Published on 09/21/00

Ancient-mariner Wisdom for Today's Gardener

Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to
... put on the flowers.

(I hope Samuel Taylor Coleridge will forgive me.)

The Ancient Mariner was telling his story in order that others might benefit from it. The gray beard, glittering eyes and weathered hands of gardeners past can teach us many lessons, too. Maybe it's time to "stoppeth" today's gardener and tell the tale of water conservation.

Many Georgians haven't learned their lesson from the past. Georgia has been devastated by drought over the past three years.

Be Sure to Mulch

What can be done now? Any part of the landscape with growing plants can be mulched. In my neighborhood in Athens, more than 20 dogwoods are dead or dying. Not a one of them is mulched.

Mulching is the single most important water-retention process you can install for your plants. Shred and mulch all of the leaves that will fall this year. Don't bag them and throw them away.

Assess Your Landscape

What needs to be done for the future? Assess your landscape. What do you have that takes too much water? The high-impact-color area may need to be reduced. These areas are large consumers of water.

No, you won't lose the effect you have now. A large color bed can be cut in half and still have the same impact with half the water. Just give it a little height. A raised bed, mounded in the center, shows off much better and gives greater impact than a flat bed. Drip irrigation under mulch can make the bed a high-impact-color spot that uses very little water.

Another idea is to use the entire array of greens and flower colors nature gives you. Green is not just green! It's blue-green, yellow-green, gray-green, silver-green and all shades in between.

Long-lasting Color

In the green plants that form the architectural basis of your landscape, color can be present over an extended time. Just think of the crape myrtles that give color all summer. And one of my favorites, the althea, blooms all summer, and drought doesn't seem to affect it. Camellias give us color when nothing else is blooming, and hollies show off those wonderful red berries in the dead of winter.

Once established and mulched, all of these plants are drought-tolerant. They take very little water and give back much more than we put into them.

Now that you have listened to my story, "may you rise a wiser man on the morrow morn."

Wayne McLaurin is a professor emeritus of horticulture with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.