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Deluge dreams in a dry garden


WHEN EVEN the pachysandra under the old yew hedge began to brown and shrivel, that was the moment I decided that not another drop of the precious household water I had been recycling could be spent on annuals.

I had warily planted just a few in the hopes that rain would fall on Baltimore this summer.

Since late spring, I had kept containers in both kitchen and bath to collect all reusable water, the rule being that nothing would go down the drain that could be carried outside to the landscape.

Water used for washing fruits and vegetables, for cooking, for rinsing some dishes, even leftover tea and ice cubes -- all was emptied into a pot in the sink and from there into an old galvanized bucket that stood by the door.

At the end of what has been incontestably the driest August we have ever known, I ponder my small drought-tolerant garden, now in its fifth year.

Free form and divided into four parts by intersecting paths, it has a birdhouse and a smattering of "garden art" and is planted mostly with herbs and perennials that do their best work in June.

I am pleased to see that it looks no worse this August than it has in previous years, when it received regular watering.

Uncomplaining silvery gray plants such as lamb's ears, santolina and lavender, their hairy leaves preventing moisture loss, can be counted upon to be the big survivors, growing robustly and thriving on who knows what. They're well adapted to the dry, seemingly inhospitable soil we now have.

Russian sage, English thyme, catmint, penstemon, armeria and liriope also go about their business with few requests for attention.

More of a surprise to me is the perennial scabiosa, flowering gratuitously all summer in the most intense heat.

Perennial blue salvia also blooms untended, much favored by bees and butterflies over its annual counterpart.

I weed around the plants to eliminate competition from thirsty roots. From now on, all household water will be used to meet the bare minimum requirements from this undemanding garden.

Next year, I'll plant only varieties that go with the flow, or lack thereof.

I stare fascinated by rain in movies, as if I had never seen it before.

My mother, who died this year, told me of how she stood outside in the pouring rain that ended the terrible drought of 1930. She had just lost her own mother. I see her, a lovely young woman, arms outstretched to welcome the first fat drops as they plopped into the yard, then gathered momentum to form the long-awaited deluge.

I think also of the moment in Mendelssohn's Elijah when the prophet, in a fierce contest with the followers of Baal, calls for an end to the drought that has plagued the land.

Presently there appears a little cloud, the size of a man's hand, and then there follows a great rain. I hear the chorus, "Thanks be to God! He laveth the thirsty land," no more joyous music ever written.

I imagine rain, rain and more rain. And, bucket by bucket, I continue to pour it on.

Ellen Goldsborough Morrison lives in Baltimore City.

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