Water Wars – Part I

The politics of water are heating up.  A drought is declared in Southern California, and the governor prohibits watering lawns.  Soon all the neighborhood lawns in the gated community have dried and shriveled, except for the one at the end of the cul de sac, still a lush green oasis in spite of the watering ban.  The homeowner is confronted, blows are exchanged, and the water wars are on. 

The day is fast approaching when wars will be fought over water, and the conflicts will escalate from backyard skirmishes to regional, even global confrontations.  The oil disputes of the past will seem like sandbox spats compared to the water wars of the future.  Slaking the growing global thirst means habits must change.  We must gear up to use less water, for cooking, bathing and yes, gardening.  But before ripping out those cherished perennials and replacing them with yucca and prickly pear, take a look at some of the other shrubs and grasses that thrive in hot, dry sunny conditions and need only minimal water once they’ve settled in (water-wise flowering perennial plants will be discussed in Water Wars – Part II).

Two handsome low growing shrubs, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi and Cotoneaster horizontalis, are prime candidates to anchor a hot dry slope.  A. uva-ursi or Bearberry is covered with shiny stiff leaves that remain evergreen all winter, a bold statement against a bank of snow.

Creamy white flowers tinged with pink in early spring give way to clusters of bright red berries as the nights lengthen, berries that will light up a winter garden if the birds don’t get them first.  Native to North America Arctostaphlylos prefers slightly acidic soil and cooler temperatures, losing vigor South of the Mason-Dixon line. 

The other drought-resistant selection, Cotoneaster horizontalis, sports glossy green leaves that creep along the ground and spread on thin wiry stems.  Although Cotoneaster drops its leaves in winter it puts on a vivid display in the fall before going dormant, the foliage turning a reddish-purple.  A member of the Rose family, this native of China boasts a flush of pink blossoms in spring followed by a winter crop of red berries much beloved by the birds and bees.  This tough plant is ideally suited to a neglected area of a rock garden that gets full sun and little water or an inner city median plagued by polluted air, although like A. uva-ursi it languishes south of USDA Zone 7.

If rather than prevent soil erosion your garden needs a screen to deter marauding dogs or snooping neighbors, two choice selections are Mahonia bealei , Leatherleaf Mahonia, and Myrica pensylvanica, or Bayberry.  M. bealei grows 4-8 feet tall, and its thin branches are covered with spiny leaves that will scare off any errant pooch.  Those evergreen leaves turn from a glossy green to a rich bronze in winter, a lush backdrop for the sprays of bright yellow flowers that emerge just when the snows start to fly followed by clusters of powdery blue berries in summer.  

Preferring part shade this seemingly ideal plant is known to be invasive in Southern woodlands, so if you garden in the South plant the non-invasive species M. aquifolium, Oregon Grape, instead.  Not as spectacular as M. bealei but handsome nonetheless.

If you need privacy from nosy neighbors then a fine selection is the North American native Bayberry, Myrica pensylvanica, topping out at 6-10 feet.   Although not evergreen in the winter (except in USDA Zone 7), for three seasons it is covered with dense glossy leaves, and if you bruise the leaves you will get a strong whiff of bayberry that aromatic scent used to infuse candles and soap.  This tough shrub tolerates many adverse growing conditions from dry to wet soil, to high winds and salt spray, and can be found hugging the desolate seashores of Newfoundland or screening the median strip along a barren highway in North Carolina.

Branching out from the discussion of shrubs that are water-wise, there is a large selection of ornamental grasses that don’t guzzle water many of which are native and provide winter interest, always a plus during those short gray days.  First on the list is the tallest of the bunch, Big Bluestem or Andropogon gerardi, an 8 foot giant.  Dominant grass of the Great Plains, this bunch grass can be found thriving in full sun from as far north as Canada to the Mexican border.  After being cut to the ground in late winter the stems emerge in early spring, flat blue green blades that turn reddish bronze after the first frost followed by flowering seed heads that hang on through the winter, seed heads that are said to resemble turkey feet, hence the nickname, turkey foot grass.

Shorter by half, another prairie grass Little Bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium, also populates a vast swath of the continent from Alberta to Arizona and Florida.  Like its big cousin, it wants full sun, and once established requires little maintenance; benign neglect will produce a burst of bluish green blades in early spring that change to a vibrant copper color in fall, setting off its fluffy seed heads.  To maintain its vigor cut this warm season grass to the ground in late winter.

An oddity among ornamental grasses, Prairie Dropseed produces fragrant flowers that emit a spicy scent similar to coriander.  Once the pink flowers fade, tiny seed heads emerge on the tips of light bronze blades and drop to the ground in winter giving Sporobolus heterolepis its common name.  In spite of falling seed this grass does not self-sow readily, perhaps because the birds get there first.  It too covers an extensive range from Texas to Canada and east as far as the Atlantic coast, preferring the hot sun of the prairies, but if you have a large rock garden crying out for a dramatic focal point Prairie Dropseed may be the answer.

For you city gardeners, two grasses that tolerate air pollution and are not very thirsty are Bouteloua curtipendula and Muhlenbergia capillaris or Pink Muhlygrass.  B. curtipendula also known as Sideoats grama, so called because the oat-like seed spikes grow only on one side of the stem, produces 2 foot bluish gray leaves that turn golden in the fall and purplish flowers in mid-summer.  A low maintenance warm season grass, needing only average soil and little water, your Sideoats grama will benefit from a radical haircut in late winter to restore its vitality.

The major draw of Pink Muhlygrass, aside from its minimal water needs, is the burst of feathery pinkish flowers that hover like a cloud above its 3 foot green foliage in late summer.  Then as the days grow shorter the leaves turn a radiant copper, and tan seed plumes lasting all winter replace the flowers.  Happy in sandy or rocky soil, Pink Muhlygrass is endangered in several eastern and central states, and since it attracts ladybugs, a beneficial insect, programs are underway to encourage the planting of this grass.

Let’s face it:  weather patterns are changing across the globe and that means longer and more severe droughts as well as an increase in violent storms and heavier rainfalls.  To gird the land against damage from storm surges requires defensive measures.  Protecting the planet against a spate of water wars brought on by extreme drought implies taking an aggressive stance, and we gardeners can support this crusade by choosing shrubs and grasses that require little water to thrive.

Plant Sources

Prairie Nursery




American Meadows


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