February 19, 2019

The Rain* in Maine

*Or lack of rain, as the case may be

A pot with portulaca and mandevilla blossomed all summer long in 2012.

Faith Pineo Photo | A pot with portulaca and mandevilla blossomed all summer long in 2012.

• By Janine Pineo •

Rain. Showers. Sprinkles. Dew.

My vegetable garden screamed for them; my flowers did, too. (Gee, it rhymes.)

This was the year for weeding out drought-intolerant plants from the ones that shrugged the dust off and carried on. I had a few winners that took up the challenge and put on an enviable display of fruit and flowers during the last few dry weeks.

The speckled bloom of Portulaca grandiflora 'Sundial' mix

Faith Pineo Photo | The speckled bloom of Portulaca grandiflora ‘Sundial’ mix

It was a banner year for petunias and portulaca. I always fret over my petunias, which somehow leads to their premature demise. It’s the same with the portulaca.

This summer, however, I was a bit more frugal with the water, and what should I learn but a valuable lesson: I was overwatering the poor things. Granted, I slightly changed the composition of the potting soil in which they resided (instead of peat moss, I added coconut fiber, but more on that later), but I also let the plants nearly — and sometimes completely — dry out between waterings.

The results were magnificent. The petunias were cascading down the sides of their containers in a brilliant display of pinks and purples with a splash of white and pale yellow here and there.

Two Supertunias also were gracing the yard. This new variety of petunia (Petunia axillaris hybrid) is from Australia and was bred to grow quickly and tolerate heat and average rainfall. The plant’s tag also boasted that the plant will spring back to life if it dries out. What a summer for a plant to claim that.

There are a couple of good points about Supertunias: Bushels of flowers along vigorous vines provide a decadent display of color, and the plants don’t need to be watered often; in fact, they don’t like a lot of water. The bad points exist as well: Dead blossoms are impossible to keep up with (the tag said “it is not necessary to pinch off spent blooms”), which means parts of the plant end up looking, well, DEAD; and if you water too much, you risk killing the plant, which didn’t happen with me because I thought I might as well test the description by seeing how many times one plant would wilt before throwing in the towel. By mid-September, my most-abused Supertunia was still blossoming, looking pretty brown around the edges, but there were still flowers.

I expect to grow Supertunias again, varying my treatment because practice makes perfect, or at least better.

The portulaca, too, was excessively thankful of my watering lapses. Once a week, I would remember one pot’s existence, yet the plants never stopped blooming, even during the hottest days of summer. I had given up on portulaca a couple of years ago but convinced myself I really wanted it this spring because of the beautiful range of colors in the Sundial mix offered at one of the greenhouses I visited. With flowers ranging from a deep magenta to white blushed with pink to salmon and bright yellow, these succulent members of the purslane family caught my eye and my fancy.

Best of all, portulaca can take the heat and the dryness with nary a whimper. It is a plant to remember for those spots you often forget to water and those spots that must withstand the unrelenting summer sun.

My other drought winner was a plant I usually harangue about: the tomato.

I often complain about plants I adore just because they have minds of their own. That’s why I like them. And my tomatoes definitely obey no rules in my garden.

This summer my wild-and-crazy tomato experiment paid off with loads of fruit from a variety of different tomatoes. Not only did my old standby Early Girl adore the dry weather, but the plants I started myself in late April grew an impressive amount of fruit in an eye-catching array of colors.

White Snowball was more pale yellow than white, but if you closed your eyes, it tasted just like a red tomato. The benefit from this one was less acid than red types.

Yellow Stuffer looked like a yellow pepper, tasted like a tomato, but wasn’t mushy, like some ripe tomatoes can be. It’s perfect for — you guessed — stuffing.

Black Krim was a true novelty. This tomato rather frightened me when I first saw a ripe fruit: It looked rotten. The catalog description said the deep, dark red looked almost black, and it’s true. The flavor was a full, rich tomato taste.

Then there’s the heirloom tomato I’d heard raves about. Brandywine, an Amish variety dating to the 1800s, is all that I’d heard and more. This rose-pink tomato has more flavor than any tomato I have ever eaten, but is also the most fragile fruit I’ve ever handled. It was a chore picking the tomatoes without bruising them, but what a reward. Forget the salt, the pepper, the mayo. Just try a pure, sweet Brandywine next year and you’ll fall in love.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in September 1995.

2012 update: This was another dry year, the first after several pretty wet ones. And oddly enough, the petunias, portulaca and tomatoes had another banner year. Sensing a pattern?