Steele: Plan to avoid watering challenges

My present gardens are fast-draining, nutrient-deficient, sandy soil. My former nursery gardens were nutrient- and water-retentive clay.

I don’t have automatic irrigation. And while I am a reluctant hose dragger, I feel very distressed when my plants are wilting.

My present gardens are in fast-draining, nutrient-deficient, sandy soil.

As well, I have three, much appreciated, big shade trees whose thirsty roots stretch far and wide in search of water and nutrients, so this property is very dry.

My former nursery gardens were in nutrient- and water-retentive Glenmore clay.

Plants were grouped by water needs so that after the first year of getting them established the drought-tolerant planting beds were never again watered.

Perennials such as delphiniums that did need water were grouped together, but even they only needed a total of seven inches of water added over the whole growing season.

Although it was hard to prepare garden beds, once four inches of organic matter were tilled in and the soil mounded to create better drainage, the mulched gardens supported an incredible variety of thriving plants.

I had thought clay soil was challenging.

Now I miss the abundant growth produced with so little effort and the freedom of gardens needing little or no water.

After nine years of developing gardens here, it is time to focus on simplifying.

My least favourite task is watering so with garden notebook and camera, I am stalking my gardens in search of plants that are thriving without water.

This dry season is the best time to find them.

I intend to transplant them, or their offspring, to all the areas that are hard to water, like slopes and places where no sprinkler pattern fits without watering pavement.

I’ll plan renovations now for fall when it’s cool enough to transplant and divide.

This can be done in early spring but I find it easier to space things when I can see all the plants at full size, making it less likely to plant something too close to its neighbours.

It’s also easier to visualize intermingling of colours and textures.

From what is already growing in my gardens, my top picks for super dry sun are:

Ornamental grasses—blue hair grass (Koeleria glauca), blue gramma grass (Bouteloua gracilis), Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima). All of these will self-seed which is useful when an area needs to be filled in.

Evergreen perennials—lavenders (Lavendula angustifolia varieties and the very large Lavendula x intermedia ‘Grosso’), thymes (varieties of culinary Thymus officionalis, creeping woolly thyme, the more compact elfin thyme, and Doone Valley thyme), native sagebrush (Artemesia tridentata).

Long bloom—hardy ice plant (Delospermum cooperi), Missouri Evening Primrose (Oenothera missouriensis)

Spring bloom—dwarf German iris.

Foliage interest—culinary sage (Salvia officionalis varieties, especially golden variegated S. ‘Icterina’), curry plant (Helichrysum italicum), native rabbit brush (Ericameria nauseosa).

I’ll leave all these plants to go to seed hoping they will provide babies for my dry, challenging places.

Gwen Steele is executive director of the non-profit Okanagan Xeriscape Association. Learn more about Gardening with Nature and plants for the Okanagan at


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