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Mary Mary Quite Contrary, How Does Your Garden Grow?

by Katie Wisniewski on July 1, 2010 · 4 comments

in landscaping,Plants

With silver bells and cockle shells? Hopefully not if you live in Philadelphia. First of all ‘silver bells’ is now classified as an invasive species and cockle shells are poisonous if ingested. So, Mary had things kind of wrong.

It’s important to know what you’re planting and to understand the conditions of where it is being planted. Many of us, in our naiveté, are encouraged to go to Home Depot, buy the prettiest plant we can find, and plant it wherever we want. However, then, of course, we realize the soil we planted it in is acidic so we buy fertilizer for it, then it’s growth rate is more than we could have imagined so we prune it, and then when we find unexpected mildew on it we apply heaps of fungicide to it. We’ve all been there. And the moral of the story is if you want to grow something badly enough you probably can, but at what cost? Louis XIV ordered that blooming flowers should always line the beds of Versailles, even in winter. So what did his staff do? They replaced every single flower, every single night, with countless stocks preserved in their greenhouses. At one point Versailles was using more water than all of Paris. For many Postgreen readers this is a harrowing prospect. We can no longer build vast greenhouses, apply heaps of inorganic fertilizer, water our annuals twice a day, and constantly mow our lawns. Water, money, and time are limited resources for us, and looking back on it they probably were for Louis XIV as well.

There are three methods I have come across so far for limiting the use of resources in the garden, all of which can be used in tandem. Using as many native plants as possible is the first and most important rule of gardening. Now, I’m not arguing that all your plants should be native. Please, don’t read this post and go rip out all of your epimedium and thyme. However, it is a good idea to have a majority of native plants. Native plants have an innate affinity with the particular way that soil conserves and stores water in a given community and a natural harmony with the conditions already there, whether they be acidic or loamy. So constant water and fertilizer becomes less necessary. Furthermore, they are also more likely to be free of the pests and disease that plague plants of non-native origin.

Another method for reducing resources is matrix planting. Matrix planting is based on the idea that in nature plants form self-sustaining communities which exclude outsiders, like weeds, while nourishing and protecting those within the community. Matrix planting seeks to replicate these communities in the garden and, in the process, eliminate the need for hoes, weeding, shovels, and watering cans. The driving force of matrix planting is matching the right plant to the right community in the right soil. Matrices take a few years to becomes established, but, in the end, greatly reduce the amount of resources put into your garden. Peter Thompson says it best: “The harder gardeners work, the more the problems seem to multiply…….If we let them, plants could do much of the hard work of gardening for us.”.

Lastly, use xeriscape. Xeriscaping is the use of drought tolerant plants. Pick plants that prefer the reasonably moist soil of Philadelphia, but can survive long periods of drought. No more watering, no more overuse of groundwater, no more dead and wilted plants. To start with some of my favorite water-wise plants in Philadelphia are:

Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’

Creeping Juniper

Black Eyed Susans

Purple Coneflowers

Creeping Thyme



Pennsylvania Sedge

Blue Fescue

Maiden Grass

These are just a few of my favorites, but please comment with your favorite drought tolerant plants and your experiences with them!

Now, here are some resources for those of you who are hungry for knowledge:

Fairmount Park publishes a great list of Natives for the Philadelphia region, usually they even list which ones are drought resistant/tolerant.

The University of Massachusetts has published an awe-inspiring list of drought tolerant plants.

The Self-Sustaining Garden: The Guide to Matrix Planting by Peter Thompson – By far the best resource on matrix planting. Buy this book, love it, leave it on your neighbors doorsteps when they decide they want to grow Mediterranean fig trees in a zone 5 hardiness garden.

What other resources have you found for local drought tolerant plants and sustainable gardening? Share them in the comments.

If you enjoyed reading this post I can promise you'll love our new writing over at Postgreen Homes. Yeah, we know that's the same thing your favorite band said and their new album is nowhere near as good as their early stuff, but seriously, we are actually still getting better.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Scoats July 14, 2010 at 7:04 am

Great list! Several of which are new to me.

Since you asked for comments, I have had great success with hasta and butterfly bushes.

2 anonymous July 14, 2010 at 12:03 pm

thanks for the list. Ive been wanting to start gardening and this post gives me courage

3 Sustainable Garden July 20, 2010 at 11:48 pm

Planting natives makes sense on so many levels as you’ve mentioned. In addition, it’s great for the native wildlife, encouraging them back in to our neighbourhoods for all to enjoy. Wildlife is also part of the web for sustainable and maintenence free gardening. they also do a certain amount of ‘weeding and pest eradication’.

4 Anindya Bhaumik July 27, 2010 at 1:15 pm

This is a wonderful post to all those people who loves to do gardening. Thanks for providing all those necessary idea or tips for beutify your garden. I enjoyed that part where you tell how to use minimum place for the maximum use. How to use place for bigger sence. Also like the Matrix planting idea. Use of xeriscaping can be very handy in the dry place. This is my request to you that pls keep posting like this and provide many ideas like this.

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