Xeriscaping-gardening for low water consumption-is big right now. It's even trendy here in the Northeast where we get plenty of rain. And global warming could give us even more. Or maybe less. Whichever happens, it's the fault of global warming.I am not trendy. That's why I have generally ignored the High Country Gardens (www.highcountrygardens.com) catalog I get every spring. It's desert plants, and I don't live in a desert. Not even a hot climate.

But since I brought so many plants back from Arizona last summer, some of which are still clinging to life on the sun porch, I started leafing through it, hoping to learn something. And I did.

According to the catalog, many of the plants I figured would hardly take a frost are hardy in my Zone 5 or 6. Now, I take such pronouncements with a grain of salt. Catalogs have been known to be highly optimistic about the hardiness of the plants they want to sell you. When they say a plant is hardy to a certain zone, and maybe nudge that line north a little, they mean under ideal circumstances.

It's not winter cold that kills so many plants, it's winter wet. I don't mean just desert plants, but many perennials that are hardy if they don't spend the winter in a puddle. Garden mums, for example. Or semps-sempervivum-which you probably call hens and chicks.

I've had people tell me they can't grow hens and chicks. That's like saying you can't grow dandelions. Give them sun and good drainage and they multiply into huge mounds.

I have gravel paths between the raised beds in my vegetable garden, and that's where I grow a dozen different kinds of semps. Just pull one off a clump and stick it in another place. Care is not just minimal, it is superfluous. (If you think semps are just green rosettes, you can see some of mine at www.flickr.com/photos/duanecamp-bell Lots of plants love growing in gravel. Hardy geraniums have self-seeded in my patio and lambs ears are a welcome invader. Creeping thyme comes and goes, and several different ground cover sedums have staked out their territory.

Most people, though, don't have large gravel patios and paths. Unless you are in a favored spot, you probably have garden soil high in clay that turns to sticky muck during warm spells in winter and spring, the worst possible situation for hydrophobic plants.

Improving the drainage and soil structure will be good for all of your plants, not just the touchy ones. In the olden days, people dug in peat moss. Don't. I won't bother to repeat my peat moss rant.

Instead, dig in pine bark mulch, the stuff piled up on pallets in megamart parking lots in spring. It's cheaper and better. How much? As much as you can afford and your muscles can endure.

That will take care of plants common to this area. Plants that have no business growing here need a little more effort. OK, a lot more effort, but worth it for some of the desert salvias. I'll dig deep and wide, adding a lot more bark mulch, even gravel, then cobble up a raised area several inches higher than the soil.

But here is the most important thing I'll do when I try to winter over these sun porch plants in the open garden. I'll make cuttings or divisions for the sun porch next winter as back up. I am absolutely confident that they'll survive outside, of course I am, but it won't hurt to have a back up. Just in case an elephant stomps on them.

Duane Campbell, a nationally known agricultural expert, can be reached at R6, Box 6092, Towanda, PA 18848 or by e-mail at dcamp@chilitech.net for questions or comments.

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