Chesterton Tribune

Drought brings survival of the fittest to area gardens

Back to Front Page





Of Wonders and Weeds


July is for .... the agony and the ecstasy of a rain gauge.

Unless we’ve had several days of soaking rain in the interim from when I write this to when it’s published, there is little joy in my garden these days. It’s survival of the fittest.

Early on this spring I had a feeling we’d have a hot summer. We were overdue. But little did I know that for some unknown meteorological reason the rain this season would either  1) never get near the house 2) dissipate as it heads our way, or  3) rain teasingly for a few minutes and then pass by us.

Case in point: June 25 we were at a large family party in LaPorte. Skies darkened and a few rumbles of thunder were the only signs that a good rain was imminent. Those present knew better than to curse the rain that chased us, temporarily, inside. With glee I later headed home, eager to see how much the rain gauge was filled. But as we approached Michigan City, the pavement was dry. In Burns Harbor the rain gauge told the sad story --- zip, nada, nothing.

The poor thing has sat empty for quite a while now. In the morning I look to see if there has been a shower or thunderstorm so uneventful it never awakened me; I’m always disappointed. Those big cracks in the parched soil in unmulched areas of the yard remind me of what my skin must look like under a powerful microscope if I forget to apply moisturizer.

We did luck out and have a late afternoon thundershower recently. It rained hard for a time and I thought surely it totaled half an inch at least. In truth it was just under one-quarter of an inch. As I wrote this a gentle rain began to fall. The next day the rain gauge was barely wet.

In early June my daughter-in-law Jeanine asked if I were tired of watering the garden. I told her I was not watering yet, holding out hope Mother Nature would not be a neglectful caregiver. But she was and if had I watered when the early daylilies were beginning to set bud, some of these cultivars wouldn’t be smaller than usual now. You can be sure the late-flowering varieties got a good shot of H2O courtesy of the hose.

Have you noticed the sweet and field corn planted in the area? Some is waist high, I suspect because that farmer bet we wouldn’t have a late frost and planted early when we had rain. The scrawny corn likely was planted later and more affected by the drought. It’s unfortunate because not having a late frost prompted some plants to grow exceptionally well, only to be hit with little or no water.

Times like these we need to be water-smart, not wasteful. Guidelines tell us to water in the early morning or very late afternoon and generally to water the ground, not a plant’s leaves. And even if your yard appears to be flat, be attentive to slight elevation changes and always water at the top of a hill, however slight. It’s disheartening to return after 20 minutes of watering and see you’ve watered the lawn or driveway and not your plants.

That crunchy, wheat-colored turf underfoot is dormant and will green up again when rain and cooler weather return. Our trees will not be so flexible. But do protect the grass by not walking along the same path repeatedly when it’s under stress. The smaller or newer or sunnier a tree is, the more attention it likely will need, especially if it is planted in less than ideal soil.

In an average summer the value of mulch can’t be overstated. In our extreme summer of 2005, mulch is a must, but be careful not to add it too deeply so it takes a significant rainfall before the plant even gets wet. Two or three inches of mulch are usually recommended. Before the mulch goes down, it’s good to topdress with compost. And a slower, longer watering is always preferable to a short, teasing blast.

Weeds will overtake unmulched ornamentals in a drought, greedily sucking up what water does fall. Be vigilant for weeds, but pull them after a rain or dampen the area first. And be sure to knock off any loose soil on the weed roots; topsoil is too valuable to throw away.

We also can help our plants survive the drought by deadheading (cutting off the spent flowers) as soon as the blooms begin to fade. I’m cutting my plants farther down than I normally would to help them compensate for less water.

No matter if you take all the right steps, some plants will just be wilters and balk at heat and drought. I’ve learned the bear’s breeches or acanthus spinosus is among them. I bought one in late 2003 at Van Wade’s unbelievable nursery in Belleville, Ohio. I had envied Bev Stegeman’s acanthus clump and thought if she could grow it here, so could I.

In 2004 the long, thistle-like jagged leaves (“Is that a weed?” asked Bernie) cultivated since Roman times grew well and by autumn a new offshoot had formed. This spring one flower stalk came up, but because the light purple, hooded acanthus flowers with white centers encircle the 32-inch stalk half way up, it’s quite a sight. Yes, I’ve taken lots of pictures.

Books warn that acanthus can be invasive, but mine has not been --- yet. It does keel over in the heat, but bleeding heart and poppies die back only to resprout in late summer. I’d hate to let the acanthus die of thirst on the hope it will return, especially since it comes from such a special place. I need to email Bev about hers.

Talk about unusual plants. Last year at Planter’s Palette in Winfield, Ill. I bought a teucrium beurgerianium ‘Lemon Lime’, its small, yellow leaves splashed with medium green. The tag said it was vigorous (WARNING: This is a marketing word for invasive and I should have known better) so I sought more information. Can you imagine doing an Internet search for the plant and finding NO matches? I even stumped local nursery professionals when I inquired.

The 30-inch tall ‘Lemon Lime’, which looks like a salvia and we now think is a relative of the germander family, grew well and flowered lavender as I recall, albiet half-heartedly, last fall. Then this spring it started growing again and proceeded to send out runners five feet in all directions! Luckily, they could be ripped up easily and I even let three new plants grow on, but today I saw the babies were having babies.

We planted a ‘Crimson King’ maple this spring and I saved the large pot, having to split it down the side to get out the tree’s large root ball. I may cut out the bottom and sink the pot around the ‘Lemon Lime’ for a year and see if that tames the beast next spring. Otherwise, it’s outta here.

Recently at Planter’s Palette I bought a hardy ageratum ‘Cori’ that should get 18 to 24 inches tall. I thought ageratum were just annuals. This is another wilter in the pot but it may toughen up now that it’s planted. ‘Cori’ will have large fluffy heads of purple fall flowers. Just so it doesn’t send out runners. I tried to order ‘Cori’ once by catalog but it was out of stock. I’m not the only person buying it, apparently, so that’s a good sign.

Having a plant’s history in the garden can be helpful. Oakes Daylilies’ website has a section where gardeners can rate each cultivar sold. It’s fun reading the comments and seeking how the individual daylilies perform in different areas of the country under varying conditions. The negative observations yield good information, too.

Sometimes, wilters in the plant world have no rhyme or reason. I have three clumps of the lovely summer phlox ‘Natascha’, each clear lavender-pink flower petal ringed in white. Only one clump is normal and blooming. The other two, in the same area, shriveled up to almost nothing. All were treated and watered the same. This is the second year this has happened.

OK, so I’ll continue to water the temperamental two and move them later, really amending the new soil to ensure it stays evenly moist. Beyond that, maybe they’re just genetic duds.

The way this summer is going we’ll probably see more 90-degree temperatures with “isolated” and “scattered” thundershowers forecast. Translation: don’t hold your breath for rain. Hey, we couldn’t even rely on a hurricane to give us any.

I apologize for the absence of this column lately but my first priority is my family and we’ve had a lot going on, not the least of which is we had a contractor gut our 1950s kitchen down to the studs and update what were the home’s two original rooms that were here in 1884. Thanks to Jim, Cliff, Jim and everyone whose craftsmanship realized our dream.

Now it’s time to devote my energies to the garden again. And in this heat and drought, energy for both me and the plants is in short supply.


Posted 7/19/2005