High Summer at Chickadee Gardens

High summer here at Chickadee Gardens means we are in full swing. Finally the vegetable garden is giving us some produce and the drought adapted plants throughout the garden are pretty happy. Late August does mean watering, however, so drought tolerance is at the forefront of my mind. I have seen a lot of discussion online about drought adapted plants and would like to chime in that when I post information about this subject, it is in reference to my West Coast garden which is entirely different from the East Coast or any other climate, for that matter. We are in a summer dry climate, nothing new about that, it's been this way long before climate change kicked in. We have clay soil (well, ours is Cascade silt loam to be accurate) and very low humidity generally speaking. So what is drought tolerant in the Midwest is not necessarily so here. There are so many variables! Nonetheless, I do hope that wherever you garden that there is some fun in seeing what grows in another's locale. OK, on that note, here is a snapshot of the mid summer garden and many drought adapted plants.
An entrance to the labyrinth garden flanked on either side by Acanthus mollis (the left one is out of shot). Plants in this part of the garden are all (by West Coast summer standards) fairly drought tolerant. The acanthus had to form tap roots before it was weaned off of summer irrigation which took a couple of growing seasons.

Arctostaphylos silvicola 'Ghostly' has grown considerably in the last year. Once an arcto I would have described as weak, I have changed my tune. I am not certain why it improved so radically. It was spotty and diseased looking for three or four years before it grew out of that phase. No summer water at all and on top of a berm, so good drainage. 

Agapanthus inapertus 'Nigrescens' in the berm garden. Although it does well with low summer water, reflected heat from our metal siding house burns and bleaches out the lower leaves during heat waves. The flowers are not impacted, however.

Geranium harveyi in the gravel garden. The original plant perished last winter but many seedlings showed up this spring and I'm quite happy about it. Very drought tolerant and charming with purple flowers. With foliage like that, who cares about flowers? Very low and spreading at about 5" tall.

The arctostapylos are doing their exfoliating bark thing! All receive zero supplemental water from me.

Aster x frikartii 'Mönch' is, like many asters, able to keep going with low summer water.

Melianthus major leaves. This giant of a plant was hit hard by heat dome last summer and died completely to the ground with our April freeze and snow. It has rebounded nicely, however it will likely not bloom this year as it has every other year. It gets a little summer water a couple of times but not much. It too, like Arctostaphylos 'Ghostly', is planted on top of a mound so has good drainage.

Foreground Teucrium chamaedrys, behind it asters then Pennisetum 'Karly Rose, Verbena bonariensis and Stipa gigantea. To the left the silver shrub is Teucrium fruticans. This is in the labyrinth garden and all plants here are very low water in average soil. In fact the teucrium, stipa and pennisetum never receive direct supplemental water.

Also in the labyrinth is my Echinacea purpurea with Asclepias speciosa field. The echinacea are always sold as drought tolerant natives, but if you consider where they come from, summer water prairie lands and the humid eastern US, it is not particularly adapted to our summer dry environs here. It needs some summer water or it sulks. Still, it is valuable to pollinators and is pretty, so I give it a little water once a week or so in high summer. The same is true of rudbeckia. They are the first to flop in the heat.

Pelargonium sidoides, a South African "geranium" with fabulous foliage and dark magenta flowers.

Here they are. This has, very surprisingly, been hardy in my garden for many years despite all the weather challenges.

Containers on the driveway with Origanum 'Kent Beauty' and Diascia 'Lucy' in the other pot. These are up against our metal siding and get hot afternoon sun, but do fairly well with just a weekly watering.

Fremontodendron californicum, flannel bush, native to the West Coast. This is supposed to get huge, and I believe it, but oddly this particular specimen was planted in 2016 and struggled (it had a bit of a run in with garden equipment if memory serves) but I knew its roots were still good so left the 2' stub. This year finally it is now about 7' tall and growing. It gets absolutely zero summer water. 

Artemisia frigida foliage. This is very drought adapted and prefers well drained soil. In fact it will rot in wet heavy soil in summer. I have killed one by watering it too much. Lesson learned.

Petrohagia saxifraga, a sun lover, but it does like a bit of a summer soak to stay pretty.

The end of the line for this year's eremerus or foxtail lilies. I love these dried spikes with seeds, they are kind of sculptural so I leave them for a while. They are in extremely well drained soil and while I don't water them, they do put on most of their growth during the damp spring season.

Canna musifolia does appreciate summer irrigation, but I am surprised at how well it holds up in high heat.

Rudbeckia laciniata ‘Hortensia’, also known as outhouse plant (what?) at nearly 9' tall. There was a chunk of it here on the property when we moved in, I relocated it to the gate where it pretties up the entrance. They do sulk if allowed to completely dry out, so yes, I schlep the hose down here every couple of weeks for a good soak.

One of several Calluna vulgaris 'Firefly' blooming. They are in a flat heavy clay area and seem to do very well there.

The middle of the berm garden as seen in late afternoon light. There are a few plants in here that appreciate some summer water, but most do fine without or with very little.

Rudbeckia that have self seeded in the berm garden cascade down between two Hebe 'New Zealand Gold' shrubs. I observe that these self-sown plants are much more tolerant of low water than ones I planted in the labyrinth. Perhaps high overhead late afternoon shade helps.

Evening light at the top of the property caught my eye.

Now for a few shade lovers. Strobilanthes atropupureus is an unusual but lovely plant at about 3' tall and constantly in bloom this time of the year. Its hairy leaves catch the light and give it a soft appearance. It receives summer water about once every other week.

Hosta 'Guacamole', an amazingly fragrant hosta that doesn't receive much extra water at all and holds up really well in heat and against slugs. While I appreciate hostas, the slugs and water so many seem to want tend to deter me, but these have been fantastic.

Begonia grandia ssp. evansiana 'Alba' in the evening sun.

A path through the shade garden. The mossy path stays green primarily because we do irrigate up here in the dry soil under the fir trees. 

The blue hydrangeas were pruned down to almost the ground this year in late winter/early spring. I knew that doing so would sacrifice bloom (so I always thought) but it had to be done. They are by far the most wimpy plants when it comes to water. They were getting huge and requiring a ton of irrigation. It was either remove them all together or chop them back so they don't require as much water. I opted for the latter knowing it was an experiment of desperation. I am very surprised they bloomed at all and frankly, they look better than ever as far as shape and leaves. Plus they aren't watered even half as much this year as in years past. That's a lesson for me, then - a reason to reduce size in some water loving plants.

Just a pretty Abutilon 'Orange with Red Anthers' in a pot on my blue shed porch. Not a drought adapted plant but in a container it's easy to give it a little extra.

A few apple trees in the orchard. Now that the orchard is established, waterings are deep and infrequent.

Happy bird-planted sunflowers in the veggie garden.

The veggie garden as I mentioned has rebounded with some amazing cucumbers, a few strawberries in August, herbs, some broccoli, starting to regularly pick green beans and beets. Oh do I have beets. In fact we are pickling a bunch to donate to the Pretty Kitty Holiday Bazaar which benefits the House of Dreams Cat Shelter in Portland (November 12 is the date if you are in the Portland area) if the crop is good, that is. The squash, gourds and pumpkins are on fire this year and are frankly taking over. The onions are a bust and the cauliflower is hovering in neutral. Lettuce was awesome this spring and a second round has been sown. Nearly zero fruit on fruit trees but the leeks looks great and will be ready soon. So some successes and some failures. It's as if the growing season is shifting and I have to adapt to that. I mean we're just getting broccoli and strawberries now. The experiment continues.

Since this is Chickadee Gardens, I thought I would end this post with one of my customers enjoying a wee little bath. The birds and critters have been plentiful this year and taking lots of birdbaths. It seems even the critters are dry so we make sure and supply an abundance of fresh water all over the property.

There's a quick snapshot of the garden in late August. The subject of drought tolerance and adaptation is a great one to familiarize myself with, even more the list of plants that can handle both extremes of severe heat and drought along with record winter rains and late freezes. Yes, the experiment continues and I shall keep on recording it all.

I would also like to mention that if you are interested in groundcovers, I am giving a presentation for the Master Gardeners of Columbia County on Thursday September 22nd at 6:30 p.m. Come on out and say hello! I see they don't have me listed yet but will soon, I'm sure. It's in the extension building off of Hwy 30 and Pittsburg Rd.  I'll also have a few plants for sale with me.

That's a wrap for this week at Chickadee Gardens. As always, thank you so much for reading and commenting, we do love connecting with the wider gardening audience. Happy gardening to you all.


  1. Anonymous7:32 AM PDT

    As a Seattle gardener, I found this post interesting (well, they always are!) for comparison with my own plant selection. I recognize many of the plants you featured, some are new. I wish I could grow an arctostapylos, but it's probably not to be.
    Planted a Rudbeckia last year: it's lovely, though may prove too vigorous for my liking.
    Pelargonium sidoides survives your winters? Wow.
    The "path through the shade garden" is a show stopper for me. I love the mossy path and the river rocks embedded at the foot of the large conifer. I'd put a recliner at that spot and not move for hours.
    I googled Sibbaldiopsis tridentata; it shows a different plant than the one in you photo...
    The tiny hanging birdbaths!!! I'm going to adopt this idea, I absolutely love it.

    1. Hi Chavli, yes - rudbeckia can be vigorous, I bet it would love your garden. I can't believe the pelargonium survives as it does, but year after year it comes through. I've probably cursed it now...ha ha! I'm glad you mentioned the path though the shade garden, it's one I love so much and have worked hard towards. I walk it every evening before I go inside for the day just to take it all in. Also, thanks for keeping me honest, it is Strobilanthes atropupureus, I have corrected it on the blog. That should teach me to write a blog when I'm so tired! I was typing Sibbaldiopsis for my groundcover talk and well, there you go. And that birdbath is great, it's made by someone local (I think?), anyhow found at the Backyard Bird Shop in Portland years ago and the little birds love it because they can grip the rough texture of the clay. I think they still carry them. Cheers!

  2. Jeanne DeBenedetti Keyes12:55 PM PDT

    Another great post, Tamara! My mophead hydrangea is doing the same thing. For most years, it droops all summer long no matter how much water I give it. This plant is on the north side of my house and never gets sunshine. Open to the air, and rain but no sunshine. In desperation after the heat dome last year, I also cut it way back. I wonder if the cool wet spring is helping this plant do well this year. Curious!

    1. Thank you Jeanne! I wonder too about the cool wet spring helping. In any event giving mine the chop chop seemed to make it behave. Ha! Mopheads are drama queens for sure!

  3. Anonymous1:48 PM PDT

    Lots of watering going on here, so I am taking notes...thanks!

    1. Rickii! You're watering too? Oh, the beat goes on. And on. Hugs to you my friend!

  4. Of necessity or perhaps just a matter of practicality, authors of most garden books as well as virtually all plant sellers and nurseries simplify the concept of drought tolerance. Your introductory statements and references to conditions in your area are very helpful in setting some limits on the applicability of that term. Maybe it should always be used with the warning that "experiences may vary." That said, I take most references to drought tolerance with a grain of salt. If I fall a little in love with a plant so labeled, the first thing I do is check my Sunset Western Garden Book to see if it agrees on the plant's thirstiness. You'd be surprised at how many time Sunset says "regular water" is required. My own soil is very sandy, which is great for plants requiring good drainage, but bad when those plants don't get much water in the form of rain and/or irrigation. Adding soil amendments helps but it isn't an instantaneous solution. As your experiences evaluating your plants in situ show, the bottom line is that determinations of drought tolerance requires experimentation and a plant label is just the start of that examination. Frankly, the same can be said for labels calling for "full sun" but I won't lengthen this comment with a rant on that subject ;) And you don't want me to get started on widespread misuse of the term "native plant"...

    Your garden is looking great, despite the weather-related setbacks. I'm glad you're able to enjoy it after the kick in the stomach the earlier heatwave gave you.

    1. Experiences may vary indeed! In your climate (SoCal), if it needs to be drought adapted or low water, really needs to earn its keep. Your drought tolerance and mine are, both West Coast gardens, quite different. You do your homework and are smart about it. People not in the know, however, risk losing plants. Yes, a plant label is just the start, there are SO many other factors that make a label just a guideline and not Plant Law. Oh, and the use of "native". Yes, I getchya. It has so many definitions and makes me cringe often when used irresponsibly.

      Thanks for your kind words, it's looking pretty good considering all the damage and loss we've had this last year but plants grow and fill in holes pretty quickly.

      I think I'll do an entire post just on the BEST drought adapted plants for my area - the ones with the least amount of water that keep on looking fab and we can compare notes! What do you think?

  5. Anonymous9:44 AM PDT

    The past few challenging seasons have definitely revealed which plants are tough and resilient. Hence, your garden still looks fantastic despite losses. Ironic re: your onions. I planted over two hundred bulbils this Spring and only have 70 to harvest. Many of them just sat in the soil and never rooted. Begs the question why?

    1. Oh, indeed, it's a distilling of what's tough enough to handle our extremes out there. Thanks for your kind words. Interesting about your onions too - the same thing as mine. They have, up until this year, always done really well for me. It must be the super wet spring? Oh heck, I have no idea. The leeks, also started from seed at the same time, did outstanding. I can't figure it out. If you have any ideas, I'm all ears.


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