Garden Notes: Dry gardening

An irrigated garden is a garden on life support.

Rudbeckia hirta, also known as gloriosa daisy, does well in hot, dry conditions. Goldfinches harvest the seedheads. — Susan Safford

We wanted more — we would be at Illumination Night, the fair, the O.B. fireworks. We would be buying back-to-school clothes. We would be putting our children and summer friends on the boat. Nope.

The weekend’s gentle six-tenths of an inch of rain soaked in completely. Soils, plants, and gardens have all sorts of wants, and love natural rain in particular. It is tempting to say, “Nope, we want more,” but it is always good to be careful what one wishes for.


No surprise to us here, drought-stricken for weeks, but now the entire commonwealth has been declared in a state of significant drought. All are urged to use water resources wisely, as weather patterns have become unpredictable.

Domestically, conservative measures include avoiding unnecessary toilet flushing; not letting the water run brushing your teeth or rinsing the dishes; taking short showers instead of baths; and forgoing wanton watering of lawns and gardens. Save gray water in buckets and dishpans for gardening purposes.

During a drought, these measures should be obvious, but one often witnesses lack of awareness about the limits to water resources.

Unpredictable as weather patterns may have become, Island drought is nothing new. Childhood summers in the early ’50s were marked by drought, shriveling trees such as birch; frequent brushfires; and fears that the well would go dry (it did). The fires that kept “the great plain” historically brush-covered and scrub-oaked may have been caused in part by droughts.

Dry gardening

Lauren Springer Ogden has a following among all who are interested in dryland gardens. Her garden writing and photographic prowess are widely known from her books “The Undaunted Garden” and “Plant-Driven Design.” For an interesting profile, go to

Along with her husband Scott Ogden, Lauren Springer Ogden is primarily distinguished as a designer and exponent of gardening in Western, water-scarce U.S. regions with blistering heat, and for using a naturalistic approach where composed and natural plant communities function as gardenesque subjects.

I have always been interested in the Island challenge of unirrigated gardens on sandy, lean soils. Irrigation is not often a factor in the Springer Ogden–designed gardens. It was only in the late ’80s and early ’90s that lawn irrigation became common here, but since then it has become somewhat de rigeur.

Dan Golder, an irrigation contractor from Colorado, pioneered it locally. There, irrigation had emerged as a water-wise, conserving measure. However, increasingly common Island irrigation systems have shifted to the opposite: a factor in water resources consumption.

An irrigated lawn or garden is a garden on life support; it has little resilience or viability of its own. Such a garden allows the designer or gardener the license to say, “What’s your vision?” — not part of those visions of paradise are system problems, drought, or watering restrictions.

Gardens do not require irrigation to be visions of paradise. We can work with natural conditions and native plant communities. We can increase our suitable plant knowledge: “Right plant, right place.” We can use scarce water resources to help establish sustainable plantings that then carry on under their own steam. We can eschew the year-round emerald-green lawn.

In addition to resources such as Lauren Springer Ogden’s books, Polly Hill Arboretum maintains the Plant Selection Guide ( to help Island gardeners with selections for problem sites and for creating livable visions of paradise. Visit the Arboretum to experience an Island landscape garden, grown and maintained within mostly natural parameters.

Foliar disease

Heat, drought, and high humidity are recipe ingredients for powdery mildew and other foliar diseases no one wants. These fungal organisms are in the air most of the time, but only express themselves under conditions that are optimum — for them. Stressed plants present openings for a pathogen foothold on leaf surfaces.

One concept for control of foliar diseases might be called the “displacement theory,” which is the premise of compost teas. A crude précis of the theory behind compost teas: Treat foliage that is plagued by pathogens with a bioactive substance that crowds them out and prevents their proliferation.

Many here know of the work of Dr. Elaine Ingham of the Soil Food Web. She is a microbiologist of soil organisms, and is known for groundbreaking work with life-of-soil communities and compost teas. To learn more, go to

Another approach, which is similar to the displacement theory, is using substances — maybe not brewed compost tea — that form a barrier to pathogens. These would include antidesiccants, horticultural oils, and insecticidal soaps, all nontoxic.

Garden haven

When I can, I put in time in the vegetable garden. It slows me down and gives me mental breathing space. Sometimes it is merely leaning on the hoe and looking into the middle distance; you know, it is not ALL hoeing and weeding. It is at those moments the garden’s other inhabitants emerge:

The painted turtle laying her eggs in warm soil just outside the garden. The two female ruby-throated hummingbirds flying side by side: mother and daughter? The garter snake silently slithering by my toes. The adorable baby bunny that I hope grows up fast and becomes too large to squeeze in through the fencing.

The goldfinches pecking the aerial seedheads of Verbena bonariensis and rudbeckia; below, the meek sparrows running along the ground. The myriad small, darting butterflies, wasps, robber flies, and bees. The wafting swallowtail butterflies, yellow ones and dark ones, floating past in the sunlight.

In the garden

Take cuttings. Sow replacements, such as cabbage, carrots, and beets, for spaces left by onions, but avoid sowing beans there. Cover cropping with warm-weather buckwheat adds silicon to garden soils. Top-dress ferning asparagus beds with organic, low-number soil food (fertilizer) and mulch. Plan more composting, and heat-tolerant, water-wise plants, for 2021. Scrutinize bulb catalogues.

Tick check every night.