dry leaves, drought

Coming to Terms…

This hot, dry summer — and the likelihood of even hotter, drier ones as the climate warms — has forced me to come to terms with the realities of gardening in this place: four big Norway maples on or near my 6,000 square feet; only six millimeters (about 1/4 inch) of rain from mid-June to mid-September; thin, sandy soil into which compost is instantly absorbed.

I’ve lost my inclination to struggle against these facts.

The essence of gardening is creating artificial environments — making plants grow in places they would never exist under natural conditions; tinkering with plants to change their natures; assembling plants into unlikely combinations for aesthetic purposes. That takes cleverness, imagination and energy. Doing what it takes to keep a garden going is the whole point of gardening. A garden is a place in which to dig, plant, weed, prune, edge, trim, water. And, for a few minutes every now and then — admire the results. That’s the payoff (and, of course, edibles in the case of food gardens).


The trouble for me is that the combination of shade and dry, root-filled soil has made gardening here more of a slog than a pleasure. Those withered August leaves in the featured image perfectly represent the situation.

An obvious solution is to have all or most of the trees removed, but that’s a huge, expensive and disruptive undertaking. Moreover, the trees are inhabited by a myriad of life forms — bugs, birds, squirrels and others. And mature trees take up more carbon than young trees, so cutting them down — even non-native, “junk” trees like Norway maples — isn’t a good thing to do, simply for the rather frivolous reason of growing better perennials.

Another obvious solution is to give up. But I can’t even articulate what that would mean in practical terms, so it’s no solution at all.

No. The only solution is to work with what I have, adjusting my expectations accordingly (sort of like self-publishing, actually). I’ve already identified the plants that tolerate the conditions here. Any that can’t cope have either vanished from the scene or, in the case of must-haves, been moved into pots. Delphiniums, blue poppies and a couple of hostas grow here in pots (or barrels) or not at all. That’s the way it is.

October 2016

Potted Hostas near pond.

Another approach would be to dig up roots, pile on fertilizer and pour on water to counteract the natural tough conditions. But digging in rooty ground is a miserable business, and I already pay enough for water. Besides, the trees would love extra water and fertilizer.

I must accept the conditions as they are and use techniques that work within them to achieve results that meet realistic expectations.

In thirty-five years of gardening, I have learned how to arrange plants in beds and borders, and how to make those beds and borders look good, no matter what they contain. I could make a garden out of utter weeds if I had to — spurge laurel, thistles, dock, brambles and bindweed. “Weed” is only a label.

Some of the plants that do well here, that actually prosper despite the shade and the poor, dry, root-infested soil, are what I consider near-weeds. The two champs are campion (Lychnis coronaria or Silene coronaria) and toadflax (Linaria purpurea). Having worked with them for a couple of decades now, I know how to manage them. Left to themselves, they get seedy and show their inner weediness by midsummer, but deadheaded and cut back at the right times, they are long bloomers that maintain colour in beds that are otherwise a mass of blah by late July.

June 2010 019


In fact, I’m envisioning a set of posts for next year that will feature these plants and how to grow them well. With pictures showing the different growth stages and effects of deadheading/cutting back.

I recently read something that suggests true gardeners have an insatiable appetite for new plants. They pore over catalogues and nursery websites seeking the latest varieties. Well, I consider myself as much a gardener as anyone, but I don’t buy many plants. Many just can’t take the conditions here, especially since most nursery plants are grown in super-fertile, moisture-retentive growing mediums (or is it “media?”) that are the horticultural equivalent of steroids. Transplanted into my ground, even into spots prepared with hearty digging and added compost, many new specimens either cling to their original clump of super-dirt and slowly dwindle, or go into shock and don’t bother dwindling but die immediately. Any plant I buy now is one I have researched thoroughly and can reasonably expect to do well here. One piece of advice I’ve heard is to wash off the growing medium nursery plants arrive with and plunge them right into the dirt that will be their new home (after reasonable preparation, of course). They have to adapt or die, and if chosen wisely, they will prosper.


Oriental Hellebore (in March)


Another fact I have to live with is that this is a spring garden, not a summer one. From March through May the soil retains moisture from the winter and early spring rains, but from June to late September, water comes from a hose or not at all. Late-blooming herbaceous plants (asters, dahlias, colchicums, autumn crocus) are fairly reliable, but shrubs and trees are not. I once lusted after Franklinia alatamaha, a small tree that produces white camellia-like flowers just as its foliage begins to turn red and orange. I wasn’t able to obtain one, which is just as well, as it’s native to the southeast U.S., where summer rain is not unknown, and it’s generally reputed to be hard to grow. In autumn and winter, my trees may be appreciated as colours and shapes, but forget about fall bloomers here.

Norway Maples

The Norway maples. Imagine the roots!

What about native plants? I planted Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) and snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus). They do well — too well, in fact. I’m always digging out their suckers. I also have some native ferns, camas, barrenwort or inside-out flower (Vancouveria hexandra), and a patch of salal (Gaultheria shallon). But this was disturbed ground long before I arrived on the scene, so making a garden of native plants alone wasn’t practical. Those Norway maples, remember? And anyway, our native landscape in late August is pretty brown and uninspiring. In spring it’s a different story, of course. So on my patch, natives and aliens have to rub along together.

Today I moved some colchicums to spots where they’ll show up better and add zing to the late summer scene.


Colchicums, called “autumn crocus” by some, but they’re not crocuses at all.

Asters are starting to bloom.


Aster frikartii “Monch”


“Pink Cloud” and “Monch” asters with fading peony foliage and a few Rose Campion flowers.

October 2016

Those asters again.

As long as I can find a thrill in scenes like this as the seasons go by, I’ll keep gardening.


  1. Very beautiful! I see you have some sedum in there. Not sure of the name, but it’s probably related to dragon blood. That, or it is dragon blood in shade haha. Very healthy looking!

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Yes, I do have some sedums, grown from a lot of mixed seeds decades ago. I think the ones in my photos are similar to Dragon’s Blood, if not the real thing. Thanks for the compliment!


      1. Whoa from seed! Quite impressive. I’ve grown dragon blood from seed as well, but they are still young. About a year old. Very awesome that yours are from decades ago! They must be very hardy in your climate now. Some succulent growers specifically look for succulents such as this because they’re typically healthier and hardier.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. Some things do grow well here, like those sedums. On the other hand, other types from that same batch of seed have disappeared over the years. Success in gardening seems to be a combination of knowledge, skill, effort and luck.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. When people find out I’m a landscape architect they usually say ;there’s a part of my garden where nothing will grow…’ My advice has always been to look at a similar situation in nature and see what grows there.

    I don’t know about the garden centre situation where you live, but in the UK there’s a very big range of wildflowers that can be bought now, so unless we’re talking the ground underneath yew trees or beech woods, in Britain there’s always something that grows in weird places. I hear drecently that wildflower meadows grow well on limestone gravel!

    Have you thought of laying liner over the tree roots, importing soil and then planting something that prefers very damp conditions, like a bog garden?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I did actually consider liner + imported soil at one point, but decided I’m too lazy/cheap for such a labour-intensive project. I’ve decided to stick with plants that do fairly well in the worst spots of my place. You’re right — there are plants that will grow in utterly horrible spots. Some are “weedy,” some are not (hellebores, ferns, variegated vincas), and others are in between (peach-leaved bellflower). Potted hostas can be parked among the tough plants to improve the scene. And certain spots at certain times of year are just not at their best. It’s also amazing how keeping edges clipped and trimmed and debris raked up improves the look of a place.

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  3. Neat pictures. One thing you might think about is “grey water” – effectively recycling some of the water you use in your house. I have had the problem of dry summers too, and for a long while, I relied only on rainwater for the house and the garden.

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    1. I’ve read about the grey water thing, but haven’t seriously considered it (yet) because it does involve some plumbing and knowledge to do properly. However, it’s an option should summers get hotter and drier, as predicted. I’ve also considered installing a really big rainwater collection tank, considering how much water runs off the roof in the winter. Thanks for the compliment and comment.


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