Drought resisters can help keep garden going when others fail
By Jimmy Williams
Posted: Tuesday, July 17, 2012 8:00 pm
Harping — and carping — on drought is no more fun than dealing with it. With drought becoming a way of life, however, dealing with it the best way we can bears repetition.
Extensive artificial watering, it goes without saying, is a requisite. It reaches the point in extreme conditions (that’s now) that almost every other gardening endeavor is ceded over to merely keeping things alive as you spend hours holding hoses or hauling water. If you have too much stuff in outlying areas, a lot of it is going by the boards despite heroic effort.
Throughout the years (38!) at our present garden, there have been precious few woody plants that have stood up to severe droughts. We’ve looked here at some of them before, but I have since noticed others. To say the least, there has been plenty of opportunity to test them during the past several years.
Arizona cypress (Cupressus arizonica) is, as the botanical moniker suggests, a true cypress. (The common local native bald cypress is not a cypress at all.) And, again, as the name suggests, it is a native of Arizona, but also ranges from west Texas to southern California.
I have become enamored with this tree for the 15 or so years I have had it. I can truthfully say that none of the dozen or so I have planted has succumbed to drought. This is even more remarkable, since none of them has ever been watered, even in their first year after planting.
The Arizona cypress is evergreen, or, rather, everblue. The foliage is the thing here, a bright silver-blue the year-round, making for marvelous, and extremely fragrant, Christmas greenery (blue-ery?). The tree is a conifer, and the cones, which don’t resemble pine cones, stay closed for years until, in its native habitat, the forest burns and the cones split open, allowing the seeds to fall and re-forest the ground.
Arizona cypress is winter hardy to zone 7. Several of mine are in the most unhospitable area of our property, in virtual hardpan, and have grown away like the proverbial green bay tree. Others, in more amenable conditions, have been even faster. Some, in partial shade, have a looser look, but are still most attractive.
Arizona cypress will grow to 50 feet or so in a conical form, and rapidly at that. I prefer it to Leyland cypress, which grows to about the same size and at the same speed.
Named varieties of Arizonas have tighter needles, more fastigiate structure, and other variables. However, the straight species is well and good. Any of them are excellent for large-scale screening.
Lower down, nandinas are extremely drought resistant, but not drought proof. I have lost very few of our scores of them due to drought. Nandinas are among my favorite shrubs for screening, foundation planting and massing in mixed borders. Their berries (on most kinds; a few are sterile) are borne in great swags and are a winter attraction. They mix well with Arizona cypress foliage in yule decor.
A surprise has been the drought resistance of camellias. The ones hardy in our zone are mostly fall and winter flowering (some in spring), when the bloom is most appreciated.
Azaleas, which prefer the same conditions (organic soil, part shade) as camellias, are most definitely not drought resistant. I have lost tons of them to drought.
Camellias, on the other hand, have maintained their glossy, evergreen foliage even in dry years, seldom even drooping, growing amidst a graveyard of dried up azaleas. Camellias are greatly underused here; just be sure you get the winter-hardy ones.
Boxwoods will stand considerable drought, once they are established, after two or three years in the ground. Several in our dry woods have survived 10 years or more, but with occasional watering in extreme years.
Spireas, ditto. Though most of them are called “full sun” plants, they will thrive and bloom in considerable shade. Tough as nails and easy fillers among azaleas and other woodland plants, spireas seldom ever wilt when other things around them are going under.
Hydrangeas are water-hungry plants, to be sure, but some of the old ones (i.e. Hills of Snow, often found around old homesites) will take a lot of drought. They will look like stubble for the duration, and they don’t like it, but when rains return they bounce back. Hills of Snow is white, and flowers on new wood. Don’t expect any such performance under drought conditions with the blue mopheads.
From Poor Willie’s Almanack: It’s just going to get worse.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is the garden writer at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he can be contacted on Mondays at (731) 642-1162.
Published in The Messenger 7.17.12