Workshop on Drought-Tolerant Plants Set for Saturday
As the month of February winds down, gardeners can sense that spring is poking its head around the corner and some dormant plants are showing signs of life.
We've had a few welcome rains during the winter months, but we are still well below normal rainfall levels, and a big question remains: How large a toll has the prolonged drought taken on local gardens?
Longtime residents with established gardens and transplanted gardeners from more moderate, wetter parts of the country are facing the same challenge: surveying the damage and identifying plants that will tolerate the exceedingly dry conditions that have become the norm in the Sandhills.
Those azaleas which have done pretty well here until now and which were a staple planting "back home" may not be the plant of choice in drier conditions. Those colorful impatiens, so beautiful in shady, moist areas, are best left in parts farther north.
The water restrictions, which do not appear to be going away anytime soon, further complicate making good choices for our gardens. Many of us are finally convinced that we need to look for plants that tolerate drought.
Free Workshop Planned
So what plants work best here in the Sandhills?
To find out, attend the workshop from 10:30 a.m. to noon Saturday, Feb. 23, at the Pinehurst Village Hall, 395 Magnolia Road. The workshop, sponsored by the Greenway Wildlife Habitat Committee of the Pinehurst Conservation Commission, will be presented by Dolores Muller and Mike Zihal.
Like most gardeners, Muller and Zihal are eager to share their knowledge and experience with those who have similar interests -- and they are uniquely qualified to do so. Both are Master Gardeners with broad experience at giving presentations on numerous topics, including use of drought-tolerant plants and xeriscape gardening.
Muller inherited her interest in gardening from her grandfather, a wonderful gardener who introduced her to gardening as a child. Although a graphic artist by profession, her love of nature led her to take botany and zoology classes in college. A longtime resident of the Sandhills, she soon came to recognize that the sandy, porous soil in her garden required plants that do well in dry, sandy, poor soil conditions, and drought-tolerant plants filled the bill.
As a Master Gardener and docent at the Sandhills Horticultural Gardens, Muller has many opportunities to speak to local gardeners and provides the following advice: "Gardeners should remember to fit plants to the environmental conditions if they want them to do well."
Zihal has a personal and professional interest in Xeriscape gardening and the use of drought-tolerant plants. Before retiring, Zihal was a professional engineer who designed, operated and managed water utilities under all conditions, including drought.
As a Master Gardener he has done many presentations on xeriscape gardening and use of plants with low water needs. He is a regular on the "Hotline" at the Cooperative Extension Office in Carthage and has answered questions from many local gardeners.
The Feb. 23 workshop, "Drought-tolerant PlantsWhat to Plant and How to Do It Part 1 Spring Planting," will provide information on drought-tolerant plants that do well in the Sandhills. Muller and Zihal will provide names and pictures of plants so that those attending can get a good idea which ones they might want to choose for their own gardens. The workshop will cover annuals, perennials, ground covers, vines, trees and shrubs suitable for spring planting and will be followed by a second workshop in September that will cover plants suitable for fall planting.
Sad Looking Landscapes
Local gardeners concerned with accessing the condition of trees and shrubs that show signs of drought-stress will benefit from viewing workshop slides showing die-back and learning what to do about it. Instead of immediately taking the drastic measure to remove the plant, Muller says, "the short answer is to wait until it flushes out in the spring, then apply the '3 Ds' of pruning: Cut away the dead, dying, diseased. Then prune to shape."
Many gardeners are pondering whether to plant now during the cool winter weather or wait until the rainfall pattern changes to more normal levels. Muller and Zihal will cover that, providing advice on the best time to plant.
What to Plant
When asked about plants commonly used in the Sandhills that are particularly susceptible to drought, Muller said that azaleas and rhododendrons top the list. At the other end of the list are lantana and day lilies which do well and have minimal water needs.
Muller and Zihal say that there are attractive substitutes that can be used to replace the thirsty plants that many of us have in our gardens. Gardeners who love impatiens should consider vinca, which comes in many of the same colors as impatiens. Other annuals that do well in drought conditions include melampodium and some petunias. They recommend loropetalum as a replacement for azalea, and as a substitute for Japanese hollies they recommend yaupon hollies, native of the Southeast, which come in a great variety of sizes and shapes. For perennials they recommend daylilies and hellebores while their recommended tree list includes Southern sugar maple and ginkgo.
Workshop attendees will be provided a list that includes these plants and many more that are suitable for our current dry conditions. The list will include plants suitable for various exposures including sunny and shady locations. Muller stresses that these plants will continue to do well even if our weather patterns change back to more normal rainfall levels.
How to Plant
After deciding what to plant, it is important to make sure that the plants are planted properly.
According to Muller, "Drought-tolerant plants are less work, need less fertilizer, less water, and are less susceptible to pests."
Even so, Muller and Zihal both strongly recommend that the gardener "always do a soil test." to determine fertilizer needs and soil pH. They also recommend amending the soil and that the amendments should be 25 percent by volume to be effective. Sandy soils, the most common type in the Sandhills, should be amended with pine bark humus, composted leaves, and peat moss, while clay soils should be amended with pine bark humus, composted leaves and small pea gravel.
As for mulch, they say that "any mulch is better than no mulch at all" but advise "staying away from raw wood chip mulch as it drains nutrients from the soil."
When asked about water requirements until plants get established, Muller responded that "each plant has different requirements, and it depends on where they are planted: sun or shade. Drought-tolerant plants need less water once established."
Where to Get Them
Local gardeners with concerns about finding drought-tolerant plants at local nurseries and plant sales should have no fear. Muller says that sellers are taking into consideration the current water restrictions and the need for providing plants that can tolerate drought.
"The plants we are recommending are readily available at garden centers. We are not recommending exotic plants that are hard to find," says Muller. "If garden centers don't have them I'm sure they can get them if requested. Not buying the water-thirsty plant varieties and requesting drought-tolerant plants will encourage nurseries to carry them. The Pinehurst Garden Club will be offering vinca as a substitute for impatiens. And they offer geraniums, which do well with less water."
A Starting Point
When questioned about converting a landscape completely to drought-tolerant plants, Muller and Zihal provide the following advice.
"There is no need to replace an entire yard," they say. "Besides, it seems like a huge undertaking and not something we would do. Better to pick and choose what plants appeal to you, and as plants succumb to the drought, then replace them with something drought-tolerant. Also, areas of one's garden might be a micro climate, and non-drought-tolerant plants might do well so you don't want to replace them. We need to keep in mind that some gardens might have low-lying damp areas so there is no need for drought-tolerant plants everywhere."
"Attend the workshop on Saturday to find out what will work in your garden," says a spokesman.
Check the Web site of the Village of Pinehurst (www.villageofpinehurst.org) for more information. The Conservation Commission and the Greenway Wildlife Habitat Committee portions of the Web site provide information on gardening in the Sandhills as well as links to other sites with additional useful information.
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