Record hot temperatures, water shortages, and severe drought conditions are challenging growers everywhere. California, for example, is facing a water crisis at this writing, with cities and municipalities enacting record water restrictions and freeway message boards blaring urgent reminders like “SERIOUS DROUGHT HELP SAVE WATER.”
The Farm Belt faced one of the country’s worst droughts in history over 2012 to 2013—only now are communities ratcheting back on water usage stipulations.
Even after they’re over, droughts aren’t really done, with impacts lasting for years as water supplies build back up, soils and plantings recover, and homeowners slowly return to regular water usage habits. With all of those impacts in play, it’s no surprise we’ve seen dramatic increases in demand for plants with drought-tolerance capabilities and low-water requirements.
“Water shortages or other water issues are not going away any time soon,” says Gary Hennen, president of Oglesby Plants International, Altha, Fla. “This is not a local issue; it is a global one. Today it is California. A few years ago it was the Southeast. Next year, who knows? Water conservation is not going away.”
While, for many growers, the demand came seemingly from nowhere, putting a successful program together requires more than a last minute ordering assembly. It’s something that almost seems an inevitability, like it or not, for virtually all corners of the country.
“The West Coast’s dilemma will scare some states,” says John Friel of Emerald Coast Growers, Pensacola, Florida, and Lancaster, Pa.
Rancho Tissue Technologies’ Susana Vanzie-Canton agrees, saying she’s recently seen considerable growth for the drought tolerant plant market, despite early reluctance. “Initially there were only a handful of growers in Southern California that saw the need to introduce and produce drought tolerant plants,” she explains from her Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., office. “Shifting focus to a new crop type required a shift in how the market was viewed and an acceptance that we were entering a new era of limited water use.”
Even before the state’s water crisis, Vanzie-Canton says consumers were recognizing the writing on the wall with water use, and pushing the industry for responsible solutions. “The level of awareness and acceptance of the effects of drought has shifted so much so in the past few years that we now find that much of the drive to introduce new varieties of drought tolerant crops comes directly from the consumers, and growers have had to adapt to this change.” Growth in the drought-tolerant plants segment seems poised for a dramatic increase due in large part, as Hennen observes, to a growing number of consumers who believe “growing plants that require less water just makes sense.”
Vanzie-Canton concurs, adding, “People still want to have beautiful yards, and they can do this by utilizing more water-wise plants. Now seems like it would be the perfect time for growers who have wanted to enter into this market to do so.”
So where do you start? “Not all drought-tolerant plants work in every climate or locale, so the growers should know their markets and the plants that do well in their location,” says Hennen. He suggests a good starting point is checking with your local municipalities to see if they have developed a list of plants.
Research the product, and ask your liner producer to help you choose plants that suit your level of experience, Vanzie-Canton adds. “Work closely with your supplier to design a line that includes a range of sizes and colors, and conduct trials, trials, and more trials.”
If you’re in an already drought-afflicted area, “emphasize that beauty and environmental responsibility can coexist,” says Friel at Emerald Coast Growers, adding that growers in nondrought-affected can stress the low-maintenance advantage of drought-tolerant plants.
As for the don’ts when it comes to such plants, experts say to avoid adding too many varieties to a new collection and to include some reliable, proven performers, along with the hottest new selections, resulting in a well-rounded program.
“Start with a smaller, more manageable core of varieties and expand as you gain more experience in growing and marketing your collection,” suggests Vanzie-Canton. Here are a few great perennials, grasses, and succulents with which to start:
Agastache ‘Kudos Ambrosia’ from Emerald Coast Growers displays pale orange and rosy-pink spikes with creamy coconut highlights for a constantly-changing display that harmonizes with any color. Charming, airy blooms rise over low, tight foliage mounds, reaching 16- to 20-inches tall. Kudos Ambrosia is hardy in Zones 5 to 10.
Dianella revoluta ‘Blue Ghost’ from Green Fuse Botanicals is a sturdy little plant that thrives in hot, dry weather. Plants reach 14- to 20- inches tall with blueish-green blades held upright in the center and gracefully arching around the perimeter. They are hardy in Zones 8-11.
The Lavender stoechas Madrid series from Green Fuse Botanicals adds texture, color and fragrance to the landscape. Reaching 18- to 24-inches tall, it displays large flowers from May to August. Foliage is particularly aromatic. They are hardy in Zones 7 and above.
Nepeta ‘Junior Walker’ from Emerald Coast Growers is a half-size mutation of Walker’s Low. It’s just as long-flowering with a neater form and it won’t reseed. It reaches 18-inches tall and is hardy in Zones 5 to 9.
The Salvia farinacea ‘Cathedral’ series from Green Fuse Botanicals is compact and quick to finish. Reaching 12- to 18-inches tall, it’s available in four colors: Deep Blue, White, Sky Blue, and Lavender.
Stokesia laevis ‘Peachie’s Pick’ from Oglesby Plants International is a dependable native garden performer that produces brilliant, long-lasting lavender blue flowers that cover the compact plant with summer blooms. The clump-forming, deep-green foliage is evergreen. It is hardy in Zones 5 and above.
Andropogon ‘Rain Dance’PPAF from Emerald Coast Growers features red-tipped foliage, deeper green than the species, that turns totally maroon in fall. Adding to the interest: red flowers on red stems. Rain Dance thrives in sun and grows to 6-feet tall and is hardy in Zones 3 to 9.
Andropogon ‘Red October’ from Emerald Coast Growers features deep green foliage that darkens to purple in late summer, then vivid scarlet in autumn for spectacular late-season color. Red October loves sun and reaches heights of 5 to 6 feet. It is hardy in Zones 3 to 8.
Eragrostis spectabilis, or purple love grass, is a warm season, vigorous grass that reaches 2-feet tall. Light green foliage turns bronze-red in fall. It produces soft plumes of reddish-purple flowers and has a long bloom season starting in day and lasting until October.
Pink muhly grass starts its show as the summer wanes, with giant puffs of cotton candy inflorescences. Muhlenbergia capillaris stuns in mass plantings or as a stand-alone. Impervious to pests and disease, it’s a must-have for the low maintenance garden.
Sisyrinchium angustifolium (Blue-eyed grass) ‘Blue Note’ from Oglesby Plants International is noted for its violet-blue flowers and dark green grass-like foliage. It is a clump-forming perennial typically growing from 12 to 20 inches tall. It is hardy in Zones 4-9.
Agave pedunculifera ‘Blue Fantastic’ from Rancho Tissue Technologies features spineless leaves and rosettes that will not overtake the garden space in which they are planted.
Aloe dorotheae ‘HBG’ from Rancho Tissue Technologies displays shiny waxy leaves with nicely scalloped edges. Small to medium sized clumping rosettes will take on a wonderful bright red color in the sun.
Aloe ‘Tangerine’ from Rancho Tissue Technologies is a superb Aloe ferox-arborescens cross which showcases vibrant tangerine-orange buds that open into yellow-orange flowers. It colors early in development, so buds and opening blooms provide a beautiful extended display, which makes for a bold garden statement.
The Echeveria ‘Coral Reef’ series from Green Fuse Botanicals features ruffled leaves that provide a distinguishing look. Slow growing and compact, varieties include Aqua, Pink and Red, each with distinctive edging around light green leaves.
Yucca ‘Sapphire Skies’ from Emerald Coast Growers features slender powder-blue leaves in dazzling orbs atop a thick fleshy/scaly trunk. This slow-growing selection reaches 3 to 4 feet tall. Hardy in Zones 6 to 11.
Kerstin P. Ouellet is owner of Pen & Petal, Inc., a marketing, advertising and public relations agency for the green industry.