Field Notes 26

Interior West BY LAUREN SPRINGER / Fort Collins, Colorado, Zone 5

Designing for Drought

THE RAIN GODS have been fiercely unkind to our region for the fourth year in a row now. Meteorologists are predicting the drought to continue, perhaps for several years more. There are days, especially lately, when I wonder why I even bother to garden here. I dream of moving; sometimes I even dream of finding a new passion. However, I’ve found that it’s more useful and realistic to learn how to maximize beauty in the drought-stricken garden.

Obviously, plant selection is the biggest issue. I look at the best of the survivors, and add lots more of those. Diversity may suffer, but who wants to look at a bunch of agonized plants? If it means more yuccas, agaves, and cacti, so be it. A lot more western and southwestern natives keep going in, of course. And I’ve found the hardy succulents to be a treasure trove of fascinating beauty, mainly because of their texture.

In the absence of flowers (the majority of plants in my garden, drought tolerant or otherwise, have barely bloomed in several years), the garden becomes all the more dependent on the foliage and growth habit of its denizens. Luckily, many of the plants that are best equipped to deal with drought also have interesting texture. I find myself planning plantings in black and white, seeing how the shapes, silhouettes, and negative and positive spaces play off one another. Color has become entirely secondary and capricious. The idea of worrying about clashes is a distant memory—I’m happy for any chromatic jolt at this point.

Nonliving elements in the garden also take on a more dominant role. I’ve never been very comfortable with much in the way of garden art—I usually stick with natural objects—but the rocks, boulders, flagstones, shells, and bleached deer antlers I do allow all contribute an added dimension of interest.

Last, and probably most important, there are the containers. I have allowed my collection of pots and potted plants to grow to well over two hundred, stretching my house’s overwintering capacity during the cold months, as every window is outfitted with a table crammed full of plants. Most of the plants are also of the succulent persuasion, or are at least drought tolerant, so they require less water and attention. This allows me to escape to wetter climes for a week or two when the psychological effect of scarcity and thirst bears down a bit too much, and the gin and tonics are no longer taking the edge off. Several containers never receive a plant; they go out into the garden empty, Grecian urn-style (although none are in the least bit Grecian or urnlike).

All of these ideas are hard won—far from the joyous discoveries of my earlier years of gardening in Colorado. But even a parched garden is better than no garden at all. H

Worth growing

California desert sage Salvia pachyphylla

A handful of high-elevation selections of this three-foot-tall and four-foot-wide, aromatic, evergreen subshrub have proven hardy in USDA Zones 4 and 5. The plant relishes heat, very dry conditions, and mineral-rich, humus-poor soil. The silver foliage suffers very little winter burn or dieback. Come late summer, the plant sends up a profusion of dense, showy spikes of lavender-purple flowers encased in bright rose bracts. The bracts keep the show going long after the flowers are finished, so in effect one can enjoy well over two months of color. Sources, page 76.


Laporte Avenue Nursery is a small mailorder business located in Fort Collins. Co-owners Karen Lehrer and Kirk Fieseler specialize in unusual alpines, herbaceous western natives, and drought-tolerant perennials. The selection is superb; the plants themselves are beautifully grown—in my experience, better than any other mailorder nursery specializing in alpine-type plants. They are well rooted and bushy, and hardened-off enough to withstand the consequences of being placed outdoors. Call 970-472-0017 for a catalog or write to 1950 Laporte Avenue, Fort Collins, CO 80521. If you are in the area and would like to visit, call ahead for an appointment.

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