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Thinking Dry

Published in the six Nashoba Publishing papers on Friday, 10 May 2002

As I write this, it's raining. It's been raining most of this week, and it rained more than the average all through April. At least we won't have another stunted spring like last year.

But we haven't recovered from the effects of the past few years. Snow this winter was scanty. The water table is down, stream flow is below normal, and reservoirs are low. Most of the East Coast, from Maine to Georgia, still has severe drought, according to the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center.

It troubles me how many of the plants sold at garden centers — and recommended by horticultural authorities — require regular supplemental watering. It's hard for a home gardener to conserve water and still keep a garden healthy.

In 1978, a conservation task force of the Denver Water Department studied this problem. To describe their solution, they coined (and trademarked) the term "Xeriscape." (The Greek word xeros means dry.) They recommended managing water use through planning and design, soil testing and amendment, appropriate maintenance, efficient irrigation, mulching, minimizing grass areas, and using appropriate plants.

"Appropriate plants" emphasizes those that thrive on natural rainfall — whatever it is in your area. Because the method came from Denver, and is much practiced in arid locations, people sometimes think of it as gardening with desert plants — but this is a misconception. It often means gardening with the plants native to your locale, but plants from other parts of the world with similar climates may do well, too.

It does mean researching what plants will really work, because garden centers don't have experience with xeriscape, and general garden books aren't that helpful either; I think they often recommend watering — or "moist, well-drained soil" — just to be safe. You need advice specifically addressing dry conditions.

Two books I'm looking forward to reading are The Dry Garden, by Beth Chatto, and Xeriscape Color Guide : 100 Water-Wise Plants for Gardens and Landscapes, by the Denver Water Department, and edited by David Winger. On the Web, see UMass Drought Information; it has extensive advice, including plant lists.

In the coming week we're supposed to have more rain. But you won't even read this till after that; how about for the rest of the growing season? Prediction isn't that advanced yet: our chances are even for rain or shine.

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© Copyright 2002 Catherine Holmes Clark