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Designing your Garden with Drought-Tolerant Plants

September 22, 2008
Jeanne Price

Is your garden dying in order to reduce your water bill? Put in drought-tolerant plants in October to catch the winter rains and use less water next summer.

On Thursday, October 2 at 7 p.m. Deborah Whigham of Digging Dog Nursery in Albion, Mendocino County, will talk about “Designing Your Garden with Drought Tolerant Plants” at the Marin Art and Garden Center in Ross. She will present ideas on designing with exotic or unusual drought tolerant plants and feature photographs of distinctive garden designs by her husband, landscaper Gary Ratway, including the lavender gardens at Matanzas Creek Winery in Santa Rosa. The focus will be expanding palettes with discoveries she and Gary have made with either familiar species or with new ones.
Whigham is a horticulturist and co-owner with her husband of the Digging Dog Nursery, which she has been running for 20 years. Her philosophy of plant selection is a no nonsense approach. She expects more from a plant than one season and has put together a collection that has layers of interest. She thinks of plants in terms of their personalities and what they have to offer. She said some are “shy,” some “hardworking” and some “coarse but fun.”
Whigham selects all the plants, runs the nursery and writes the catalog where each plant is described, not only in detail, but with suggested companion plantings. The nursery is a catalog store and reservations must be made if you intend to visit in person.
She will talk about some of the more unusual drought tolerant plants from her nursery and bring some to sell. These may include unusual red hot pokers (Kniphofia), rock rose (Cistus), sea holly (Eryngium), and evergreen grasses, pheasant’s tail grass (Stipa arundinacea), thatching reed grass (Thamnochortus insignis) and red hook sedge (Uncinia rubra).
One of her specialty plants is Kniphofia, native to Madagascar and tropical South Africa, better known to the layman as red hot poker. However, some of her plants are not red hot in color. She offers new hybrids in creamy yellow, chartreuse, and melon. All are as hardy and reliable as the red version—those heat and drought tolerant red hot pokers that have survived years of neglect in abandoned gardens.
Using these and other drought tolerant plants will not only help to conserve our limited and increasingly expensive water supply in Marin, they can create a colorful and pleasant—even lush—garden. It will attract bees and butterflies, be fragrant—think lavender—and green in color, as well as environmentally correct. Cactus, sand and succulents are not the only choices for low water planting. Using plants native to our area will mean less work for you and make for a more disease-free garden.
There is a word for this kind of landscaping—xeriscape. It means an area specially designed to withstand drought conditions and reduce water consumption. The word was created in 1981 by the Denver, Colorado Water Department by putting xeros, a Greek word for “dry” with landscape. Xeriscape uses native and water-efficient plants and then groups them together according to their similar water needs for effective water use. The word is not to be confused with “zeroscape” (lots of rocks, green concrete, few plants), which cannot be recommended.
Even if all you want to do is save money on water, you will have also designed a more care free, healthy and even beautiful garden, if you create a xeriscape.
So if you are looking for some new drought tolerant plants to add variety to your garden come and learn from Deborah Whigham. A number of the plants she will describe can also be found in local nurseries.

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