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Published on 02/21/08

Plant selection key to gardening success during drought

By Kristen Plank
University of Georgia

Number 1
Page 7

As Georgia trudges through one of the driest spells in 10 years, it may seem impossible to garden. University of Georgia Cooperative Extension experts say plant selection is the key to gardening success during a drought.

UGA horticulturists recommend planting verbena bonairiensis, vinca, Mexican sunflower, black-eyed susans, melampodium and wild ageratum if you enjoy annuals. If you prefer perennials, homestead purple verbena, ornamental onions, Brazilian sage, Miss Huff lantana, beebalm, Mexican petunia, native hibiscus, butterfly weed and wild blue phlox are the best drought-tolerant varieties.

“These varieties will add color, from baby blue to fiery orange, to the garden landscape,” said UGA Extension floriculture specialist Paul Thomas. “Many of these relish the heat and survive with little extra help from the gardener.”

Don’t assume native plants of Georgia will perform well in drought, said Matthew Chappell, a UGA Extension nursery production specialist.

“These plants are not adapted to manmade landscapes,” he said. “They are adapted to their native habitats.” When plants are taken out of their native habitats and put into a garden, they usually don’t perform well.

Chappell sites the oakleaf hydrangea as an example.

“It’s native to the southeast United States and is stunning in its natural environment, which is in a riparian forest and along streams,” he said. “It likes moist soil, but not too wet. It’s persnickety. Once you take it out of its natural habitat, it may under-perform if you do not prepare the planting site to mimic its native habitat.”

Thomas says this is one reason scientists “hybridize” plants native species.

“Many native plants can live successfully in the woods next to my house, but don’t survive within the borders of my traditional landscapes,” Thomas said. “Native plants do best in their native habitats, and establishing that habitat near a suburban home is very difficult.”

Plants that do not do well in drought conditions include New Guinea impatiens, lilies, hostas and hydrangeas. They require a lot of water and can’t tolerate intense heat.

Don’t let the drought prevent you from planting your favorite varieties. “If you want a water-loving plant in your garden, there are techniques that will allow for that without tapping into the city water system,” Thomas said.

He recommends using rain barrels to collect water. “I kept my hydrangeas alive last summer using water I collected in just one large rain barrel,” he said. “An average roof provides hundreds of gallons of water from a brief rain shower. Use it wisely and your garden will survive.”

To retain soil moisture for all plant material, Chappell encourages gardeners to add compost and mulch to their garden soil. These additives help conserve moisture and maintain a constant soil temperature for plants. “The more organic material in the garden, the better the water retention,” he said.

Finely-textured mulches, like pine straw, pine bark, hardwood chips and cypress shavings, are the best choices for keeping moisture in the soil. Chappell suggests adding at least three to five inches of mulch to prevent weed competition.

Kristen Plank is a student writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.