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How Dry I Am: The Xeriscape Garden by Luanne Panarotti

“We never know the worth of water till the well is dry.”

Thomas Fuller, Gnomologia, 1732

This summer’s lack of rain has made Hudson Valley gardeners acutely aware of the preciousness of water. New plantings have suffered, and even established plants have succumbed to the dry conditions.

Rather than ramping up your watering regime, consider employing the concept of xeriscaping— “dry” landscaping that uses little supplemental water—as you plan new garden beds or improve others. This creative approach to landscaping combines drought-tolerant plants and water-saving practices to produce lovely, more resilient gardens that will thrive without draining your well dry.

Ground-level guidelines

Planning and improving your garden from the bottom up will ultimately make it more self-sufficient, especially in times of drought. Adding organic matter such as compost to your beds creates spaces that allow water to penetrate more efficiently to root zones, and increases the soil’s moisture-holding ability. Once plants are in place, mulch heavily with organic material such as shredded bark, which will allow moisture in while keeping the heat of the sun from drying it out. Alternatively, plant a living mulch; the annual portulaca, with rose-like flowers, a spreading habit, and minimal water needs, can form a dense groundcover under taller plants, keeping weeds down and conserving moisture.

Since most gardens will need some supplemental moisture during times of extreme drought, plan for more efficient watering. Group plants with similar needs to avoid overwatering some and underwatering others. Forgo sprinklers and lay soaker hoses throughout your garden beds, just beneath the mulch layer, where the slow seepage will allow for deep watering, and less water will be lost to evaporation. Rather than tapping into the potable water supply, use gray water from bathing, dishwashing etc., to water plants.

While sun is usually considered the culprit, wind blowing across the soil also pulls moisture from the ground. Consider planting in areas where buildings, trees or shrubs slow down air movement, or install a windbreak—a solid fence, or barrier of drought tolerant shrubs such as juniper (Juniperus spp.), blue mist spirea (Caryopteris x clandonensis), or potentilla (Potentilla fruiticosa).

Avoid finicky landscapes

Eliminate as much lawn as possible from your landscape. Instead, try walkable, drought tolerant groundcovers, such as creeping thyme (Thymus serpyllum). If you just can’t let go of the green carpet, seed with a resilient variety such as fescue, rather than needy Kentucky bluegrass, which requires abundant resources.

Perennials that practice tolerance

Your best bet when choosing plants are natives, which successfully survive in the region without supplemental watering. You can find an extensive list—everything from Achillea millefolium (Common Yarrow) to Yucca filamentosa (Adam’s needle)—by searching the plant database at the website of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center ( Enter your state, then choose “dry” for the soil moisture; you can even fine-tune the search for sunlight conditions in the garden, as well as bloom time and color.

Various plants, native and otherwise, have characteristics—specialized roots, leaves and other qualities—that make them drought tolerant. For example, plants with long taproots can access deeper water unavailable to more shallow-rooted plants. One such plant is purple poppy mallow (Callirhoe involucrata), a native whose wine-colored, cup-shaped flowers float above a sprawling mat of deeply lobed foliage. Another is the unusual sea holly (Eryngium planum); spiny leaves and rounded umbels of light blue flowers with spiky, blue-green bracts make this plant at once formidable and whimsical in aspect.

Plants with fleshy roots that store water are better able to survive dry times. Daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.) offer arching, sword shaped foliage and wide range of bloom colors. Creeping lilyturf (Liriope spicata) is a vigorous grower and deer-resistant, with spikes of tiny blooms in white or lavender shyly peeping from amid the foot-tall, grass-like foliage.

The thick, fleshy stems and leaves of the genus Sedum allow the plants to store water against the onset of drought. With 400 species from which to pick, there is a sedum for every taste. S. rupestre ‘Angelina’ forms a striking groundcover of luminous yellow, needle-like foliage with matching flowers. S. spurium ‘Fuldaglut’ has cupped leaves edged in bronze-red and midsummer rose-colored flowers. The ever-popular S. ‘Autumn Joy’ offers late season bloom—and welcome nectar for butterflies and bees—with large pink flower heads that deepen to brick red as they age.

The hairs of fuzzy-leaved plants help to collect and preserve moisture. One such plant is the common yarrow (Achillea millefolium) with charming flat clusters of flowers; try a traditional yellow or soft pink variety, or the newer ‘Paprika’, whose bright red umbels are dotted with gold “eyes”. Some plants are so covered in white hairs, the foliage takes on a silver cast, offering a lovely foil for more vivid flowering plants. Silver Brocade artemisia (A. stelleriana ‘Silver Brocade’) produces mounds of finely-cut, frosted foliage with a delicate fragrance. The tiny pink flowers of lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina) are beloved by bees, but it’s the soft, silvery leaves that make it a valuable and resilient garden plant.

Narrow leaved plants, with less foliar surface area, lose less water and tend to be drought-tolerant. The most obvious of these are the ornamental grasses, which range in size and style from the compact fescue Festuca glauca ‘Elijah Blue’, with its rounded mounds of needle-like powdery blue foliage, to maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis “Gracillimus”) with graceful leaves reaching to six feet and plumes of pinkish-tan flowers.

Think globally, garden locally

The average American uses 175 gallons of water per day, while the average family in Africa uses five. Begin working toward some resource equity today at home—and in your own backyard.

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