Stipa tenuissima (Ponytail Grass)

One of the hardest parts of gardening in an era of climate change is trying to predict what the weather will be. Sure, on a global scale, Mother Nature seems to be slowly turning up the heat bit by bit, as if She were smoothly adjusting the temperature dial on an oven. But at the local level, it seems like the weather can be all over the place, moving quickly — and unexpectedly — from flash droughts to flash floods.

Case in point: after a long, wet, cool spring, we suddenly entered a period of unrelenting heat, coupled (in our case) by four weeks without measurable rain. Plenty of areas around us were enduring intense thunderstorms, but we were in a rain hole under a massive heat dome. The impact on the garden was pretty immediate – and pretty brutal. With a well as our water source, we don’t have an irrigation system and as serious gardeners, we have lots of areas under cultivation. Keeping everything moist as the rains dried up simply wasn’t an option.

As a huge proponent of the “right plant, right place” approach to garden design, I’ve tried hard to fill our garden’s different habitats with plants that will thrive with little assistance from Yours Truly. Many plants in known hot and dry spots, like the Verbena bonariensis (Brazilian Verbena) and Stipa tenuissima (Ponytail Grass) pictured above, have effortlessly shrugged off the drought. But what to do when an area that for years has been consistently sunny and moist suddenly becomes sunny and terribly dry during the height of the growing season?

After a lot of fretting and sulking, here’s where I’ve landed. Switching to xeric landscaping everywhere doesn’t seem right. Our localized drought could easily end when it’s our turn to experience record-breaking rain, and many drought-tolerant plants can’t handle excessive water.

So what I’m doing instead is using this unexpected “opportunity” to evaluate which plants in average to moist areas of the garden have come through the brutal heat and drought relatively unscathed. Plants that really suffered will get moved to another part of the garden – or to the compost pile. Plants that excelled will probably get some new cousins this fall.

I’m also paying even closer attention to mini microclimates in the garden that I haven’t had to consider much before. For example, I grow a fair bit of our native Echinacea purpurea (Purple Coneflower), which has a reputation for being quite drought resistant once established. And it is – as long as it’s not sitting at the edge of a flagstone path radiating extra heat. Moving it away from those specific hotspots will be another chore for cooler weather.

Similarly, I have six Hydrangea macrophylla (Mophead Hydrangea) along a partly shaded garden path. Two of them sit in a slightly damper spot than the remaining four. In previous years, all six have fared pretty much the same. But this year, despite special attention from the hose, the four hydrangeas in the more freely draining soil have been hard hit and seem unlikely to bounce back this season. I’m gearing up to replace them with a more forgiving Hydrangea species such as H. quercifolia or H. paniculata.

I’m also taking notes on which struggling plants are in important sight lines. For instance, as you pull into our driveway, one of the first things you see is a stand of Scutellaria incana (Hoary Skullcap) and Thermopsis villosa (Carolina Lupine) around the base of a mature Pinus taeda (Loblolly Pine). Although both perennials are attractive native plants well suited to dry soils, they simply have not been able to compete with a very large and very thirsty pine tree. I don’t think they’ll kick the bucket on me but they do look very wilted and sad – not exactly the welcoming vision I want guests to see as they approach the house. I’ll either be moving those too, or at least supplementing them with other plants that I hope will hold up better when the next heat dome/drought inevitably descends.

Finally, and probably most importantly, we’re trying hard to adjust our expectations for this growing season. For a few months, the garden looked really great. We enjoyed it immensely. Now it looks . . . not so great . . . OK, awful. The grass is brown and crunchy, the trees are dropping leaves and the perennials have stopped flowering. But there’s not much I can do about it except be patient. The birds, bees and butterflies still have ample food and drink, so it’s not the end of the world. The weather will surely turn at some point (hopefully for the better!). And as I tell myself every time Mother Nature trips me up in the garden: at least I’ll have an excuse to buy more plants.


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