August 7, 2007

The 3 Dreads: Drought, Deer and Disease

So many stories of disappointment from gardening friends prompted me to address the three big dreads of gardening – drought, deer and disease. We all begin the garden season with high hopes of beautiful blooms, lush foliage and great design only to watch as perennials and shrubs fall victim to these three big dreads. What perennials and shrubs flourish throughout the growing season with minimal effort to defend them from the three dreads? Can we have beautiful gardens that also resist these dreads? Observing my garden, I’ve made my list of winners for the Triangle area, zone 7, of North Carolina. Some of these winners may work in other zones as well. I’m listing only my favorites and only those plants which are growing in our garden that meet all three criteria of resistance to these three dreads.

Drought-resistant: these plants can survive without water if we go on a two week summer vacation. There are no irrigation drip hoses among these plants in our garden. In fact, about the only problem you’ll have with these plants is if you over-water them! All can take direct sunlight most of the day. My garden receives sunlight from the east, south and west with no shade.

Deer-resistant: the deer haven’t eaten the foliage or the blooms in our garden. There is a large herd of deer that traverse and live on our property. They are so bold as to hang around during the midday hours as well as sleeping in our meadow at night. The herd seems to increase by 3-4 fawns per year, based upon those observed together on our property. There is currently a herd of six bucks, all of the same age, with four point antlers roaming around. The largest count that we made at one time (2 years ago) was 17! I’ve now removed the edging that used to be around the newly planted garden as the plants are established. The deer had started jumping over the edging and munching just a few plants – some lobelia blooms, a taste of ageratum houstonian and as many of the leaves as possible on the seven-son shrub.

Disease-resistant: we’ve not had any problems with disease on our plants in our environment. Additionally, none of these plants were damaged by the Japanese Beetles that plague our property and devour the cherry trees, roses and the shrub crepe myrtle. If not for the beetles, I would have put crepe myrtle on this list as I put disease and insect damage in the same category.

With these selections, I’ve found lots of long-blooming color as well as the added attraction for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. You can use this list to create a butterfly garden! Most ornamental grasses and herbs also work well in resisting the three dreads. In fact, some of these perennials will fall into the herbal category.


Hummingbird mint is a real trooper in my garden. As the name implies, the hummingbirds are attracted to this perennial. I’m most fond of ‘Red Fortune’ as it is tall and upright, full, and a prolific bloomer. The rosy color works well with blues or yellows. Just brushing up against the foliage, you will smell the wonderful mint leave fragrance. I also have ‘Blue Fortune’ and ‘Apricot Sprite’.


While being easy to maintain with cutting back in late winter and deadheading in the summer, our butterfly bushes are currently covered with swarms of butterflies and bees. I love the ‘Pink Delight’, ‘Royal Profusion’, and ‘Adonis Blue’ which are growing in my garden. I also have a pale yellow variety that is quite lovely, but doesn’t make as big a statement as the bolder colors. Give some of these varieties lots of room as they can grow quite large unless you get one of the smaller varieties like ‘Adonis Blue’.


I’ve only recently discovered the blue mist spirea (sometimes called bluebeard) shrub and have two varieties in the garden. The variegated caryopteris divaricata ‘Snow Fairy’ provides beautiful pure white and bright green foliage with blue flowers in late summer. The foliage looks great in the company of red blooms of companion plants. The almost chartreuse foliage of caryopteris icana ‘Jason’ is a full and lush 3x3 sentinel by our garden gate. The blue blooms attract bees and butterflies, too. Cut back like a perennial.


When it comes to non-stop blooms, ‘Crème Brulee’ is my favorite among the coreopsis varieties. The yellow blooms go on forever. My other yellow favorite is ‘Moonbeam’. Coreopsis emerges late, so don’t expect results until summer is in full force. Then, enjoy. After the second bloom, I use my cordless hedge trimmer to deadhead as there are just so many blooms. I also have ‘Heaven’s Gate’ and ‘Limerock Ruby’ in the mauve and maroon color range. However well they bloom, they do fall over a bit due to the height of the stems and weight of all those blooms. I may trim these back early next year to try to get sturdier stems.

Heliotropium amplexicaule

Creeping heliotrope is blue-lavender perennial that blooms non-stop for us and spreads quickly as a flowering groundcover. The flower color goes with so many other blooms. This is another butterfly favorite.


Whether you choose the annual, the tender or hardy perennial, this plant is really tough and blooms profusely. We have ‘Miss Huff’ which grows like a shrub for us. It’s very late to emerge from dormancy, but then it grows very fast and blooms throughout the summer until frost. The butterflies literally swarm this plant!


Although some may argue that lavender is difficult, I’ve found it to flourish if planted high and dry (see my previous blog on growing lavender).

Nepeta x faassenii

If all else fails, grow nepeta! We grow both ‘Walker’s Low’ and ‘Six Hills Giant’ in our garden. We use it as a border plant along our sidewalks and paths. Give these catmints at least three feet of space. We use hedge trimmers after each bloom to shape it and keep it looking good for reblooming. This is a favorite for honey bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.


Whether using the ornamental or the culinary varieties, oregano makes great filler for bare spots. While it’s not going to give you lots of bloom color, the foliage is wonderful.

Ornamental grasses

Choose from a wide variety of ornamental grasses. I tend to favor miscanthus and panicum varieties. Fountains of grasses that move in the breeze add so much to the perennial gardens. I also love to see the morning light coming through from the back of the grasses.


Another herb for planting high and dry, rosemary provides beautiful aromatic foliage and some varieties have tiny pale blue blooms. We have rosemary scattered throughout the garden and some close by the kitchen for use in recipes. Rosemary is evergreen for us and can grow very shrub-like and tall, depending upon the variety. If you don’t cook enough to keep the tops trimmed, use a hedge trimmer to shape it and keep it from getting woody in the middle (much like growing lavender).


Although we have many types of salvia in the garden, my favorite is a tender perennial Salvia greggii 'Navajo Bright Red'. The hummingbirds absolutely love this salvia! It blooms early and will rebloom with deadheading. It grows to 30 inches tall and is evergreen in our sunny winter garden. We have a mass planting of five on a slope accompanied by yellow coreopsis.


We grow the fuzzy stachys byzantina (lamb’s ears) as an edging and companion with lavender or nepeta. All of the fuzzy lamb’s ears, whether the small or large leaved varieties, work well in the hot, deer-resistant gardens. Again, about the only enemy is over-watering, so plant this one high and dry. A favorite foliage plant that is very reliable and so soft to the touch! If children visit your garden, this plant is a teddy bear!

There are both culinary and ornamental thyme varieties to provide colorful foliage and even little blooms. In our garden, thyme is a fast-growing groundcover. Another favorite for bees, you can always find a sunny, dry spot for this herb. I’ve seen photos of thyme used in lieu of grass in a drought area.


We grow stick verbena bonariensis for the goldfinches that live on our property, but the purple blooms and tall, airy structure are very attractive in the butterfly garden. We leave the seed heads as food for the finches, but it will also seed across the garden so you’ll have volunteers popping up the next spring. Since it’s tall and narrow, it doesn’t really interfere with other plants, so we let it seed freely. We have planted stick verbena in a mass of at least seven plants. We use ‘Homestead Purple’ the groundcover verbena, around the feet and also around other shrubs in the butterfly garden.
Freelance travel writer. My current fiction writing projects include a completed manuscript and several works in progress.

By the way, my name is pronounced fred-ah, not freed-ah. Thank you.

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