KP Gardens

The Drought Garden

Planting for a drier climate


Drought is the natural summer state on the Key Peninsula. The Pacific Northwest has a Mediterranean climate, with most rain falling in the winter when plants don’t necessarily need it, and dry summers — in fact some of the driest in the country. The recent heat dome and continued widespread drought throughout the West make this a good time to think about drought-tolerant gardens.

Jonathan Hallet is a landscape architect who recently worked with his in-laws to plan drought-tolerant plantings on their parcel in Home. Charlie Davis often visited Home when his parents lived on A Street. When his mother sold the property, Davis and his wife Nancy Stevens kept the parcel just behind the house. They plan to build in the next few years but have already started landscaping.

Hallet said that many garden plans in the northwest have traditionally come from a Japanese or English vernacular — one that is lush and water-dependent. “I’m interested in finding native plants that are more suited to this climate,” he said.

The Pierce County Master Gardeners have a demonstration garden in Sehmel Homestead Park that includes a drought-tolerant bed. They recommend grouping plants with similar water requirements.

Some preparation is important prior to planting. Traditional recommendations are that the hole be two to four times bigger than the root ball, with compost measuring a quarter of the backfill mix to allow for better water retention. Each individual rootball should be watered regularly for the first two growing seasons after planting, ensuring that the entire root zone is wet. It is time to water again when the roots have dried a bit. The watering schedule can taper off once the plants are established. True drought-tolerant plants should tolerate monthly watering or less, but if they begin to look marginal, they may need an extra drink.

Hallet subscribes to a “tough love” approach. “When I plant stuff, I don’t dig a much deeper or wider hole than needed. If you do that, it does give you the opportunity to add wood chips for water retention, but you don’t want to make it so luxurious that the plant won’t extend its roots past the planting hole. It’s part of the tough love of wanting the plant to go find water and nutrients,” he said.

Hallet selected dozens of plants for the Home property — some for dry sun, others for dry shade, as well as shrubs that will provide screening. Ground covers include Erigeron glaucus, commonly known as seaside daisy, and several types of kinnickinnick. Among the perennial selections are Helichrysum italicum, a daisy known as curry plant; Eriophyllum lanatum, or common woolly sunflower; Erigeron speciosus, or aspen fleabane; and Camassia quamash, the bulb known as small camas. He selected two hellebores, Douglas iris, and Mahonia nervosa or dwarf Oregon grape for the shaded areas. Shrubs include rockrose, lavender, carpet manzanita, boxleaf azara, Phlomis fruticose or Jerusalem sage, rosemary, and Ceanothus, more commonly known as California lilac.