Although the numbers vary, statistics tell us that we receive an average of almost 50 inches of rain per year along the Carolina Coastal Plain. That is nearly one inch per week — practically ideal for our lawns, gardens and crops.
However, our rainfall is not so perfectly allocated. In reality, weather may be wet or droughty, and not necessarily when we expect it. Extremes are normal as climate change becomes more apparent.
We plan our gardens based on average weather conditions like average first and last frost dates. We make plant selections based on plant hardiness for our climate zone. We site plants for sun and shade. If only gardening were actually that simple.
There is a mix of features to consider about a plant before you buy, site and plant it in your yard. Is it sun-loving, shade-loving, drought-tolerant, moisture-loving, deer-resistant, disease-resistant, heat-loving, heat-resistant, winter-hardy, low maintenance, heat- and humidity-loving, highly flammable or not? What attributes does a plant need to survive in our gardens?
As drought creeps into our gardens it harms food crops. We all know that consistent watering is essential to improve yields. Adequate water aside, high heat and sun plus warm, humid nights lead to fungal disease.
You will grow more successful heat-loving crops like cantaloupes and sweet potatoes if you plant disease-resistant varieties. For successful tomatoes, choose varieties that are both disease-resistant and heat-tolerant. Take advantage of the improved varieties science has developed.
With flowering plants, too, plenty of water improves blooms. Water, to an extent, offsets the stress from sun and high heat. However, a hot summer with warm nights and little rain can be more than all but the toughest plants can handle. We can grow more successful gardens and save water by choosing plants with leaves and roots suited to beat heat and drought.
That doesn’t mean we need to plant a xeriscape in order for our gardens to flourish. For a summer garden that doesn’t wilt or crisp up under hot dry conditions, use plants that offer a drought-tolerant edge:
▪ Silver, gray and white foliage tends to store water. Leaves reflect sunlight thereby reducing water loss through transpiration.
▪ Deeply cut and lobed leaves have less surface area from which to lose water.
▪ Fleshy succulent leaves hold water.
▪ Hairy, fuzzy leaves trap and collect water.
The volatile oil in aromatic plants like herbs produces a protective haze (increased air density) around the plant to help prevent excess water loss and drying out during the middle of the day.
Keep in mind that plants grown in containers are more subject to the elements than they would be if grown in the ground. The daily, even twice daily, watering makes them high maintenance unless you have a mechanized watering system for them. Place large containers where they receive afternoon shade. Rethink your containers to make it easier on the plants and yourself.
It has been traditionally a good rule of thumb to choose native plants. Keep an open mind to the fact that climate change may slowly shift plants out of our climate zone into one that is colder or warmer. Check that our zone 8 does not fall at the top or bottom of its hardiness range.
Some of us have learned through experience that we can gain half a climate zone in the winter by taking advantage of microclimates. Be prepared for the fact that more prolonged, but not necessarily colder, periods of winter cold are likely to kill plants that have previously survived.
Consider building in some room for temperature extremes when you select plants by hardiness zone. We are in hardiness zone 8. Choose plants that are hardy in zones 7 through 9. The broader the range of heat and cold tolerance the better. A growing number of plants are rated for heat in addition to cold. We are in heat zone 8 so choose plants for heat zone 8 (90 to 120 days hotter than 86 degrees Farenheit).
It is not too soon to start adjusting our gardens for climate change.
Reach Debbie Menchek, a Clemson Master Gardener, at firstname.lastname@example.org.