For gardeners at the mercy of rain, it has become more apparent that weather patterns are not as predictable as they once were. Increasingly, more rain comes at less frequent intervals which means more drought, but more deluges as well. The question for gardeners becomes, how can I create a garden that’s resilient to these conditions?
The easiest way to build a drought tolerant garden is to choose drought tolerant plants in the first place. Here is a list of plants that can stand up to dry periods and are tough enough to stand up after a hard rain.
Succulents are trendy with indoor plant growers right now and come in endless varieties. Most succulents are native to desert climates and therefore work only as annuals in Canada. However, some types such as Hens and Chicks will stand up to our winters but share the same love of dry heat as the rest of their succulent cousins.
Also, look for Red Yucca or Stonecrop for hot-dry loving and cold hardy succulents. For an annual succulent, portulaca offers colour all season long and shares its cousins’ preference for arid locations. Just don’t expect it to come back in the spring.
Creeping thyme is a drought-tolerant ground cover that delivers colour, fragrance and will even withstand moderate foot-traffic. Talk about tough!
Native perennials such as Black Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Purple Coneflower (Echinacea), Canada Anemone (Anemone Canadensis), Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis) and Cylindrical Blazing Star (Liatris cylindracea) all provide beautiful flowers throughout the summer and have root systems which allow them to withstand drought. Reliably winter hardy; they are a magnet for pollinators to boot.
Adding organic matter in the form of compost or manure is the best thing you can to do improve your soil. Organic matter will improve moisture retention during times of drought but will also improve soil structure, which means that during times of heavy rain there will be adequate drainage and a reduced risk of erosion.
There is no better way to dress up a beautiful bed of soil than by adding a layer of shredded cedar bark mulch. By preventing the evaporation of moisture from soils, an adequate layer of mulch can reduce watering by up to 70% and will help protect the soil from erosion in times of heavy rainfall. As an added benefit, mulching can also reduce weed growth by up to 90%.
Apply mulch 5 cm thick, at any time of year. It’s important to use straw, leaves or bark mulch, anything that can break down into the soil and become added organic matter. Avoid wood chips, as they extract essential nitrogen from the soil during their decomposition. This can lead to unhappy plants as nitrogen is an essential macronutrient for growth.
Do yourself and your plants a favour and pick up a couple of rain barrels. Your plants will thank you especially, as they prefer to be watered by natural rain water for a host of reasons:
It has the correct pH (between 5.5 and 6.5)
The temperature is more agreeable to plants than the frigid cold water that comes out of the tap
Rainwater contains nitrate, the most bioavailable form of nitrogen, which is an important macronutrient
Salts and chemicals from municipal water can build up in the soil over time, which can cause root damage. This is especially apparent in potted plants, where there is a smaller volume of soil and salt accumulation can be visible.
Avoid creating a breeding ground for mosquitoes by covering the top of your rain barrel with a fine screen. The screen will also help keep debris out of the rain barrel, which can clog the spout. Lastly – remember to empty your rain barrel every fall, as it can crack if filled with water and freezes.
Canadians spend a lot of time talking about the weather, and our jobs would be a lot easier if weather could be controlled. But it can’t. With these methods, however, you ‘weather-proof’ your garden and create a space that is beautiful and resilient – no matter what the forecast holds.
Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, Member of the Order of Canada, author and broadcaster. Get his free monthly newsletter at markcullen.com. Look for his new best seller, The New Canadian Garden’ published by Dundurn Press. Follow him on Twitter @MarkCullen4 and Facebook.