May 30, 2020

Shrubs thrive in both dry, wet weather

As gardeners, many of us are as passionate about nurturing nature as we are about growing plants. We have linked these two passions, creating gardens that are ecologically functional.

In our gardens, harbingers of spring include the first blackbirds creaking from leafless branches of a sugar maple, chickadees picking at swelling buds of a pin cherry, or a pileated woodpecker chiseling out its nest in the top of an old poplar snag at the back of the garden. In May, we compete with friends for the first hummingbird. In July, we walk about the garden playing host to itinerate butterflies and bees.

In early April, we commiserate with one another over those low spots in our gardens, watch them fill up with water from snow melt and spring rains to become vernal pools that persist for weeks. What can we plant in these places, knowing that in August the same ground that is now home to a pair of nesting mallards will be parched by summer drought? What plants can possibly thrive under both extremes of soil moisture while providing food and shelter for regional wildlife and ornamental beauty to nourish human spirits?

A handful of native shrubs provide sufficient answers. We find these plants thriving in our local bogs and swamps, where they produce pollen and nectar for butterflies and bees, berries and seeds for birds and small mammals. Brought into our gardens, they attract and nourish wildlife, brighten our winters, add fragrance and color to our lives in spring and summer. They have in common a tolerance for a wide range of soil moisture conditions, from seasonal flooding to summer drought. Several of these same species can be found growing in extremely dry areas, such as coastal dunes and dry mountain tops.

Most of these shrubs are available from local garden centers, although finding the two spireas may take some shopping around. They can be planted in late spring or early summer, as soon as the water has receded and the soil can be worked. Water each plant thoroughly after planting to settle the soil around the roots.

You cannot expect any plant to be drought-tolerant in the first summer after planting. The newly planted shrub must first establish a healthy root system in its new location, replacing the numerous fibrous roots and root hairs that were lost during production and transplanting. When fully established, the new root system will eventually spread outward at least twice as far as the spread of the foliage. This establishment period takes a growing season for smaller plants (one-gallon pot size and smaller), two seasons for larger plants. During this period, from spring bud break to autumn leaf drop, the root zone should receive one inch of water per week from rainfall or irrigation.

Once established, these native shrubs will cope with both spring flooding and summer drought with minimal care, adding their ornamental beauty to a truly functional landscape, a garden that sustains nature, including the gardener who tends it.

Gardening questions

Question: I bought a large number of ostrich ferns late last summer and planted them in a semi-sunny patch at my home on Gouldsboro Point. The soil had been treated heavily with seafood compost. Moss tends to flourish in this area. What can I do to give the ferns a nutritional boost this season? – Skye Howard, Gouldsboro

Send queries to Gardening Questions, 116 N. Main St., Orono 04473 or e-mail Include name, address and telephone number.

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