It’s so dry right now in my little part of Rain Shadow, Virginia that even the blades of Japanese stilt grass are curling.  When, last night, my husband decided, mid-sip, that we needed to stay off the aging deck or risk falling through it, all I could think was, “Oh good. That means I can stop watering the containers and let them die.”

drought virginia

We’re D2ing it in my part of the world. And that was seven days ago. Map from Just In Weather, a terrific weather site for MD/VA.


No rain means no water collection from the nine water barrels around the barn that provide ‘supplemental irrigation’ (me schlepping a watering can) to what is the majority of my garden.  Sadly we don’t have pumped water in the one place where pumped water would be a damned good thing to have.

I’d dig an agricultural well, but I don’t have a spare $10K knocking around, or failing that, a long enough shovel. And I’m hesitant to water containers near the house at this point as my neighbor’s artesian well just dried up.  Hence my bizarre enthusiasm for a condemned deck.

high temps

My garden can deal with high temps, but high temps and no rain for weeks is brutal.

Meanwhile, there are so many weeds growing on sandbars in the creek bed and so little actual water, that the ducks, minnows, tadpoles, crayfish and two pissed off water snakes are all sharing a tiny pool under the bridge all day long.  They’re the fastest and smartest tadpoles east of the Mississippi.

It is – as they say – what it is. And I lay out what it is here not to gain sympathy, elicit cries of “It’s only getting worse!” or incur righteous wrath over my plant choices – as many of them are drought tolerant. But ‘drought tolerant’ rarely means ‘gorgeous under stress’ unless you are a Joshua tree bathed in full summer sunlight – something my stream valley is also unable to offer.

Then why am I whining about the dry conditions? There’s an interesting thing that happened to my attitude once I decided that lush beauty was out the window and detached observation was the only thing left to me.  I thought I’d share them.

dry viburnum

It is tough to see this viburnum look like this in September….



When it’s supposed to look like this.


This is an opportunity to see which plants (and which plants with smart planting techniques) can roll with the punches.  It’s certainly not the driest it’s ever been – it’s just the driest I’ve seen it – and the September temperature records we keep breaking by a degree or by a single minute date all the way back to 1881 and 1898.

Here’s what I’m observing with some of my plants, transcribed from voice notes from a mid-day death march around my Zone 6b, Northern Virginia garden.  It’s amusing how long, involved and articulate the notes are as I start, and how I can hardly get words out by the end.  I’m lucky I made it back in the house alive.  It’s currently 96F/35C at 4.30 on Wednesday afternoon. I can’t imagine how hot it is at the top of the lane in asphalt-ville.

And yes, I know you Texans are rolling your eyes, but feel free to tell me just how far back in your head they’re rolling in the comments below.


My long hügelkultur bed has proved its worth on another level, keeping many of my tropical plants like Curcuma and Ensete in decent shape without supplemental water. The difference has been especially obvious because I have tropicals planted in other amended but relatively flat beds that look terrible because I’m not watering them. The hügelkultur I put in seven years ago was meant to use biomass, direct groundwater, and provide deep root runs for my plants. It’s cool to see it acting as a slow-release sponge, though I assume, all sponges dry up at some point. [Long pause] Man it’s hot out here.


It’s hard to believe that I haven’t watered either of these since they were planted in June, but it’s true. The paler color in the leaves of the Ensete is telling me how stressed they are.

Several MockTrops [my term for tropical-looking non-tropicals in my book Tropical Plants and How to Love Them], are taking the heat and drought on the chin and looking great. Tetrapanax papirifera [rice paper plant] is top of the list, as well as Ficus carica [edible fig] and Ficus johannis Afghanistanica ‘Silver Lyre’ [Afghan fig]. At least I think that’s what the last one is as I got it in a plant swap.

tetrapanax and curcuma

This Curcuma is showing stress with curled leaves – the Tetrapanax looks like it was born for this.

Ficus johannis

This is a fun little ficus that took me by surprise as it’s in almost full shade. Possibly ‘Silver Lyre’

I am more in love with Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’ than I have ever been. Seriously lightening the mood around here.

morning light

I admire the resiliency of Hydrangea paniculata species, which dejectedly hang their leaves every day, all day, but recover their posture at night. And they haven’t sacrificed the flowers yet. H. quercifolia are even better, having bloomed earlier, dried those blooms in situ, and are starting to add color to foliage with the dry conditions. Wouldn’t give either up.  H. macrophylla? Between winter, drought, and deer, the heartbreak is just too heartbreaking.


It doesn’t look great, but points for hanging on. ‘Baby Lace’ H. paniculata


Verbena bonariensis is possibly my favorite self-reliant self-seeder that looks like a chic designer showed up here at some point. Looks like it’s been waiting all year for this weather, but it also looks like that when we get normal rainfall too.  I need to throw a lot more of those seeds in a month or so.

tall verbena

I love the way it looks in scrubby spots, but I can never get a decent photo of it.


Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’ is a bright, happy spark – puts the dried up hostas under it to shame.

aralia cordata

And yes, I know I could preen that hosta, but I’ve lost the will to live. This post is about what can cope without preening.


Geranium macrorrhizum may be deer resistant and drought resistant, but it ain’t resistant to looking tired when the rain stops falling.


Ditto Brunnera macrophyllaI’ll always grow both though. I’m not winning any beauty contests myself, but I’m still walking.


Foliage over flower when it comes to containers – particularly in the shade. I couldn’t be happier with some of these tropical combinations.




foliage container


foliage container


foliage container

feather falls carex

And when you can’t be bothered to combine, and need a one-and-done? Carex ‘Feather Falls’ is ridiculously tolerant of drought – this one in terracotta no less – far away from any hose. Still a juvenile, put in this year.


I’m sure there are plants that look as good as variegated Solomon’s seal in either really moist or really dry conditions, but I can’t think of any right now. Those tough little rhizomes are something else.

solomon's seal

They’re somewhat bleached in the sun, but they aren’t burnt, and they’re moving toward their rich yellow fall color. Great plant. Period.


I’d forgotten how drought tolerant rhizomatous begonias are. Result.

Jurassic snowfall

Jurassic Snowfall is a real stunner this year.

Epimedium. That is all.  [pause] Actually that’s not all. Epimedium and Rohdea.  More of both please.


Epimedium and Rohdea japonica may not look amazing, but they don’t look parched. And that’s the point.

Sedum. [long pause] Ditto.

sedum pillow talk

The lovely ‘Pillow Talk’ sedum – a little crowded, but doing well.

Ligustrum ‘Sunshine’ [another long pause, words were obviously beginning to fail me]. Remarkably untouched by this hellscape.


Ligustrum ‘Sunshine’ is a beast, but it’s a drought tolerant beast.