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Drought Tolerant Perennials

In my neck of the woods precipitation comes one of two ways; either all at once or not at all. Spring sees ample showers, but as soon as the calendar turns to June the rain dries up. Unless there is an unusual weather pattern in play I can count on Arkansas’ summers to be hot and dry.

Rather than rely 100 percent on irrigation to carry the garden through, I choose drought tolerant plants that I know will survive extended periods without rain. By selecting the right plants for my dry climate I use less water and I don’t have to work as hard to keep the garden looking good during the dog days of summer.

To make things even easier I use a lot of drought tolerant perennials. Perennials will come back year after year without replanting and most are pretty low maintenance. Throw in drought tolerance and you’ve got something you can pretty much plant and forget.

Unlike annuals, many perennials bloom for a specific amount of time. Gardeners can create season-long interest by selecting spring, summer and fall flowering perennials and showy foliage plants.

Here’s a short list of drought tolerant perennials categorized by season.

Spring Flowering Drought Tolerant Perennials

Perennial Salvia (Salvia nemerosa)

Salvia is lovely when planted in drifts and attracts bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. Color Spires® ‘Violet Riot’ will add vivid blue color to your containers or garden. The flower spikes sit atop mounded, aromatic foliage. 

Zones 3 – 8; full sun; 22 to 24 inches tall with a 20- to 24-inch spread

Proven Winners salvia

Dead Nettle (Lamium maculatum)

Lamium is a low growing groundcover for either sun or shade. The variety Pink Chablis® has charming pale pink flower and frosty green and white variegated leaves.

Zones 4 – 8; full sun or shade; 8 – 12 inches tall with a 24-inch spread

Proven Winners Pink Chablis Lamium

False Indigo (Baptisia hybrid)

Baptisia is a North American native plant that produces sweetpea-like blooms. Try one of the hybrids in the Decadence series for compact plant form and saturated color. Available cultivars include ‘Cherries Jubilee’ (maroon and yellow), ‘Blueberry Sundae’ (vibrant blue), ‘Dutch Chocolate’ (dark plum), and ‘Lemon Meringue’ (yellow).

Zones 4 – 9; full sun to partial shade; 30 – 26 inches tall

Proven Winners Decadence Baptisia

Summer Flowering Drought Tolerant Perennials

Evening Primrose (Oenothera)

Oenothera has a loose, wildflower appearance that makes it right at home in cottage-style gardens. The cultivar Lemon Drop® produces fragrant, yellow blooms all summer. It is both drought tolerant and adaptable to poor soils. Because Lemon Drop® does not set seeds like some of its freewheeling cousins, it will stay put rather than pop up around the garden.

Zones 5 – 11, full sun; 8 – 12 inches tall

Proven Winners Lemon Drop Oenothera

Perennial Sunflower (Heliopsis)

The bright yellow, daisy-like flowers of this North American native plant brighten the garden. The improved cultivar ‘Tuscan Sun’ boasts an extended blooming season and stays a manageable size.

Zones 3 – 9; full sun to partial shade; 12 – 20 inches tall

Proven Winners Tuscan Sun Heliopsis

Butterfly Flower (Gaura lindheimeri)

This is one of my favorite “see through” plants. I like to position Gaura in the middle of a flower border so that the loose stems create a veil through which the background plants are seen. This creates a little mystery and added dimension. Stratosphere™ Pink Picotee and Stratosphere™ White will bloom May through September.

Zones 6 – 11; full sun; 12 – 24 inches tall

Proven Winners Stratosphere Gaura

Fall Flowering Drought Tolerant Perennials

Sedum sp.

Sedums are a classic choice for low water gardens. There are both spreading and upright forms. The upright cultivar Rock ‘N Grow® ‘Maestro’ puts on a spectacular autumn show with abundant bright purple bloom stalks and pink flowers.

Zones 3 – 9; full sun; 24 – 30 inches tall

Proven Winners Maestro Sedum
Aster sp.

What would the fall garden be without asters? I’m love the bold pink blooms of this Pink Mist aster, which produces an abundance of large blooms on compact plants from late summer through fall.

Zones 4 – 8; full sun; 12 – 16 inches tall

Proven Winners aster

(Caryopteris sp.)

Caryopteris blooms are a splash of cool blue at the end of summer. Sunshine Blue® Caryopteris incana is one I grow. I love the color combination of the neon yellow foliage and periwinkle flowers.

Zones 5 – 11; full sun; 36 – 48 inches tall

Proven Winners Sunshine Blue Caryopteris

Drought Tolerant Perennials Prized for their Foliage

Ornamental Grasses

Pair ornamental grasses with bold blooms or fleshy leaves to create an interesting texture combination. ‘Cheyenne Sky’ Red Switch Grass (Panicum) is part of my Proven Winners® Platinum Collection. It’s a chameleon that changes from blue-green to wine red over the course of the summer.

Zones 4 – 9; full sun; 30 – 36 inches tall

Proven Winners Cheyenne Sky Switch Grass drought tolerant perennial

Heuchera sp.

You’ll be amazed at the variety of color and pattern available with such an easy care plant. I’m a huge fan of the varieties in the Dolce® Series, which range in color from chartreuse to almost black.

Zones 4 – 9; full sun to partial shade; 8 – 16 inches tall

Proven Winners Dolce Heuchera drought tolerant perennial

Wood Spurge (Euphorbia amygdaliodes)

This plant blooms in spring, but the foliage is its greatest asset. The cultivar ‘Helena’s Blush’ has variegated green and white leaves that develop bright pink highlights as the temperatures cool in autumn.

Zones 6 – 9; full sun; 16 – 20 inches tall and 20 inches wide

Proven Winners Helena's Blush Euphorbia

Good to Know

Even drought tolerant plants need water just after planting, water your newly planted drought tolerant perennials weekly the first growing season.

When Lilies Take You By Surprise

As a kid, when I saw the naked ladies pop up in the yard, it was always bittersweet.  Their bold presence always made me smile, but I also knew it was almost time to go back to school. The ever-present surprise lilies, also known as spider lilies, naked ladies or naked lilies, were a sad reminder that summer was coming to an end. They are “naked” because the blooms arrive before the foliage and their stems are bare.

Read more

Trumpet Vine

I have trumpet vine that is growing very well, however, it has been established for a few years now and has never bloomed. What would be the reason or cause for it not having blooms? Thank you! P.S. I am “gardening challenged!”

Campsis radicans (perennial, zones 4 through 9) also known as trumpet vine or trumpet creeper is a great North American native plant for attracting hummingbirds and butterflies to your garden. They just can’t resist the red, tubular blooms! It will bloom continuously through the summer, but it needs full sun to do so, at least 6 hours. I suspect that your plants are not getting enough light.

I suggest you transplant it to a sunnier location. Do this in early spring before it starts to grow. If it is a large plant, cut it back to a manageable size, leaving some of the leafy vines intact. Dig it out, maintaining as much soil around the roots as possible and plant in its new location immediately. Keep it consistently watered through the growing season and it should rebound quite nicely.

Trumpet vine is a rapid grower that will quickly cover an unsightly fence or screen an unwanted view. This plant loves the heat, is highly drought tolerant and resists pests and disease.

With all these merits it is wonder why many gardeners cringe when trumpet creeper comes up in conversation. I’ve never known a plant to be so loved and reviled at the same time. The problem is that trumpet creeper can be invasive. Given the right conditions it can overwhelm your and your neighbor’s garden in just a few seasons. Here are a few tips for keeping this rampant spreader under control.

1. Location, location location! Select a site that is away from your house, special trees and other elements you don’t want swallowed up by this plant. Treat this plant like a specimen rather than a companion to your other plants. Also, the flowers and seed pods can be messy so avoid using this as a cover for pergolas or outdoor entertaining areas.

2. Try planting the vine in a large, plastic pot with the bottom cut out. Plant the pot and vine in the garden. This is a trick I use with another flowerbed invader, mint. This planting method keeps the roots in check, preventing it from spreading by underground runners.

3. Remove the faded flowers and seed pods to prevent wildlife from spreading the seeds. This will also promote bushier growth.

4. To control the size of the plant, prune it hard in late winter.

5. As with any invasive plant, check with your local cooperative extension before planting trumpet vine. While it is just a garden thug in some regions, it can be a serious problem in others.

With diligence and proper placement, trumpet creeper can be a divine addition to a garden. On a trip to the Biltmore I was delighted to see it used along with wisteria as a cover for the Library Terrace. The leafy canopy created by the two plants offered a shady spot to rest and take in the all the beautiful sights!

Other trumpet vines to try are ‘Flava’, which produces yellow flowers or ‘Madame Galen’, which has extra-large red-orange blossoms.

Hens and Chicks

Earlier this year I purchased a container of hens and chicks. In the past when I

Sempervivum, commonly known as hens and chicks, is a favorite for adding texture and pattern to the garden. The plant forms rosettes of succulent, green leaves that look like some sort of desert flower. A hens and chicks plant will produce miniature versions of itself, which are the "chicks." Over time it spreads into a low growing mat of rosettes.

It is not uncommon for the rosettes to bloom. It just takes a year or two for it to happen. The rosette will grow taller in the center and then flowers will appear. It looks somewhat like bolting lettuce and usually happens in summer.

Bloom production signals the end of the rosette because it will die soon after, but there should be plenty of chicks to take its place.

In spite of their cactus-like appearance sempervivums are alpine plants. There are about 40 species of this evergreen perennial. Native to the mountains of southern Europe and Asia they prefer arid conditions. Plant them in full sun in a gritty, well-drained soil. Water when dry.

Sempervivums are quite cold tolerant. Some species such as S. tectorum will survive as far north as zone 4, just avoid excessive winter moisture. If you live in a hot climate, plant them in an area that will receive protection for the afternoon sun.

Primrose Care

I just bought some primroses, and want to keep them until spring. I live in the Northeast, so spring doesn’t come as quickly as down South. How should I care for them?

Primroses are a lovely spring plant, but I have never been able to grow them in my garden because the plants wilt in during the summer heat that my area experiences. Along with cool conditions and partial shade, they also require steady moisture and soil that is rich in organic matter.

To keep your primrose until spring, simply grow it as a houseplant. Place it in a cool area that will get bright, filtered light. Just as outdoors, your indoor plants like consistent moisture. The soil should be moist to the touch, but not soggy.

Perfectly Beautiful Peonies

In gardening, and in life, it’s nice to find things you can count on. In the plant world, peonies rank at the top of the list. Prized for their form, stunning range of colors, and exceptional hardiness, few other plants once established bloom so reliably year after year with such little care. Their large, glorious flowers add bright splashes of color to beds and borders and their intoxicating fragrance make them a wonderful cut flower. Peonies are a great value, providing you with years of beautiful returns.

America’s love affair with peonies has been a long and successful one. I have fond memories of rows of pink and white peonies blooming in my Grandmother Smith’s garden. In many parts of the country peonies open near the end of May, a characteristic that makes them the flower of choice for Memorial Day decorations. Through the years plant breeders have developed a spectacular array of new colors, flower forms, and blooming times to give gardeners even more selection. Today you can enjoy nearly 6 weeks of continuous bloom by planting early, mid and late season varieties. Hybridizers have also developed peonies with stronger stems to hold aloft the plant’s large, heavy blooms. And they have developed hardy new varieties for gardeners in the north and south, expanding the range of the plant’s popularity.


Peony Design Tips

In my grandparent’s day, peonies were often planted in rows or set out as islands of flowers encircled by the lawn. I prefer to mix them with other plants in flower borders such as shrub roses, foxglove, iris, daylilies, phlox, perennial geranium and lamb’s ear. Since peonies don’t like to be moved once they’re established, it’s best to plant them in permanent spots with other hardy perennials. As their blooms fade, the plant’s rich green foliage mixes well with other perennials and also makes an attractive background for shorter annuals. I often plant peonies amid spring flowering bulbs such as daffodils or tulips. After the bulbs bloom, the emerging peony foliage helps camouflage the bulbs? fading leaves.

The Right Peony for You

Mid May to early June is prime time to enjoy these splendid flowers. There are two types of peonies grown in the home landscape, the garden or herbaceous peony that grows 2 to 3 feet tall, and the tree peony that is 4 to 6 feet in height. Although fall is the time to plant peonies, now is the time to pick your favorites, so you can select the right color and variety for your garden. Take a picture or record the name of the ones you like the best. You can place an order with a mail order company this spring and then they will ship the tubers in the fall when the time is right to plant them in your area. You can also wait and buy plants this fall from your local garden center. If you don’t have a garden take heart, you can still enjoy peonies as cut flowers in flower arrangements. Whatever you choose, I’m sure you’ll find as I have that it is easy to fall under the spell of their amazing beauty.

Planting Depth is Important

One of my biggest attractions to the peony is its long life. I’ve heard of peonies outliving the gardeners who planted them – surviving nearly 50 years! But the key to longevity is how they are planted. Plant the bare root tubers in the fall just as the autumn leaves begin to turn. Choose a well-drained site in full sun, although light shade will keep some darker colors from fading. Prepare the soil before planting by adding well-rotted manure, compost and bone meal as needed. The number one rule is not to plant too deep. Make sure the ‘eyes’ on the tubers are pointing up and are covered with only about 2 inches of soil. A little less deep in warmer climates is fine. Trust me, if you plant them too deep, you will have foliage, but no flowers. Take into account their mature size when planting them so they aren’t crowded and mulch the area in early winter to avoid frost-heaving of the tubers. It usually takes two years after planting before any flowers are produced. Support is often required for the tall, double flower hybrids.

Peonies for the South

If you live in the deep South, keep in mind that peonies do need cool temperatures to really thrive. But I always love to defy the nay sayers who insist “you can’t grow that here!” That’s exactly what I did when I designed a garden in Southwest Georgia. I convinced the family to plant two varieties that I have had much success with: ‘Festiva Maxima’, and ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ (see Varieties of Peonies). To my critics’ amazement, and envy I might add, the peonies bloomed profusely. Look for new varieties bred to thrive in warmer areas.

What About Ants on Peonies?

Ants are attracted to the sweet sap produced by the peony bud. This is no cause for alarm. The ants are not harmful. Just leave them alone, and once the flowers bloom, they’ll move on.

Beautiful Varieties of Peonies

Here is just a sampling of the hundreds of peony varieties available. Peonies are often described according to color, height, and flower forms: single, semi-double, double, bomb and Japanese. Check local nursery centers in your area to see which varieties are best suited for your garden.

FESTIVA MAXIMA – Developed in 1851, this fragrant, early blooming, 24 to 30 inch peony is an old-fashioned favorite. Strong stems provide good support for the large white double flowers with crimson markings. Zones 2 – 7 or 8

REINE HORTENSE – Another old-fashioned beauty introduced in 1857, this fragrant peony features large, double flowers that bloom in midseason. Flowers are rose pink in color with fluffy petals that are notched and silvered at the tips. The plant’s strong stems and deep green foliage make it a standout in the flower border. Zones 3 – 8

GARDENIA – Large (8 to 10 inch) blush-white gardenia shaped flowers bloom on strong 34 inch long stems. This is an early to midseason bloomer with a sweet fragrance. Zones 3 – 8

AURORA SUNRISE – The clear, bright pink Japanese style flower of this peony is highlighted with a tightly packed golden center. A 30 inch variety, it was developed for good stem strength and a striking presence in the garden. Zones 2 – 8

CORAL SUPREME – This gorgeous, 36 inch semi-double peony has stunning salmon-coral blossoms that open early in the season. The plant has unique cup shaped flowers that reflect nearly 3 decades of breeding to perfect. Zones 2 – 8

PETTICOAT FLOUNCE – This peony lives up to its name with superb soft pink ?bomb? shaped blossoms touched in creamy white and edged with tinges of red. An excellent cut flower with luxurious, deep green foliage growing to 24′, it blooms early in the season, just in time to enjoy its gorgeous fresh cut flowers in an arrangement. Zones 2 – 8

HESPERUS – A tree peony growing 3 to 5 feet that blooms in midseason with single dusty rose flowers with yellow undertones and deep rose veins. The flowers sport crinkled petals that are notched with purple inner flares and fine, golden stamens. Zones 4 – 8

HIGHLIGHT – This peony helps extend your flower show by blooming late midseason with large double flowers in dark red. A beautiful cut flower, its rich color adds depth and drama to a bed or border growing to 34 inches. Zones 3 – 8

RED EMPEROR – Very large, Japanese type flowers in bright red with full pale centers make a striking display blooming in midseason. The intense color fades, but makes this showy flower even more interesting. Grows to 30 inches. Zones 3 – 8

SEA SHELL – One of the best peonies for the south, this Gold Medal Winner is the center of attraction in any garden. The lively pink single flower has a bright center of yellow stamens. Flowering in midseason, this 36′ peony holds its blooms high on strong stems. Zones 3 – 8

SARAH BERNHARDT – Nearly a century has passed since this peony was introduced in 1906, but it is still a popular favorite. A double flower in dark rose-pink with petals edged in a slightly lighter color makes this fragrant, mid to late season bloomer the star attraction. Zones 3 – 8

Good to Know: Peony Arranging Tips

  • Select half opened blooms, they’ll last longer.
  • Cut the flowers early in the morning.
  • If the heads are heavy with dew, gently shake to remove water.
  • Handfuls of peonies in a vase make a beautiful arrangement.
  • Remove foliage below water line to prevent bacteria build up
  • Keep flowers away from heat and direct light.

Peony Planting

For me, one of the peony’s biggest attractions is its long life. I’ve heard of herbaceous peonies blooming reliably for more than 50 years, sometimes outliving the gardeners who planted them! But the key to their longevity is the care you take in establishing them.

I’ve found the ideal time to plant bare root peony tubers is in the fall, just as the first leaves begin to turn. Now the term bare root means that all the soil was removed from around the tuber when the plant was dug from the field. I prefer planting bare root peonies because they are less expensive than container grown plants and by planting them in the fall they will have time to develop a strong root system, ready for robust growth next spring.

Whether you purchase your bare root peonies from a local garden center or through a mail order source the first thing you want to do when you open the package is check that the plant is healthy. Bucket of PeoniesThe tubers should be fleshy, firm and mold free.

Sometimes bare root plants can dry out during transit so it is a good idea to soak them in a bucket of water for 2 to 4 hours to rehydrate them before planting.

If you cannot plant the tubers right away keep them in their packing material in a cool, dry place, such as a garage, or basement. Warmth and moisture will signal the tubers to start growing so check on them occasionally to be sure they aren’t getting moldy or soft. They can be kept this way for about 5 days.

Planting Location for Peonies

Choose an area that is in full sun with well-drained, slightly acidic soil. And bear in mind that peonies do not respond well to transplanting once they have become established, so select an area where they can remain undisturbed.

Planting Peonies

Sketch of Peony Tuber Peonies should be planted with the eyes pointing up and just beneath the surface of the soil. Now here is an important fact to keep in mind. Peonies that are planted too deep will not bloom. In northern gardens plant the tubers no deeper than 2 inches. In my mid-South garden I plant them about a half-inch deep. This allows for the mulch I spread over the planting bed to keep weeds down and help conserve moisture.

Once planted, water well and keep the area consistently moist until the ground freezes.

Pink Peony

What to Expect After Planting Peonies

Next spring your peony will produce foliage, but it may take a few seasons for it to put on a big display of flowers. But your patience will be rewarded. Peonies are plants that are geared for long lives and their blooms improve with age.

The large, heavy flowers of many of the old fashioned varieties such as ‘Sarah Bernhardt’ and ‘Festiva Maxima’ have a tendency to flop over. One of the most effective ways to avoid this is to cage them in the early spring soon after the stems emerge from the ground. You can use a simple metal ring with legs on it to give them support or you can just use a piece of wire fencing to encircle the plant.

Caring for Peonies After they Bloom

Another great thing about peonies is their fragrance, but to insure lots of bloom the following year, it’s important to remove the seedpods and fertilize each plant in late spring/early summer after deadheading the faded flowers. You can use a blend of 5-10-5 sprinkled around the base. About a handful per plant is enough. This is the only time you need to feed them because too much fertilizer can result in burn, fewer blooms and spindly growth.

Mazus reptans

On page 73 of your book “Colors for the Garden”, there is a picture (under the heading of -texture, pattern and rhythm)of tulips and a beautiful purple ground cover. Could you please tell me what this ground cover is? I just love that look and would love to attempt to recreate it in my garden. Thank you.
New Jersey

I’m so glad to learn that Colors for the Garden has inspired you. It is especially heartening to me that this image in particular is of interest to you because it illustrates one of my favorite projects. If you will indulge me, I’d like to answer your question about the ground cover in the process of describing the whole project because I think it is a good solution to a common need, curb side access that is not only functional, but also attractive. So let’s start by setting the scene of where this photo was taken.

The site had an existing low stone wall that ran parallel to the street and was set back from the curb about 5 feet. The first order of business was to create the framework for the area. This was done with boxwoods. A pair of boxwoods was planted in front of each of the wall’s stone piers, leaving enough space between each grouping to fill in with seasonal color.

Next we placed a line of rectangular cut stones in front of the boxwoods, near the curb. These offered a hard surface that people could step onto as they got out of their cars.

Now, we get to the answer to your question. The ground cover that caught your eye is Mazus reptans (hardy in zones 4 to 9). It was planted between the flagstones to soften the edges and spill over the concrete curb. The tiny, bright green leaves and delicate, lavender blooms were a perfect fit. It is semi-evergreen, meaning that it will stay green year round in mild climates. The site’s full sun to partial shade suited the growing requirements.

Never one to miss a chance to plant roses, I added climbing ‘New Dawn’ roses on the backside of the wall and trained them to spill over the top.

As mentioned before, the area between the boxwoods was reserved for seasonal color. During fall and winter it is filled with pale blue violas, ‘Blushing Lady’ tulips add height and color in spring, and in summer a white periwinkle with a pink eye combines nicely with the pale pink blooms of the ‘New Dawn’ roses.

How to Choose Ivy for Your Zone

I would like to plant ivy at my grandmother’s house with the objective of covering one wall and then using another type for a lattice. What kind of ivy is suited for the outdoors as well as heat and drought? I would like varieties with light-green leaves, that is, apple-green leaves, not dark-green leaves as the English ivy. Caracas, Venezuela

First, let me say how nice it is to receive a question from a gardener from South America. It is evidence that the love of gardening can be shared across languages, cultures, and climates!

From what I understand Caracas has a mild climate with an average high of 80 degrees F and an average low of 70 degrees F. The rainy season runs from May through October, but it is fairly dry the rest of the year.

Ivy prefers partial shade and soil that is humus rich, fertile and moist but well drained. Given the climatic conditions of your region, it should thrive, but you may need to provide water during the dry months. Water thoroughly and then wait until the soil dries to water again.

Before I get into the details of selecting an ivy for your garden it is important to understand that here in the United States traditional English ivy, Hedera helix, has been classified as invasive. Invasive plants are those that take over surrounding habitats, choking out the native flora. English ivy spreads by seed and little pieces that break off and root in the ground. So to avoid creating a nuisance for yourself, I recommend that you stay away from traditional English ivy. Many of the newer cultivars are variegated or pointed leaf forms and are much better behaved, and, with good gardening practices, you shouldn’t have to spend too much time cutting back.

`Lady Frances’ is a great non-invasive alternative to traditional English Ivy. This variety has white and light green variegated leaves and grows well on a fence, wall, or climbing up a tree trunk and as a ground cover. ‘Lady Frances’ is well suited for hanging baskets and shade as well. You can grow it inside in a space that gets some natural light. Once a year, you should plan on trimming it a bit. ‘Lady Frances’ is winter hardy in Zones 5 and up.