What water-wise really means

What water-wise really means

Features - Plants

Defining drought tolerance and resistance clearly to customers is essential for gardening success.

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October 17, 2017
Jolene Hansen

Call it climate change or something less, but weather extremes, including low rainfall and high temperatures, are becoming more common across the United States. Even where drought is not a regional issue, efficient water use and conservation are.

As gardeners seek out plants in response to their concerns, they meet a variety of terms — from “water-wise” and “drought-tolerant” to “drought-resistant” and “xeric.” When independent garden center staff and customers are on the same page about what your wording means, gardeners start off right. When that’s not the case, expectations and realities can collide when dry weather hits.

Incorporating low-water-use plants into landscapes does not mean gardeners have to sacrifice color, texture, or pollinator interest.
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Penstemon ‘Pike’s Peak’ is a favorite among pollinators.
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Monardella macrantha
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Getting a scientific perspective

Water-wise wording in the garden center industry seems to go back and forth, but some of the terminology does have scientific roots. Dr. Andy Pereira, professor and principal investigator at the University of Arkansas Plant Stress Systems Biology research program, is an expert on plant responses to drought stress — and the scientific terms used to describe them.

“Everything in layman terms is ‘tolerance,’ but in science, we honor the names and terms as they are given,” Pereira says. He and other researchers consider drought resistance an all-encompassing term that covers all plant adaptations in response to drought stress. Terms such as “drought escape,” “drought avoidance,” and “drought tolerance” fall under that umbrella. However, Pereira notes a change in terminology is underway among scientists, and many are using drought tolerance as a comprehensive term in lieu of drought resistance.

Pereira suggests that garden center employees understand the basic concepts behind these different terms, regardless of the terminology you choose. As examples, some plants “escape” drought by completing their lifecycle during drought-free seasons. Consider desert wildflowers that flourish during monsoons and depart as drought returns.

Some plants “avoid” surrounding drought and endure without wilting. These plants maintain their water content even with soil moisture at a minimum. Drought-avoidant plants include cacti and other succulents. They also include prairie grasses that avoid drought through deep, extensive root systems that allow for water uptake when other plants go without.

The sticking point for many consumers is the term “drought-tolerant,” and this is where performance expectations often diverge. Dr. Pereira explains drought-tolerant plants are those that lose water content in their tissues, but survive because of adaptations to drought stress. These may include wilting, dropping foliage, entering dormancy and other responses as varied as the plants themselves — all of which affect the aesthetics of the plant involved.

Panicum ‘Cheyenne Sky’
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Sedum ‘Coppertone’
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Coleus ‘Saturn’
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Succulent sedums avoid drought.
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Examining and refining terminology

Andropogon gerardii ‘Windwalker’
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When customers come through your IGC’s doors with a drought or low-water agenda, their words and yours carry different meanings from person to person. Gardening backgrounds, past geography, even the editorial slant of their favorite gardening magazines affect customer expectations for landscape maintenance and plant care.

Dr. Barbara Fair, associate professor at North Carolina State University, works closely with master gardeners and the public on water-related soil and plant issues. She often sorts out confusion over drought- and water-related terminology. She also fields questions about landscape disappointments when surprised gardeners discover “water-wise” means lower water, not low water or no water at all.

As a gardener and former garden center employee, Dr. Fair understands both perspectives. In her role, she uses “water-wise” to describe a management practice, never a plant category. Under Fair’s definition, being water-wise means using water more efficiently by using plants that have lower supplemental water needs and plant groupings that encourage efficient water use. Water-wise doesn’t equate to drought-tolerant. Communicating the difference as it applies to plants in your region is essential in her eyes.

When drought-tolerant plants are involved, Fair encourages IGC staff to learn about the distinctions and educate consumers. “Drought-tolerant plants don’t ignore drought; they tolerate it by responding in different ways,” Fair says. She points to Coleus, which may wilt and bounce back no worse for wear when normal moisture returns, while another plant drops all foliage. Callicarpa tolerate drought well, but may sacrifice flower or fruit production for survival. “Plants can’t live without water. Customers have to understand that some feature will be impacted,” Fair explains.

Fort Collins Nursery prioritizes plant education and selection, especially when it comes to low-water-use plants.
COURTESY OF FORT COLLINS NURSERY
COURTESY OF FORT COLLINS NURSERY

Educating your customers

Scott Swartzendruber
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In northern Colorado, water restrictions are a thing of the past for now, but water availability varies significantly from year to year. The region’s climate requires staff at Fort Collins Nursery to be well-versed in drought-tolerant plants and care. For nursery manager and buyer Scott Swartzendruber, understanding the levels of drought tolerance among drought-tolerant plants and communicating that to customers is critical to the IGC’s success.

“We take a lot of pride in the selection that we provide people. Having a wide variability of plants that can fit a lot of different areas, and then the salespeople who can read the individual customer’s needs and abilities to take care of those plants, is kind of what we specialize in here,” Swartzendruber says.

Signage at the nursery, done in house, describes plants’ cultural needs, including low-water or drought-tolerant specifics. However, customer success isn’t left to signage or terminology. Swartzendruber credits highly educated salespeople talking with the customer to get to the heart of their drought-tolerant expectations and needs. “It’s an important part of any transaction to find out what the person is used to, what they have in their yard already, where they’ve lived and grown plants before, and what they want to achieve,” he says. “You have to have that conversation with your customer.”

Swartzendruber advises IGC staff to know your plants and clientele, and not take the conversation lightly. “You’re doing things for people that are going to impact them for years to come. They could either cost them a lot of money or give them years of enjoyment,” he says. “It’s extremely important that we respect our customers and what they’re doing in the landscape and we put them in the best situation to succeed.”

While Swartzendruber’s advice holds for any plant, it’s especially timely for consumers concerned with drought and water use. Backing your water-wise wording up with understanding and expertise helps equip your customers to succeed with drought-tolerant plants or water-wise gardening.

Jolene is a freelance writer and former horticulture professional based in Wisconsin’s Driftless Area. Reach her at jolene@lovesgarden.com.