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Friday, August 6, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pacific Northwest Magazine / Northwest Living

Dry Profusion: An experiment in drought tolerance settles for nothing less than lush

Imagine you're a garden designer who learns the trade in part by planting and caring for your own garden. But your beds and borders were established before weather patterns shifted, turning the climate more summer-dry Mediterranean than drizzly England. If you're Stacie Crooks, eager to learn about drought-tolerant plantings, you simply tear out 2,700 square feet of hot, west-facing front lawn to create a living laboratory of less-thirsty plants. This sun-drenched hillside now serves as a demonstration garden for clients and an ongoing experiment in plant combinations sans supplemental water, as well as a traffic-stopping front yard.

For anyone who considers a dry garden to be less than lush, Crooks' efforts will be a revelation. Her front garden sports nary a cactus or gravel swathe or any other drought-tolerant cliché. Rather, it is a mass of foliage and flower with paths nearly engulfed in texture and fragrance. Since the dry front garden is only two years old, some plants still need a little extra moisture in midsummer, but Crooks is determined to wean them from the hose and let them endure summer drought on their own within the next year or so.

Crooks' half-acre garden in Innis Arden started out 10 years ago as wide-open lawn and fence. Because her house looks out over the back patio and lawn where the kids and dog play, her goal was to create a pesticide-free garden with year-round interest. Though Crooks widened the borders to 15 feet to accommodate a bulky gunnera, plenty of hydrangeas and all her favorite tough plants in arresting combinations, there's ample terrace and grass for a trampoline and soccer net as well as outdoor dining and seating. She's added small-scale trees like a katsura and stewartia for privacy, tying the plantings together by repeating a burgundy-and-gold color scheme in the borders surrounding the back lawn and patio.

Low maintenance has always been a goal for this busy mother of two, who practices what she calls "fusion gardening." "Plant everything closely and it fuses together so that you can't see the weeds," she explains. Crooks' time- and resource-saving ways include never watering the lawn, and cutting everything way back in November to make less work come spring. It was when Crooks decided to learn for herself which plants are most drought-tolerant that she entered the realm of dry gardening. "It's been a blast," she says. "I've learned so much, including that things grow so fast I already need to divide the plants up."

The new dry border in front of the house faces directly toward Puget Sound, and gets full sun all day. Crooks rented a sod cutter, and with the help of her sons and husband, Jon, rolled up the unwanted sections of turf and stacked them alongside the street. She put up a sign offering free sod, and it was gone in a few hours.

Crooks enriched the soil by tilling in 25 yards of planting mix, culling out rocks and roots as she worked. She put in a hedge of drought-tolerant shrubs and trees at the bottom of the slope for privacy from the street. In only a couple of years the plants have merged to create a tapestry of tone and texture reminiscent of a small-scale English hedgerow. Cistus, rugosa roses, elaeagnus, evergreen Ceanothus thyrsiflorus 'Victoria,' potentilla and golden-leafed catalpas won't need watering once established, and should grow large enough to obscure the road but not the Sound view.

Before indulging in a show of perennial fireworks in the big island bed, Crooks planted a backbone of evergreens to carry the garden through the winter, such as Viburnum tinus 'Spring Bouquet,' Viburnum davidii, bergenia, lacy nandina, silvery eucalyptus, rosemary and Ilex crenata 'Green Island' and a Japanese holly. Crooks thinks old-fashioned heather is unfortunately underused, and planted plenty for winter flower. She added lots of her favorite color, deep purple, in barberries and the smoke tree Cotinus coggygria 'Velvet Cloak.'

The real glories of the drought-tolerant border are Crooks' combinations of grasses and perennials, planted in substantial enough swathes for real impact. Crooks admits she overplanted to satisfy her need for instant gratification; as a result, her garden looks far more mature than it is. Iris, wallflowers, alliums and Euphorbia characias wulfenii and E. x martinii start the border out with a burst of springtime color. Silvery artemisia, Senecio greyi 'Sunshine' and Russian sage cool down red-hot Crocosmia 'Lucifer' and bright-orange Geum chiloense 'Mrs. Bradshaw.' The flowers of coppery-toned yarrow (Achillea millefolium 'Terra Cotta') play off dark, purple-brown phormium. The silvery leaves of the maiden grass Miscanthus sinensis 'Gracillimus' and blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens) fluff out the plantings. Burgundy barberries combined with lemony 'Stella de Oro' daylilies and striped phormiums like 'Apricot Beauty' echo the purple-and-gold theme from the back garden. The garden has a fresh flush of bloom in autumn with clumps of rudbeckia, sedums and asters.

"I'm not into bananas or that tropical look," says Crooks of her hardy plant choices. For a gardener who thinks annuals are too expensive and prefers foliage plants, Crooks has created a front garden spilling over with long-lasting bloom and showy combinations. Her living lab serves as inspiration to gardeners weary of dragging hoses, proving dry gardens can be both lushly beautiful and environmentally conscientious.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer. Her e-mail address is valeaston@comcast.net.

Resources

• Seattle Public Utilities Natural Lawn and Garden Hotline, 206-633-0224, or Web site at www.seattle.gov/util/ has tips on smart watering, rain barrels, soil improvement and plant selection.

• "Gravel Garden: Drought-Resistant Planting Through the Year" by Beth Chatto (Viking Studio, $35) is the story of a famous British gardener who transforms a parking lot into a sumptuous garden using "the most reliable plants for the driest and most windswept of sites."

• The Miller Horticultural Library's Web page, www.millerlibrary.org, has an updated list of dry-gardening resources. Copies of the "Drought Tolerant Gardens" booklist are available in the library at 3501 N.E. 41st St., 206-543-0415.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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