In the Garden:
Upper South
September, 2012
Regional Report

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Big Red begonia was one of the drought-tolerant winners in my garden this summer.

What I Learned This Summer

Both the calendar and the thermometer are telling us that fall is here. Whether we get the usual warm weather bounce, otherwise known as Indian summer, we'll have to wait and see. Bottom line, though, we need to do some quick harvesting and preserving as well as providing protection on nights ahead to some plants in order to prolong the growing season. We'll just have to say good-bye to other plants or bring them indoors.

Besides rushing to do all these things, it's also the time to evaluate what worked, what didn't, what to grow again, and what to cross off the list. The overriding aspect of this summer's gardening was the drought. I've gone through my notes and gleaned what I think may help you, both as you evaluate your own garden for this year and plan for next year's.

Drought Conditions Front and Center
Perhaps next year we'll be talking about plants that thrive in an over-abundance of moisture, but it seems prudent to think about water and how we use it, as well as how we choose plants and where we plant them.

From my own experience with seven acres of gardens and no automatic irrigation, the benefits of a deep organic mulch, in my case a partially composted dark hardwood mulch applied anew ever year, cannot be overstated. The mulch is applied to all garden beds, including vegetable and fruit plantings, as well as around all individually planted trees and shrubs.

Other than the container plantings, the only watering done this year was to a newly planted shrub and perennial area under established trees. The point was to keep them alive this year while they were getting established. Next year, they're on their own.

The only area that exhibited drought stress was one that, when planted, I did not realize was particularly prone to this. Portions of the area had soil that was bulldozed after a house fire 55 years ago. The other part is near a sugar maple. I was aware of the problems growing near silver maples, but I didn't realize that the sugar maple, with its deeper roots, would have a similar effect. Design-wise, I like this garden area, and some plants are growing well. Those that are going backward will be replaced with ones that can withstand the existing conditions.

If drought conditions continue to occur in future years, we gardeners are also going to have to reconsider the plant palette with which we're familiar. We'll become more aware of those perennials, shrubs, and trees that will be better able to survive with less rainfall. Some mail-order nurseries are already specializing in drought-tolerant plants. But many of these plants are native to the Southwest and mountain regions of the country and the question for our region will be which ones can also tolerate the high humidity of our midwestern summers. Of the ones I've grown, the hummingbird mints, Agastache hybrids, have done well, as have varieties of Salvia greggii.

Water-saving is another important aspect of dealing with drought. If you don't already use soaker hoses, consider adding them to your shopping list for next spring. Include one or more rain barrels on that list, too.

Considering Containers and Water
One of my favorite aspects of gardening is growing in containers, whether individual plants or colorful mixtures. Watering dozens of pots is not, however, a favorite pastime. The secret is to mix a hydrogel, such as Terra-Sorb, into the potting soil at planting time. I also use special fabric mats, with trade names like Hydro-Mats, in the bottom of pots that absorb and then release moisture.

That said, there are also plants that I'll never grow again in pots, as well as others that will now find their way into my garden every year. At the top of the "never grow again" list, at least in containers, is pineapple sage, Salvia elegans. It wilted before everything else. Other sages, both ornamental and culinary, did quite well, though.

Two old-fashioned plants, asparagus fern and rose moss or portulaca, proved to be superstars in containers. I have window boxes that are just never going to get watered other than by rainfall, and the portulaca planted in them has bloomed non-stop. I also have a beautiful plant stand that, unfortunately, only holds three small pots. Last year, I grew succulents in the pots, and they did okay. This year, I opted for an inexpensive three-pack of asparagus ferns. They look lovely and perfect. Next year, I'll also grow some in two hanging planters that never get watered.

Another problem area for me is one with an arch set into two large planters. At one point, I set a 4-inch pot of red morning glory, Ipomoea coccinea (syn. Quamoclit coccinea), on top of the soil among other plants in one pot. This never got planted, but the plant sent roots through the pot into the soil and has thrived. Definitely on next year's list!

But the real star of this year's container plantings is Big Red begonia, which resembles a typical annual begonia on steroids. Growing about 2 feet tall in both sun and shade, with bright green leaves and brilliant red flowers, this is a cross between an angel wing and a fibrous begonia. There are also forms with bronze leaves and rose or red flowers. It was difficult to water my pot of it because of where it was placed. No matter, among the dozens of potted plants, Big Red was the one everyone noticed. Now that's a lesson that was fun to learn this summer.

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