By Marty Ross
The Midwest is the home of many great rivers — including the mighty Mississippi — but municipal water is expensive and should not be wasted. In a dry gardening season, water is a resource that must be conserved. Fortunately, many hardy and hardworking plants thrive here without extra watering.
Midwestern gardeners have long been accustomed to the challenges of drought and deluge. The plants in our gardens have to be tough enough to survive both. Native plants, which are adapted to our climate and conditions, are always good choices. But a water-wise garden isn’t limited to natives. Evergreen boxwoods and native bluestar (Amsonia), both shown above, survive brutal heat and drought in Midwestern gardens without additional watering.
Asters are another good choice to help your garden through dry spells. When they bloom in fall these tough perennials attract butterflies. Be sure to water new plants well their first year. Water deeply so roots are encouraged to grow deep into the soil, where they can tap moisture reserves.
It's a good idea to cover the soil in your garden beds with 2 inches of mulch. Mulch helps prevent moisture loss to evaporation in summer and winter, limits fluctuations in soil temperature, and helps control weeds, which compete with your plants for moisture and nutrients.
Some garden designers use the term “xeriscape” to describe landscapes requiring little or no water. Successful xeriscapes group plants according to moisture needs. For instance, moisture-loving plants go in wet areas, while drought-tolerant plants are placed beyond the reach of hoses and sprinklers. Tiger Eyes sumac, pictured, is a great, drought-tolerant small tree or large shrub for a border.
Many colorful perennials are well known for their drought tolerance. Black-eyed Susans flourish in full sun and don't mind long dry spells. They also attract goldfinches, which perch daintily on the caps of fading flowers and eat the seeds. Other perennials that tolerate drought: Russian sage, sedum, hardy geraniums, lavender, purple coneflowers, and daylilies. As for annuals, the list includes lantana, marigold, melampodium, and portulaca.
Good design practices help plants through challenging conditions. Plantings in eastern and northern exposures, or in part shade, are protected from some of the drying effect of the brutal summer sun. Japanese snowball viburnum, pictured, is a low-maintenance shrub for part shade. It blooms in spring and looks lush and green all summer long without extra watering. Try it — or another other viburnum such as double file, American cranberry bush, or black haw viburnum — in a shrub border as a dense backdrop for smaller shrubs or perennial flowers.
Even plants that prefer moist conditions can be adaptable to drought. Deciduous hollies drop their leaves in fall, leaving just the glorious red berries on silvery-gray stems. They are recommended for rain gardens because they like the moisture in slow-draining sites. But established winterberry hollies prove their worth in dry spots too. Help them along with a little extra watering their first year.
Lowe’s 10 regional gardening contributors show how to create a beautiful — and water savvy — landscape wherever you live.Learn More