Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Taste Now & Then


Flouting Drought
Dry times or wet, the best advice is to make your plants less needy

AS I WRITE THIS it is pouring down rain, and the drought hysteria continues to grow. I can't help but remember how, over many years of gardening in Seattle, I've lost far more plants to rot and roots suffocated by sopping wet soil than to lack of irrigation. I wouldn't be surprised if it keeps on raining until mid-July - we've seen that happen often enough. I know that doesn't solve the problem of the inadequate snow pack, but it will fill the reservoirs and water our plants.

I think we'll be better off if we ignore the fuss over drought and consider this yet another year with a weird weather pattern. Yet another year we should put forth our best and continuing efforts to make our gardens less dependent on supplemental irrigation. Primarily because of lawn and garden watering, we use 50 percent more water from May to September. This is a ridiculous increase whether we have an occasional dry winter or not. As the population of Puget Sound continues to grow apace, less water will be available. It's that simple. Changing our gardening practices to conserve water is smart ecologically, as well as a good way to save money and maintenance time.

A welcome result of all this furor is that agencies around Puget Sound have mobilized to give gardeners information. Seattle Public Utilities has a new Web page that serves as ground zero for drought information, Here you can find common-sense tips on natural garden care, updated for current drought concerns. Have you ever heard so much about cisterns and downspouts in your life? For rain barrel resources call the King County Commission for Marketing Recyclable Materials at 206-296-4439, or visit their Web page at

Now In Bloom
Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) are annuals that bloom best in dry, infertile soil and full sun. Easily grown from seed, nasturtiums' lily-pad-like leaves and hot colors enliven the garden as well as summer salads. T. Alaska series has leaves speckled in creamy white; 'Empress of India' has scarlet flowers set off by blue-green leaves.

What it all comes down to is good gardening practices, not unlike those advocated by organic gardeners for years. You make your garden less needy by building good soil that will adequately retain moisture and nourish plants. Fertilize less and use more compost. Mulch when the ground is thoroughly soaked, to conserve moisture and prevent weeds. Choose plants, especially native, that prefer less water, and group plants with similar water needs together. Get rid of thirsty lawn. When you do water, use soaker hoses or drip irrigation rather than flip-flops that spray the water all over the place and lose half of it to evaporation. Water rarely and thoroughly, to encourage roots to grow deeply into the soil. You're teaching your plants self-reliance.

Instead of paying too much attention to all the shouting about drought, I decided to search out words of wisdom from gardeners in drier parts of the country who have been dealing with lack of water for decades. I found a calm and supremely sensible approach in a letter Nancy Goodwin, owner of Montrose, wrote to garden columnist Allen Lacy in August 1998 ("A Year In Our Gardens, Letters by Nancy Goodwin and Allen Lacy," University of North Carolina Press, 2001). Montrose was an admired nursery in the 1980s, and now is Goodwin's famed multi-acre private garden in Hillsborough, N.C. Goodwin says:

"Besides trees and plants in containers and new plantings that need time and extra care to become established, I don't irrigate my garden and never have. When we moved here, I accepted my personal challenge to make a garden that does not require artificial irrigation ... If the garden I make depends on me or some other human to intervene with water, it is not viable. I try to find the right plant for the site - the plant that can survive and make the fewest possible demands on me. If I had a well nearby producing thousands of gallons a minute, I still would not water."

What else is there to say? If we all adopted Goodwin's approach as integral to our gardening philosophy, we'd look at this year as no different than any other in the garden. Just another season to work at making our gardens as free of our intervention as possible.

Valerie Easton is a horticultural librarian and writes about plants and gardens for Pacific Northwest magazine. She is the co-author of "Artists in Their Gardens" from Sasquatch Books. Her e-mail address is

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