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Gardening Columns

Yarrow thrives in dry, hot, sunny weather.

Durable, Drought-Tolerant Plants

First published on on June 7, 2007, by Suzanne DeJohn

The star of my perennial garden right now is yarrow. The last few months have been challenging for most plants -- and gardeners. A few weeks of unseasonably warm weather in early April encouraged plants to leaf out with abandon. Then a late, hard freeze killed that new growth. Now we're suffering from an extended drought. Except for a few passing sprinkles, the last rain was over a month ago, and that was just a half inch. Still, most of my perennials are surviving. Many are shorter than might be expected for this time of year, but they're surviving with no supplemental watering. The one plant that's actually thriving in this dry, sunny weather is yarrow.

Because I grow and sell cut flowers, my gardens are large; because of my personality, they're scattered and disorganized -- both of which make watering difficult. Most of the annuals are in straight rows (sort of) but the perennials are all over the place. I've focused my watering on the vulnerable new annual transplants, moving my soaker hose from bed to bed. The established perennials have to wait, because I trust most will survive and recover once we get some good, soaking rains. And because it's a pain to snake the soaker hose around all the oddly-shaped plantings.

Here's a rundown of the plants that seem most tolerant of the current drought.

Yarrow (Achillea spp.) Yellow-flowered Achillea filipendulina 'Coronation Gold' looks the best I've ever seen it. Red-flowered Achillea millefolium 'Cassis' is growing abundant foliage but hasn't begun to flower. In wet years, yarrow can get rangy and sprawling, but it's showing its true colors right now.

Blazing star, gayfeather (Liatris spicata). The plants look strong, the foliage is deep green, and there are signs of flower buds.

Purple coneflower (Echinacea spp.) The plants look good but they vary considerably in size, even within the same bed. Some are getting ready to flower but others seem to be waiting for rain.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.) These plants are growing fine, but they do seem a bit behind schedule.

Bee balm (Monarda didyma). Although neither as lush nor as richly colored as usual, the foliage on these plants is over 3 feet tall, and they're getting ready to flower even though they haven't received any supplemental watering. Bee balm prefers rich, moist soil so I'm pleased that these are doing so well. I don't see any signs of powdery mildew, which unlike other fungi thrives in hot, dry weather.

White snakeroot, chocolate mist flower (Eupatorium rugosum 'Chocolate'). This variety has dark, purple-brown foliage that contrasts nicely with other plants. Although the foliage wilts a bit in the midday sun, it recovers by evening and is growing just fine. Like its cousin Joe-Pye weed (E. fistulosum), the plant prefers rich, moist soils but seems remarkably adaptable.

Other plants that are growing well are tall garden phlox (Phlox paniculata), all the sedums, beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis 'Husker Red'), red hot poker (Knifophia uvaria), lavender (Lavandula x intermedia 'Grosso'), Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), 'Blue Hill' salvia (Salvia x sylvestris 'Blue Hill') and several types of dianthus and coreopsis.

The daylilies -- normally very rugged and drought tolerant -- are still recovering from the hard freeze. Oregano and thyme are thriving. Sage and rosemary plants are new but adapting well.

If you're looking for perennials you can count on, plants that don't require a lot of fussing (and watering), consider some of these beauties. Many of them make long-lasting cut flowers, too.


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