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Color in a dry year; can you dress up your garden if water is short? Yes, here's how.

Can you dress up your garden if water is short? Yes. Here's how

Can you plant thirsty bedding plants for summer bloom and save water? Should you plant them, if you live where water rationing is in effect during this third dry year in a row? Experts we consulted agree: if you use limited amounts of water indoors and out, you may be able to plant some bloomers for splashes of garden color and still conserve water-good news if you need to dress up the garden for an outdoor party, wedding, or other special event this summer.

But you'll want to be careful about how you choose and use them; here we list five guidelines. Keep in mind that whatever water you have should go first to maintaining valuable shrubs, trees, and other plants already established in your garden.

The drought advice that applies to permanent plants applies to bedding plants, too: use mulches, pull or hoe moisture-stealing weeds from beds, and get water right to the plants' roots.

If you're lucky enough to live where water supplies are unlimited, you can plant whatever bedding plants nurseries offer; follow steps 2 through 5 to get them off to a good start so you can spend less time watering them.

Choose plants that are less thirsty than others

Some bedding plants can last longer between waterings than others. Once the ones listed are established in garden beds, they can last 7 to 10 days or longer without water. A few even bloom better on less.

Choices for sun

Celosia. These tough plants, with plume or cockscomb flowers, are surprisingly unthirsty, it's easy to overwater them. Water established plants only when they show signs of needing it.

Coreopsis. Drought resistant by nature, it has yellow to maroon daisy flowers. Once it's established, water only when it begins to droop.

Cosmos. Big, airy plants have daisy flowers in crimson, pink, white. Water enough to get them established, then slacken off when plants begin to grow. Gaillardia. Daisy-like blooms in shades of rust to golden. A Western native, it takes drought well, once established. Needs good drainage.

Petunias. Surprisingly drought tolerant; most gardeners overwater them. Underwatered plants bloom better than overwatered ones.

Portulaca. Brilliant, rose-shaped flowers above succulent leaves open only in full sun. Mature plants can coast for weeks between waterings.

Rudbeckia. Tough plant with big daisy flowers in shades of gold to maroon. It's deep-rooted; give it a deep initial watering. After it's growing well, water only when foliage starts to wilt.

Sweet alyssum. This favorite has white to purple puffs of flowers. Its deep taproot allows it to get by on very little water. Don't let it go unwatered too long, though; witted plants seldom recover completely.

Verbena. Very drought tough; give nursery plants a big soak at planting time, then gradually taper off.

Vinca. Lush-looking, with shiny leaves and bright flowers, it thrives on minimal water. If you water it too much, it can rot.

Choices for shade

Begonias. Semperflorens (fibrous) begonias can go longer without water than other shade-suitable bloomers. F1 hybrids are especially tough.

Impatiens. In cooler coastal climates, plants in loamy soil and wind-protected spots can go 7 to 10 days between waterings. Inland, they need water more often.

Give small beds center stage

A few well-chosen plants can go a long way toward brightening small spaces with color, especially if you cluster three or more of the same kind together. The key word is small: a foot-wide strip or a plot about 2 feet square can have quite an impact if its location makes it a focal

point in the garden.

Plant this little splash of color where you'll enjoy it most: beside an entry or garden path, in a courtyard or open atrium, just beyond a deck, in a patio bed surrounded by paving, outside a window.

Choose vigorous plants; plant late in the day

Avoid rootbound plants. confined roots can't take up enough moisture to support good growth. Unless you want the instant effect 4-inch-size plants can provide, look for smaller plants (sixpack size) that aren't yet in full bloom. They can accustom themselves more easily to your garden conditions. Before planting, loosen or lightly score rootballs to coax roots out into surrounding soil. On overgrown sixpack rootballs, tear off mats of roots on the bottoms.

The sooner this month you plant, the better chance plants have to get established before temperatures rise. Plant in late afternoon or early evening, when moisture loss from plants and soil won't be as great as it is under midday sun. Water transplants regularly until established.

Apply" mulch; provide temporary shade

Apply mulch-such materials as ground bark, straw, aged sawdust, or leaves-1 to 2 inches deep around plants (keep the mulch away from stems). It'll reduce evaporation, help insulate the soil from hot sun, and prevent the growth of weeds so they don't compete with

desirable plants for water.

Since hot sun can stress transplants with limited root sytems (especially if they have had a tender upbringing under lath), shade them for a few days with shadecloth or row-cover material such as spun-bonded polyester.

Choose and use containers only with the greatest care

If your water is limited, you should probably forgo planting annuals in pots for summer color; the plants will lose water faster than they would in the ground. But if you want a spot of color on a deck or by an entry for special occasions, choose a pot that's as waterretentive as possible (see lower left picture). The bigger it is, the better; small pots dry out faster. Clay pots vary; high-fire ones are slightly better at retaining moisture than low-fire ones. Put a deep saucer beneath it to catch runoff; you can collect this runoff with a turkey baster and use it to water other pots.

To help hold water in the potting soil, blend into it either soil polymers or a moisture-holding soil conditioner such as vermiculite. Allow at least 1 1/2 inches between the soil surface and the pot's rim for mulch.

To water plants efficiently, use a watering can or hose with an on-off nozzle; water just until runoff appears in the saucer. For clusters of large containers (14-inch diameter or larger), consider installing a drip system.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Sunset
Date:May 1, 1989
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