When I was growing up in a rural area in western New York State, some of the farmers used to say that drought came in eleven-year cycles. This was not as bad as it sounds. To my knowledge the area never suffered through eleven consecutive years of disastrous water shortages. The theory was simply that eleven years of relatively dry summers would be followed by eleven years of comparatively wet summers.
I am sure that meteorologists have long since discredited this kind of folk wisdom. Besides, non-farmers have a hard time remembering what the weather was like two summers ago, let alone seven or eight years back. Still, having a formula for anticipating some kind of dry spell means that farmers and home gardeners can prepare for it. There is something to be said for that.
Several pundits have predicted that the coming summer will produce another drought. That being the case, now is the time to think about drought-survival strategies. At the moment, all the gardeners I know are ordering from catalogs. In about three weeks the great rush to the garden centers will be on. If you are buying new plants, consider their water needs. Some plants, such as hydrangeas, rhododendrons, astilbes and many roses are absolute water hogs. If you want to install them, make sure you get them in early and mulch them thoroughly. In fact, if you can afford it and have the space, call the local garden center right now and have a load of mulch delivered. It’s easier than lugging all those bags, and the mulch will be ready whenever you are planting or working on your beds.
Consider investing in soaker hoses for irrigation. These “leaky pipes” are usually made out of recycled materials, and can be laid on top of mulch or underneath it. Water passing through soaker hoses goes directly to plant roots without excess waste and evaporation. If the projected drought results in a ban on hose use, check with your municipality about whether soaker hoses are allowable.
Just as mulch is invaluable for its insulating and moisture retaining properties, so is any kind of plant that covers the ground. A dense planting scheme, with plants close enough together so that bare soil does not show between them, helps keep moisture in. However, this can be a problem if you are installing new perennials and need to provide for future expansion room. Fortunately annuals can do the job while you wait. California poppies (Eschsholzia californica) provide a happy “hot” note in the garden. In my experience, marigolds, either the screaming yellow and orange varieties, or the more subtle hybrids, work well in dry situations, as do portulacas.
If you are developing a new planting scheme, try to pick at least some drought tolerant varieties. This is when it helps to have a book or catalog that can tell you where various plant genera and species originated. This may be an excellent time to install that herb garden that you have been thinking about for years. Many herbs are native to warm, dry Mediterranean climates, and a little drought (or even a lot) will not faze them in the least.
Group plants together according to their water needs. It makes watering easier and faster, especially if you end up having to do it by hand for several weeks. If you have to move around some established plants in order to do that, this is the time. Their roots will be well-established when high summer arrives.
Think about the colors that you like, then select drought-tolerant varieties accordingly. If you want something in one of the currently fashionable purple shades, try blazing star (Liatris spicata) or one of the various cultivars of lavender. The latter thrives under drought conditions in the summer, and when dried, improves the odor of your linen closet or underwear drawer in the winter. What more can you ask?
Members of the salvia family are generally a good bet for hot, dry weather. You can get the time-tested annual scarlet sage (Salvia splendens), or invest in one of the blue, pink or white flowering perennial varieties. Yarrow (Achillea) comes in a wide variety of colors, survives water shortages nicely and looks lovely dried in winter arrangements.
Remember that drought has been around since the beginning of time, and no one yet has thought of a way to prevent it. Think of it as a challenge, and sow those portulaca seeds now.