Bob Brzuszek is an associate professor of landscape architecture at Mississippi State University. You can access more of his sustainable landscape articles at the Mississippi State University Extension website at

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How Dry I Am
by Bob Brzuszek    

 “Worm or beetle – drought or tempest – on a farmer’s land may fall,
Each is loaded full o’ ruin, but a mortgage beats ‘em all.” – Will Carleton

Spiraea cantoniensis

Last year was a tough one – for people and plants. The U.S. Drought Monitor for 2010 shows that the Southern United States was in abnormally dry conditions for most of the year. And this is an area that normally averages over 50 inches of rainfall a year. In fact, it was so dry that cows were giving evaporated milk. The extreme lack of rainfall was bad enough, but coupled with record high summer temperatures for most of the eastern U.S., it was literally a killer. Especially in my garden.

Drought-Tolerant Trees:

American holly, bald cypress (pictured above), chestnut oak, zelkova, overcup oak, pin oak, sawtooth oak, willow oak, yaupon holly

yucca (pictured above), beautyberry, spiraea
, viburnums, sweet olive, abelia, cleyera,rose of Sharon, wax myrtle

black-eyed Susan (pictured above), butterfly weed
, yarrow, daylily, baptisia, gaura, goldenrod, purple coneflower

That’s because last year, I made a pledge not to water plants. Not because I’m a heartless gardener. But I realized that it just didn’t make sense. If some communities had to make a decision between watering outdoor plants versus having enough clean water to drink for their citizens, that’s a pretty easy decision. And the aquifers that we pull our drinking water from really don’t understand the concept of state lines. Hence the problem. It’s like my bank account, too much going out and not enough coming in to replenish it.

So last year I had to use some tough love on my plants and turn off the faucet. It was sad to see the sweetspires’ drooping leaves and a-spire no more. And even young gingkos were soon ging-gone. That’s a pretty tough year. But the ironwoods sailed right through the drought as if they were really rocks, as did the native viburnums and black gums. Some plants just have it and some don’t. So it was time for the ones that don’t to quietly slip away.

I haven’t replaced the plants that I’ve lost yet. But when I do they will definitely be drought tolerant. Hello Xeriscape. And xeriscape plants aren’t that hard to find any more. Unlike the desert gardens of the past, they don’t have to be all cactus and succulents sprinkled amongst well-placed boulders. Xeriscape plants can fit any garden style that you have – they are plants that are just more tolerant of being parched.

Dr. Gary Wade at the University of Georgia has developed a list of drought-tolerant plants for the Southern U.S. Most are pretty familiar ones to our gardens, and a few are worth taking a closer look at. One thing that I noticed about this list is that many of the woody plants are built to conserve moisture. They either have waxy or hairy leaves, or minimize their leaf surface area. Many hollies, such as American, gallberry (inkberry) and Foster’s holly have a thick waxy leaf to minimize transpiration. Herbaceous plants, such as lamb’s ears, dusty miller or zinnias have hairy leaves to prevent moisture loss. Juniper leaves are thin and waxy, and are just plain tough anyway.

So for tough-as-nails trees, try to select bald cypress, elm, hornbeam and Southern magnolia. There are many drought-tolerant oaks to choose from including chestnut, laurel, overcup, pin and shumard oak. For shrubs, try yucca, beautyberry, spiraea, yaupon, abelia and juniper.

In addition to selecting drought-tolerant plant species, mulching is essential to retain soil moisture. A good layer of mulch (at least 3-4 inches) can keep soils cooler by preventing solar radiation, it prevents the top layer of soil from turning cement-hard, minimizes weed coming up in the bed and reduces moisture loss.

So this coming year let’s try to keep the sprinkler water from running down into the storm drains. Or at least try to just spot water. I remember when I was a boy the hot dry summers of the past would shrivel the lawn into a continuous brown carpet. My parents never watered with a sprinkler, and do you know what happened? After the first rain the lawns greened right up again. See ya in the garden.



Posted: 08/29/11   RSS | Print


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