Everyday Gardeners

Plant. Grow. Live.


Here in Iowa, it’s been a hot, dry summer. Unless we watered our gardens regularly, a lot of our plants suffered. So far, it’s turning out to be a dry autumn, too, so don’t put away the water hoses just yet.

Keeping your favorite plants well watered this fall (especially evergreens such as: rhododendrons, pines, spruces, firs, hollies, andromedas, and camellias) is the best thing you can do to get them through winter so they look fantastic next spring.

Try to keep the soil evenly moist, like a well-wrung sponge. And, like watering in summer, it’s still best to water deeply and less frequently than to give your plants a little water every day. Additionally, it’s still helpful to prevent plant diseases by doing most of your watering before noon.

One question I hear often is: How long should you keep watering. That’s an easy one! Keep watering up until ground starts to freeze. Plant roots continue to grow and develop even after deciduous trees lose their leaves.

Watering now can do a lot to help keep your plants healthy next spring!

Des Moines is suffering under one of the worst droughts in decades. My garden has received less than 1/2 inch of rain in the past month. That, coupled with days on end of temperatures exceeding 100 degrees F has created extreme stress on plants. I seldom water established plantings, but this year I’ve resorted to rescue watering for most of the plants in my yard. I’m not trying to keep everything in photo-shoot-ready condition. I’m simply trying to make certain the plants will survive.

Perennials, trees, and shrubs planted within the past two or three years are most vulnerable, but many well-established plants are also showing signs of drought stress. The shrub pictured below is growing on the south side of a parking garage. Reflected heat off the concrete wall creates a desertlike microclimate in this spot. The shrub should have been watered long ago. At this stage, it likely will suffer dieback of the growing tips. But if it gets water right away, it likely will resprout from the base.

Because water is in short supply during a drought, it’s important to water efficiently. Sprinklers can spread water over large areas, but they lose some water to evaporation as they sprinkle. And usually they also over spray onto sidewalks and driveways, where the water will simply run off. If you don’t have large expanses to water, consider using soaker hoses that ooze water the full length of the hose. For trees and shrubs, you can fashion a drip watering system by drilling a few holes into the bottom of a five-gallon bucket, filling it with water, and placing it near a tree to slowly distribute the water to the root zone. For large, well-established trees use several of the bucket to deliver more water.

What drought-defying tricks do you use in your garden?

Drill several holes in the bottom of a 5-gallon bucket to create a homemade drip irrigation system for trees and shrubs.

Wind a soaker hose around perennials such as hosta to get the water to the roots without wetting the foliage.

It was a hot, sunny weekend and Sunday was particularly breezy here in Des Moines. While the breeze was nice for me to keep that warm air moving, it was really tough on plants — especially containers, which seemed to dry out immediately after watering them.

If watering is the toughest part of keeping your containers looking good, try these tips:

  • Mulch. Adding an inch or two of mulch (such as shredded bark or cocoa hulls) over the top of the potting mix will help conserve moisture.
  • Don’t Overplant. It’s easy to pack your container garden full of little plants — but keep in mind that as the plants grow, they need more moisture. The fewer plants you have (or the bigger the pot), the less often you’ll need to water.
  • Choose the Right Plants. Varieties, such as angelonia, lantana, euphorbia, and cosmos hold up to heat and drought better than calibrachoa, petunia, lobelia, bacopa, and impatiens.
  • Provide Shade. If your containers sit in the blazing sun and they’re not too heavy to move, getting them out of direct light during the hottest part of the day will help keep the plants cooler and moister.
  • Soak Your Pots. If the potting mix does completely dry out, soak it in a tub of water to help rehydrate it. Most mixes hold water well when they’re moist, but have a hard time soaking up moisture if they dry out. If you water and the mix is too dry, the water will run right down the sides of the pot and out the holes instead of being absorbed.
  • Cut Back on the Fertilizer. If the weather forecasts an especially hot week, withholding the fertilizer that week can actually help your plants. Fertilizer pushes lots of growth; the more plants grow, the more water they need. Letting them slow down during hot spells means they’ll use less water.


AngeloniaAs a horticulturist, I often find myself recommending plants to people. I feel bad when I get asked for the impossible plants; something like an evergreen that flowers all year long, is hardy in Zone 3, loves deep shade, and deer won’t eat it.

There is one incredible flower that I frequently recommend, though, because it does cover so many bases. I absolutely LOVE it! The plant is called angelonia, and despite how wonderful it is, not a lot of gardeners have heard of it.

What does angelonia have going for it?

  • It blooms nonstop all summer long.
  • It comes in blues and purples (my favorites), as well as pinks and whites.
  • It holds up well in hot spots.
  • It handles drought like a champ.
  • It can grow in wet soil. I hear (never tried it myself, though), that you can even put it in a water garden.
  • It attracts butterflies.
  • Some varieties are fragrant.
  • Deer and rabbits usually leave it alone.

Because it’s so versatile and wonderful to work with, plant breeders have come out with a number of series. Upright versions like the Angelmist or Carita series can get 2 (or more) feet tall. Spreading varieties, such as Serena and Carita Cascade, are perfect picks for hanging baskets. And new-for-2012 Archangel has exceptionally large blooms that really stand out in containers or the landscape.

There’s a spot for angelonia in virtually every sunny garden. Give it a try and let me know what you think!

This combination of prickly pear (Opuntia) cactus, horned poppy (Glaucium flavum), and hummingbird mint (Agastache cana) is looking good despite the heat and lack of moisture.

This combination of prickly pear (Opuntia) cactus, horned poppy (Glaucium flavum), and hummingbird mint (Agastache cana) is looking good despite the heat and lack of moisture.

Earlier this week while making the rounds in the yard, I noticed how many plants were showing moisture stress. It’s not surprising. After one of the warmest Julys on record, and just an inch and a half of rain in the last six weeks, only the toughest perennials could be expected to be perky in these drought conditions.

Plants must be tough to survive in my yard. I don’t water, except during the establishment year. (That may soon change. I intend to set up some rain barrels, and use my new RainPerfect solar powered rain barrel pump to water some of the more sensitive perennials. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the rain barrels in place before the rains dried up.) But for now, I rely on natural rainfall and mulch to keep the perennials happy during dry periods.

The airy bubblegum-scented foliage of hummingbird mint is a perfect complement to its tubular lavender-purple flowers which, as it’s name suggest’s, attracts hummingbirds, as well as other pollinators. It can grow up to four feet tall. If that’s too large for your yard, consider ‘Purple Pygmy’, a dwarf version that remains under three feet in height.

The combination of hummingbird mint, horned poppy, and prickly pear provides a long season of color. The prickly pear starts the season with bright pink flowers (see below), closely followed by golden blooms on the horned poppy. The “horned” part of the name comes from the long, curved seed pods that develop after blooms fade. I deadhead the seed stalks to expose the deeply fringed silvery foliage, which looks great all summer. If you prefer, you can allow the seed pods to ripen and self-sow.

Pink prickly pear blooms

Pink prickly pear blooms

Deep yellow horned poppy bloom

Deep yellow horned poppy bloom

Purple Pygmy hummingbird mint

Purple Pygmy hummingbird mint

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