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Observe plants in drought for planting tips later

By Faith Peppers
University of Georgia

Georgia's drought can be instructive when you're picking plants for your landscape. If a plant is looking good now, it's a winner.

"There are some plants you just cannot kill, no matter how hard you try," said University of Georgia horticulturist David Berle.

"I dug up some day lilies, hostas and liriope from a bed one time and set them on the driveway to await the construction of a wall," he said. "The stone for the wall took four weeks to arrive. And all that time, the plants set on the driveway with almost no water at all. They looked a little droopy, but we didn't loose a single plant."

Plants with bulbs, corms or otherwise bulbous roots are amazingly tough and survive anything, he said.

In his home landscape, Berle has seen that with no watering, these plants are looking good: Hydrangea macrophylla, Spirea japonica, Camellia sasanqua, Lagerstroemia x 'Natchez,' Iris ensata, Verbena bonariensis, Coreopsis 'Moonbeam,' Loropetalum chinensis and Vitex agnus-castus.

He notes that they were well established before the drought. "Plants that have taken it pretty hard in my yard," he said, "are Hydrangea quercifolia, pittosporums, Fothergilla ' Mt. Airy,' Itea virginica, gardenia and, of course, the dogwoods."

All across north Georgia, homeowners report losing dogwoods. "I lost several older dogwoods this year," Berle said. "They were already looking poorly over the past several years. But this year finished them off."

Signs of damaged dogwoods include dead limbs and decay. "I think this summer was just too much," he said. "I like dogwoods, though, and fully intend to replant."

"Start with some very small trees, 3- to 5-gallon size," he said, "and plant as soon as they go dormant. There will be no transpiration and thus little drought stress on them. Smaller trees tend to adapt more quickly and require less water during their early years than larger specimen trees."

Some traditional rules for landscape care don't apply this year. "Cut back all perennials now," Berle said. "Normally I wait until just about the end of winter. But for those plants suffering already, I think cutting them back will at least hold the line on stress."

At this point, he said, plants can't benefit much from being left intact. "Normally, I'd say leave the green as long as possible to let the plant send energy from photosynthesis to the roots," he said. "But my guess is that little photosynthesis is going on, and plants are drying out and dying. I cut back lots of perennials as soon as it looked like water was going to be cut off. They look tidier, too."

Tim Smalley, a UGA horticulturist, usually saves transplanting for between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. "I always felt that it gave the plants time to better establish some roots before spring," he said.

Stepping up winter chores isn't keeping him from planning to plant. "I still plan to plant some things this fall," he said. "I'm using collected water, collecting water from the start of my shower to water these plants. I'll water only until they lose their leaves in late fall, or until about Nov. 15 to first frost."

Water shortages have forced Georgians to think more seriously about conservation measures. Smalley says we should always think about conservation.

"Many homeowners water their lawns more than once per week," Smalley said. "A lawn or annual bed looks better with more frequent irrigation, but I don't think that we have the water resources to sustain that use level. I water my plants for only one year after planting. And except for hydrangeas, I have had good success. I never water my lawn or established landscape."

(Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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