Garden expert gives tips on choosing the right plant

Garden expert gives tips on choosing the right plant

Photo courtesy of C.L. Fornari – The butterfly weed displays the last flowers of the season.

by C.L. Fornari

I hate hauling hoses, and I realize that it's important for us all to use less water, so I'm smothering part of my lawn. The front of my property, like most yards, borders the road and was planted in grass. Turf needs irrigation, especially when it's near a hot, asphalt road. So last year, I covered the area with compost and mulch. This spring, I'll plant a dry garden.

There are many plants that thrive without frequent irrigation, and to find many of them, we need only to look to our fields and woodlands. Drought-tolerant native plants can be planted together in a dry bed or included in existing landscapes.

If you're looking for a handsome, weed choking plant for dry shade, for instance, the white wood aster (Aster divaricatus) is the perfect perennial. This trouble-free aster has bright green leaves, black stems and white flowers in early fall, and it grows to about 16 inches high.

For sunny gardens, you can't go wrong with goldenrod (Solidago species) and butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). Goldenrods have been falsely accused of causing hay fever, the true culprit being ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia). Goldenrods come in several heights, and they bloom from midsummer into fall.

Butterfly weed enlivens the garden in July with bright orange flowers, attracting equally colorful butterflies. This plant self-seeds when growing conditions are right, so it's especially appropriate for gardens where plants are allowed to mingle.

Several species of Liatris are native to the Northeast, including the New England blazing star (Liatris borealis) and Eastern blazing star (Liatris scariosa). These tall, spiky plants are also called gayfeather, and their purple flowers open in midsummer.

Native grasses are the perfect companion plants for perennials. Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) are two of the most widely available grasses for dry gardens. Switchgrass grows between 3 feet and 5 feet tall depending on the soil, and little bluestem grows almost 2 feet high.

Dry gardens don't need to be limited to perennials and grasses. Several shrubs and trees tolerate drought as well. Bayberry (Myrica pennsylvanica) is a plant that can be pruned to keep it shrub-size or left to grow into a small tree. Bayberry is especially appropriate for those who have poor soils because it will grow in pure sand.

If there's space for a larger tree, plant an oak. Red oak (Quercus ruba) and white oak (Quercus alba) are often overlooked as landscape plants because they're so common, but for a garden filled with natives, nothing is more appropriate.

Although these plants tolerate drought once they're established, they should be watered the first year after planting. Any plant's ability to go without water for extended periods is only as good as the root system. Given regular water early on, you'll have a landscape that can do without for the rest of its life.

C.L. Fornari is a writer and professional speaker who gardens on Cape Cod. She is the author of "A Garden Lover's Martha's Vineyard" and host of GardenLine heard on WXTK radio.

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