Doing the Continental

Spring is always pretty erratic in the DC area, but this spring seems more erratic than most. Record warmth in February. A cool (but average) March. More record warmth in April. And now back to a cold and rainy start to May.


If the ups and downs are hard on gardeners – can’t we please just get out there and plant? — think what they do to plants. A false spring followed by a hard freeze can kill vulnerable new growth — as can record rainfall (or drought), high winds and/or large hail. And with a changing climate, our spring weather isn’t likely to become more predictable any time soon.


I’m clearly not the only gardener struggling to find good strategies for dealing with weather extremes. There was a huge turnout at a conference I recently attended on plant solutions in an age of climate change. Adrian Higgins addressed the issue a few weeks ago in his column in the Washington Post. And the Brits (who often seem light-years ahead of us in gardening matters) have just updated their comprehensive study on the subject from 2002.


My takeaway from all of these resources maps to my own experiences: there is no magic bullet, so plant the most resilient species you can find. Figuring out that resiliency involves a lot of trial and error, but here are three approaches that seem to be working (so far) for me.  I’ll cover another three in my next post.


First, it almost goes without saying that I use a lot of native plants in my gardens and my designs. By definition, natives are acclimated to our area. Hopefully, they’ll keep up as our region’s climate evolves. As long as they’re properly sited (meadow plants in sunny open areas and woodland plants in cooler shady areas), I usually find them quite trouble-free.


Second, I’m increasingly looking inward – to the heart of the continental U.S., that is – for plant ideas, not southward. We may one day have consistently warmer winters and be able to reliably grow plants from a warmer zone.  But the winter of 2014 and our late frost this week show we’re not there yet. Plants that can endure both really cold winters and super hot summers are now at the top of my list.  Thankfully, tough prairie plants from America’s heartland are increasingly easy to find and are proving their worth in my gardens. My general rule of thumb is that if the stunning Missouri Botanical Garden (Hardiness Zone 5 and Heat Zone 7) can successfully grow a plant in its somewhat harsher environment, I probably can grow it here too.


Third, I’m paying closer attention to the plants I walk by that somehow are thriving in the most unforgiving environments.  I like to think of these as “Timex” plants — they take a licking but keep on ticking.


For example:  for years, we had a stand of Iris germanica at the corner of an old shed.  Planted well before we owned the property, we did nothing to it — ever.  When the shed finally came down, we felt guilty about throwing the iris out.  So in late October we found a few bare spots in the garden and pretty much just stuck the iris rhizomes in.  A year and a half later, we were rewarded with this:


Iris Spring 2017 1

And this:


Iris Spring 2017 2


Up next:  more strategies for creating a resilient garden.

Feature photo of native plants:  Baptisia australis in bloom with young Rudbeckia maxima, Panicum virgatum and Penstemon digitalis.





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