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The Homeowners Column
Is your garden an inferno?
State Master Gardener Coordinator
Unless you live on a houseboat somewhere, your Illinois landscape includes a hot and dry site. Maybe it's the extreme inferno zone between the sidewalk and the street. Or maybe it's not quite as obvious (but just as hellish) on the sunny south side of your house.
Our first Midwestern inclination in these sites is to plant sun-loving plants and then water and mulch the hell into them. Many of us are mulch evangelists (telling all to go forth and mulch); however, not all plants are mulch lovers. Plants that are native to rocky gravely areas such as lavender may suffer and even perish in high organic matter soils and organic mulches. If a favorite plant is testing your gardening ability, do your "home" work of discovering the plant's home. Plants native to areas where abundant leaf litter from trees and other plants is the norm, will love organic mulch. On the other hand, plants native to sandy, rocky areas may rot from organic overdose and are best mulched with pea gravel, poultry grit or sand.
Plants with silver to grey fuzzy leaves can be a good clue to their ability to tolerate, even thrive, in hot dry areas. Fuzzy perennials include lamb's ear, rose campion, Russian sage, yarrow and several Artemisia ('Silver King', 'Silver Queen' and 'Silver Mound'). Annual fuzzy wuzzies include licorice plant and dusty miller. However the same characteristics of silver fuzzy leaves also makes them good candidates for "melting out" (rotting) with high summer humidity or high rain periods.
Drought tolerant plant lists are as common as corn in Illinois and sometimes just as hard to traverse. When we study drought tolerant lists, it's best to read the fine print and attempt to understand the terminology. By name "drought tolerant plant lists" include plants that tolerate dry conditions; however, some plants such as anise hyssop, Agastache spp., require dry conditions. I know right now it's a faint memory but this distinction becomes important when we have rainy periods in spring and fall.
A common fine print disclaimer on drought tolerant plant lists is "drought tolerant once established". For most plants, except maybe succulents, yucca and cacti, "drought tolerant" is not immediate. Even prairie plants appreciate water the first year they are planted. They need time to grow out their extensive roots that make them long term drought tolerant. The lesson for today is - it's best to assume plants on drought tolerant lists may need some water every week or so through rain or your watering can during their first season of growth. In other words - water during establishment.
My first choice for perennials for hot dry sites is sedum. I never met one I didn't like. Sedums (Stonecrop) include a number of species, cultivars and hybrids. Their thick, succulent stems and leaves are good indicators to their durability in garden infernos. Sedums are easy to grow with remarkable diversity in size (2 inches to 2 feet tall), flower color (white, yellow or pink) and flower period (late spring to late summer).
One of my favorite groundcover sedums is 'Angelina' (Sedum rupestre 'Angelina'). At 4-6 inches tall and 2 feet wide in one season it can cover ground quickly. The yellow flowers are pretty, but the real show stopper is their chartreuse-colored leaves that change to orange to pink tinged in autumn. The leaves hold their color late into winter. For taller sedums of 24 to 30 inches my favorites include 'Matrona' and 'Maestro' with their maroon stems and blue green leaves and 'Mr. Goodbud' and 'Autumn Fire' for their bright deep pink flowers. 'Dazzleberry' is one of my new favorite short sedums with its mammoth long lasting raspberry-red flower heads.
Don't give up on hot dry sites. Just check your lists twice and do your "home" work.