Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
January, 2009
Regional Report

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This sweetly fragrant false sunflower takes shrub form in warm, sunny Tampa, Florida.

Bringing Xeriscape to Pots Up North

"Come smell," urges Trisha of Tampa, pulling 10-foot-tall stems of yellow flowers down to our noses. "This sunflower is honey sweet." With some two dozen thick, arching, woody stalks, this "flower" looks more shrub-like than herbaceous. It reminds me of the difference between 3-foot rosemary "bushes" in South Carolina herb gardens compared to the 1-foot 'Arp' rosemary plants that struggle to survive Pennsylvania's cold, wet winters.

Around the corner, annual sunflower seedlings sprout in a shallow heap of wood chips. Leafy green arugula is ready to pick for salad. Orange-petalled, brown-eyed tithonia climbs a cedar-gray wooden fence. Evening is settling and temperatures dipping into the 60s end a warm, sunny Florida day.

No sprinkler system in this artist's garden. Nor in the professionally designed xeriscape front yard/garden we visited earlier. I saw palmettos, bluestem grass, groundcover jasmine, asparagus fern, wild plumbago, prostrate petunia (ruellia), wild indigo, and hibiscus.

I'm impressed and more than curious. What's here that I could use in Philadelphia container gardens? With each summer, watering plants in stone, brick, and concrete containers, always time-consuming, gets increasingly expensive. Plus, precious water is a limited natural resource.

Florida is serious about conserving and recycling water. Its Department of Environmental Protection reminds us that "Every Drop Counts -- Use it Again, Florida!" Reclaimed water is reused for residential landscapes, golf courses, public land, and citrus orchards. I spotted outdoor watering systems labeled in yellow as recycled, nonpotable water for landscape watering only. Do correct me if I'm wrong. I can't recall seeing such visible, obvious water conservation and reuse up north.

We mid-Atlantic residents can pay heed individually and in community even if our states aren't mandating water conservation and recycling.

With that in mind, I'm rethinking my approach to container gardening for city and suburban properties. In several cases, beautiful stone planters are popular and often customer-preferred. So I can't switch out heat-holding, porous planters for attractive, moisture-retaining molded plastic or formed foam.

I can, however, look at plants with new eyes (no, not the Googly Eyes that Christopher Walken pastes on his cacti and succulents in the SNL skit).

Appreciating Fascinating Foliage
The trade-off for substantial drought tolerance is more foliage shape, texture, and color instead of a festival of colorful flowers. Plump-leafed succulents hold water. The thick leaves are oddly-shaped reservoirs -- pink-hued or blue-hued aloes; cascading and pink-flowering Sedum spectabilis and its many cousins; blue, green, pink, and lavender pachyphytum; spiky senecio; rosette-leaf graptoveria; artichoke-like aeonium; ice-blue, upright agave-Americana; yellow- and white-flowering cheirodopsis. Finding tall, medium, and short types in complement will be fun. My off-the-cuff inclination is to dedicate an all-succulents combination to the shallowest containers.

In the deep urns and wine jars -- perhaps hairy-leafed perennials and tropicals such as blue-purple flowered tibouchina and ornamental sages. Or thistle-like cardoon and blue-flowered, tap-rooted sea holly (Eryngium spp.) center stage. Asparagus fern or ornamental grasses variegated Carex 'Ice Dance' or 'Bowles Golden' and spiral or giant rush (Juncus spp.) are attractive fillers -- with a repeat of cascading succulents as a visual tie for all pots in the courtyard.

Is it spring yet?

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