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History-making drought for second year in a row

History-making drought for second year in a row

Posted: Tuesday, September 16, 2008 9:32 pm
By: By JIMMY WILLIAMS Special to The Messenger

Here we go again, he (she) said.
We all said it couldn’t happen again. Another 100-year drought, that is. Well, here we are, on the cusp of autumn, following yet another killer summer. August wasn’t as mean as it was in 2007, when it was the hottest month in recorded history here. We had some delightful 60-degree nights in August this time around, but rainfall June-August was just as low as a year before.
Nothing in the gardening experience is quite as heartbreaking as severe drought. You watch 20-year plants writhing in their death throes, pleading like the Biblical Lazarus for just one drop of precious water, and there is nothing you can do. Well, you can spend hours and days holding a hose but, by the time you’ve gone all around to this plant and that, the first ones watered are already on their deathbeds.
These drought years are learning experiences, painful though they be. We find out pretty certainly which plants can hold up to drought and which can’t.
I have been astounded at the ability of nandinas to take any drought we’ve ever had without turning a hair, that is to say without turning a single compound leaf. Those leaves, and the structure of the plant, would appear to be fragile to the extreme when it comes to drought resistance.
Nothing of the sort. In even the driest of times I have never had to water a single time any of our perhaps 100 nandina plants. All of them are cultivars of Nandina domestica, the parent plant of every nandina you will ever see.
Many of our nandina clumps are located far from the house, in outlying woodland where the ground has become literal dust as deep as one can dig. Nandinas, even in those conditions, have thriven and, not only that, have continued year to year to put on heavy crops of berries, big swags of red, and in some cases yellow, fruit that make just about the choicest of all Christmas decoration. This in years that have seen nearby viburnums, dogwoods, azaleas, hydrangeas and on ad nauseum, go down like flies.
Our drought losses in 2007 accounted for at least 60 woody plants. You’ve heard me moan about that before. This year’s count will challenge that dubious record. Despite a heroic planting effort last winter and spring, when a record 190 shrubs and trees were planted at Tennessee Dixter, it is difficult to gain any ground when drought after drought mitigates any exhaustive endeavor to catch up.
That short list above of various genera of plants that went down to drought near those nandinas is only a smattering of things that succumbed and continue to do, so as we speak. There’s no use belaboring  the point with further boredom; you have your own problems.
However, that education we receive at the hands of killer drought should do us in good stead for future plantings, provided we can be happy with the things that prove to be drought resistant, i.e. those nandinas.
A recall of other drought tolerant plants would necessarily be short. After all, we are (or are supposed to be) in a temperate zone that averages an inch of rain a week, taking the year through.
Crape myrtles are tolerant of dry conditions, though they don’t dote on them; they would much rather have at least normal rainfall, in which case they will put on more extension growth, leading to more bloom. A dry year will reduce them to a standstill but won’t kill them.
Some (not all) junipers thrive on heat and drought. I once turned my back on five Irish junipers, 6 feet tall, in a dry year and they died graveyard dead. I had attended to other thirsty things, thinking the junipers would make it. They didn’t. By and large, however, junipers will take a lot of drought.
For a large evergreen that will take virtually any drought we face here, Arizona cypresses are hard to beat. I should have said “evergray” or “everblue,” since their foliage is a delightful one or the other, depending on variety, the year round.
Even young of the year specimens I have planted have not been watered a single time and are thriving. After all, the name says it all: Arizona. If they can take it there, they can take it here. They grow fast, too. Full sun is their only requisite. They produce the most fragrant foliage of any plant I grow, and branches cut for Christmas will hold their blue color for months, even out of water.
Smoke trees, of the genus Cotinus, don’t appeal to every man, but one or the other of the purple or green (and now chartreuse) kinds should find their way into your heart, and particularly since they are very drought tolerant.
A fairly new one, Young Lady, is relatively dwarf, at six feet or so, with green leaves and pinky smoke. The good thing about this one is that it will smoke on new wood, as long as extension growth continues, and very heavily at that.
There are several chartreuse-leaved varieties around, some holding their color better in hot sun than others. All are exciting when leafing in the spring, when their sunny color is appealing.
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From Poor Willie’s Almanack — I cried because I had no azalea; then I met a man who had no corn.
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Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column.

Published in The Messenger 9.16.08

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