Mother Earth Living

Drought Garden: Growing Against the Rules

NEWBERG, Oregon–This past year was perplexing. Nothing seemed to follow the rules. First, the weather was hotter and drier than usual. This made for daily hand watering and irritability on my part. Rather than enjoying my new plant acquisitions, I felt bound to a relentless schedule of watering and dragging hoses. My gold variegated lavender ‘Goldberg’, which had been tortured as a rootbound one-gallon plant, eked out one scrawny flower spike. Since its introduction, I know of no one who has seen this cultivar bloom, but it’s not impressive.

Because vacations were out of the question (who would water?), we decided to redesign a couple of large plant beds. The smaller garden, with both shade and sun areas, is a concentration of hellebores, fuchsias, trilliums, striated lily of the valley, various wood anemones and English cowslips. Though smaller, it is the garden of most interest to us. Definitely overplanted, it overflows with garden treasures — Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema spp.) with mottled foliage and stems, silver-leaved lungworts (Pulmonaria spp.), double-flowered hellebores and a seldom-found fragrant, double-flowered white sweet violet.

In the hotter areas are two promising new rock roses: Cistus ‘Bennet’s White’ (the largest white-flowered rock rose to date) and C. ¥dansereaui ‘Decumbens’ (a dwarf version with maroon-spotted white flowers). To add some foliage interest and contrast, I planted a golden bay (Laurus nobilis ‘Aurea’), Cimicifuga ramosa ‘Brunette’ (a bugbane with dark purple, almost black, leaves), a golden-leaved hydrangea and a new anise hyssop, Agastache foeniculum ‘Golden Jubilee’. This plant is terrific with its contrast of bright blue flowers and chartreuse foliage. I tried to sell a few starts, but they met with a cool reception. (There must not be a lot of Royalists out there, as this was to commemorate Queen Elizabeth’s birthday.) Or perhaps it was just too hot to consider another plant that might burn in full sun. This plant self-sows, spreading its little gold seedlings around.

My other planting was a large border of sorts. Half of it I dedicated to new lavender cultivars and creeping thymes. The other half, which is adjacent to the driveway, is a perennial border. A mixture of herbs and flowering perennials, it is sprinkled with more rock roses and other evergreen shrubs. I realized after the lavenders bloomed that there was a void of color, so I added some late-summer-blooming perennials, including ‘Moonbean’ coreopsis, rudbeckias, echinaceas and butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), sprinkled throughout with annual cosmos. This group contains the echinacea ‘Doppelganger’, recently introduced from Holland. It differs from the usual purple coneflower with reflexed petals by having an additional tier of petals on top of the seed cone in the second year. The first year it looks like any other echinacea. I also planted the rudbeckia ‘Green Wizard’. If you want weird, this is it. It has 1- to 3-inch flower cones with green petals or sepals — no flower color whatsoever, just a big green plant.

Another perplexing plant in this border is ‘Green Pepper’ basil, from Nichols Garden Nursery. It is unlike any sweet basil I have encountered before. The leaves are a rich, dark green, and it smells like green peppers. Like ‘Sweet Aussie’ and ‘African Blue’ basil, this basil must be propagated by cuttings, as it does not set viable seed. I can winter it over in my greenhouse and it won’t die. And finally, the most perplexing of all, is a plant I was given as dwarf lemon balm. What is so different about this very common herb that seeds itself with wild abandon? This one reportedly doesn’t set seed. Now that, I say, is against all the herbal rules.

  • Published on Aug 18, 2009
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