, the traditional response to high temperatures is to turn on the hose. It’s my theory that more plants perish by drown­ing than by drought, which seems an odd paradox in our semiarid climate. Overwatering is an easy trap to fall into: we judge our herbs’ needs by our own thirst. We feel pity for our poor plants that droop under the midday sun, so we pour on the water and kill them with kindness. In the clay soil characteristic of our region, overwatering can mean waterlogged soil, rot, and quick death. Especially vulnerable are drought-loving thymes, pinks, oreganos, horehounds, sages, and lavenders.

Herb gardeners who have learned the benefits of water-smart gardening group plants according to their cultural needs. I water only those that need it, like basil and parsley. Many traditional culinary herbs that evolved in the sun-baked Mediterranean region need little watering once they’re established. I place them in a sunny spot with native herbs such as silver sage (Artemisia ­frigida) and coyote mint (Monardella odoratissima) and give them supplemental moisture only under dire circumstances, such as a month of searing temperatures under a cloudless sky.

People who have never visited Colorado can more readily picture the snowdrifts’ melting and the bears’ coming out of hibernation than they can Denver’s summer heat. Gardeners who transplant themselves to the Mile-High City eventually discover the pleasures and trials of gardening where the sun shines abundantly, the humidity is extremely low, and the average annual rainfall is 14 inches. Forget perky hair and moist skin. Welcome to the “Denver dries”.

As a fair-skinned, fair-haired kid with freckles, I got sunburned every summer on the day that the Loveland municipal pool opened for the season. I still remember lying in bed on those nights, every motion against the smooth sheets stinging my red skin. I had to learn my lesson over again each year. In those innocent days, I’d never even heard the word “sunscreen”. It was just accepted that kids would burn but then they’d “toughen up”. The only remedy was a bottle of Bactine from the medicine cabinet. These days, I worry about looking like an old fossil. I worry that my crow’s feet will soon turn into mastodon tracks.

Colorado gardeners spend too much time in the sun, but these days, we try to minimize our exposure to the sun by wearing loose, light-colored clothing that makes us look like deflated hot-air balloons. It’s easy to slop sunblock onto my forearms and face, but I often forget the back of my neck at the beginning of the season. I don’t learn any faster now than when I was a child, but at least now I have a sizable pot of Aloe vera on the patio for cool, albeit sticky relief. My legs haven’t seen the sun for decades because I’ve always disliked gardening in shorts and grinding dirt into my knees. My friend Karen and I periodically compare pristine limbs in our “world’s whitest legs” contest. It’s usually a tie, but we’d like a match with Queen Elizabeth to truly settle the title.

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