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Great Gardening / By Sally Cunningham How gardeners are tackling the (lack of) water woes

You’re having houseguests and the toilet just broke. You’re hosting Thanksgiving and the refrigerator stopped running. This is the kind of pressure that most of the Tour Gardeners of Western New York are feeling because we are in a drought.

“Tour gardeners” is my term describing the hundreds of Western New York gardeners who open their hearts and homes to visitors during July, culminating in the peak event called Garden Walk Buffalo (July 30-31). That event plus Open Gardens (still ongoing – see Garden Notes in this section) and neighborhood and town garden tours show off gardens to at least 80,000 visitors (maybe many more). Altogether, the Buffalo Niagara region boasts about 1,000 “tour gardens,” providing an unprecedented display of horticultural hospitality.

And every single gardener has had to worry about the watering. Regular gardeners have found it tough enough, watching our precious plants struggle and valued trees show drought stress. Now add the pressure of company coming: You offered your garden as something worth seeing. Now can you keep it green enough? Will the flowers be big and bold and bloom on time? Will a blast of heat finish off the basket plants? Your garden has performance deadlines.

Gardeners speak

Linda and Brian Blyth recently achieved a new level of garden fame when their Delaware Road in the Town of Tonawanda work of art was featured on the cover and eight pages of Garden Gate magazine, July issue. When I approached her about this year of watering challenges, Linda told me:

“Yes! Brian and I have been talking about the watering. It’s like a huge accident on the expressway and the medical unit has just showed up. We are triaging the situation – what’s not breathing; what is bleeding; and what can wait a bit to be saved. Do we save the vegetables (our food for the winter)? The perennials, shrubs and trees? The pretty flowers? We have pretty much decided to just deal with the huge water bill that will be coming and keep on watering for hours and hours.”

I’ve heard “hours and hours” quite a lot. Craig Coyne, of Darwin Drive in Snyder, said: “We water for hours and hours, and it’s all by hand, a section at a time.” While the massive perennial borders are lush, overflowing with daylilies, bee-balm, phlox, hydrangeas, daisies and hostas, just a peek at an elegant old viburnum revealed the drought stress. Craig, a master gardener, knows that some woody plants are most at risk: “We’ll put a hose on a slow drip out there for a few hours as soon as you leave.”

Out in the Hamburg/Boston hills it’s no easier. Kathy and Mike Shadrack’s enormous tiered beds must be tended by hand, but fortunately, as Kathy explained: “At least the daylilies are more drought tolerant than most perennials. The tuberous root system holds water quite well; they want the water but they will live through the bad times.”

At Lasting Dreams Daylilies in Orchard Park, Carol and Anthony Haj also don’t water their massive daylily collection – some 1,900 cultivars – since they’re on a well. But customers to their farm will see amazing, vibrant plants, no stress in sight. Continuing drought might show up later, in slightly diminished scape height or bud count, or late buds drying up. Anthony said their watering priority is their seedlings.

While country people may worry about the well running out or the pond going dry, other gardeners and growers are losing sleep over the water bill. Paulette Sadus, of Fairbanks Avenue in Tonawanda, said her water bill just came in three times higher but she’s keeping up with it – after all, a motor coach tour is coming! Paulette and I discussed her efforts to avoid wasting water. She waters in the morning with sprinklers when she can so that less water evaporates compared to mid-day, and she places the sprinklers carefully to cover each section 30 minutes at a time without watering unimportant areas. Most gardeners that spoke with me have agreed that watering the lawn is the very last of the priorities and most are letting the lawns go dormant.

Which plants first?

In this triage situation, the first question is which plants get priority watering. One answer is: whichever one is closest to death or screams at you loudest. Some plants – notoriously bigleaf hydrangeas – wilt dramatically when they need water.

In many cases containers win first position, as they obviously require daily watering in the hottest weather. Annabelle Irey and Jim Locke are Garden Walk Buffalo gardeners on Lancaster Avenue with 300 containers they fill with dahlias and an exuberant collection of specialty annuals and vines. They wrote: “We try to limit our pot watering to every other day … A few smaller pots in the sun and hanging baskets need everyday watering. Fortunately we installed soaker hoses in all of the dahlia gardens this year for the first time – wonderful for watering efficiency.”

Still, Annabelle reported spending 90 minutes every day, watering pots one day and using the soaker hoses the next day. Their water bill also will be substantial.

Bird Avenue gardener Gordon Ballard tends more than 150 containers, hay racks, window boxes and hanging baskets, but he has techniques that make it easier: “We use Soil Moist Crystals in many of our containers so even when the surface is dry the roots get some moisture from below the surface. The watering routine takes about 90 minutes every day using a Dramm Soaking wand. I also use a standard sprinkler clamped to the top of a 6-foot ladder to cover more space and get water over the taller garden plants, arbors and obelisks.”

In the bigger picture the most serious priority – including for parks and municipalities – is trees. Kitty Bannerman’s show garden has massive pines and spruces that are unreachable by hoses. Closer to the house she and Gary put a hose under younger trees for half an hour about twice a week. “We leave the rest to nature and hope for the best,” she said.

No matter the time commitment or how daunting the water bill, the gardeners I queried were neither discouraged nor negative. Some feel the pressure: Guests are coming. But they don’t quit; they love their gardens.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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