Landscaping with Drought-Tolerant Plants

By: Julie Day
Garden with drought tolerant plants.

Planting drought tolerant plants in your garden saves on irrigation costs.

If a drought-tolerant garden makes you think of cacti and rock gardens, then think again – there are many colorful and lush choices that are perfect for a low-maintenance, water-conserving landscape. As parts of the country experience a reduction in rainfall or restrictions on water use, drought-tolerance has become an increasingly desirable characteristic in cultivated plants.

Flowering sedum plant.

The thick succulent leaves of sedum help it withstand drought.

The term “drought-tolerant” indicates that once a plant is established, it can survive with minimal or no supplemental irrigation. This differs from a plant’s “water use” since some species use high amounts of water when it’s available, then go nearly dormant during a drought. Conversely, some plants use very little water overall but require a steady supply, making them unable to endure a severe shortage.

Fruit tree with white flowers.

Many flowering fruit trees—such as apples, pears, and plums—are drought-tolerant.

Drought Tolerant Plant Options

A surprising number of plants and shrubs are drought-tolerant. Some of the best choices are also quite beautiful.

Colorful options for your garden include:

  • Butterfly bush
  • Flowering Quince
  • Redbud
  • Sugar Maple
  • Daylilies
  • Cosmos
  • Coneflowers
  • Spirea
  • Shrub Roses
  • Fringe Tree

Containers plants include:

  • Ageratum
  • Ornamental Kale
  • Lantana
  • Geranium
  • Zinnia
  • Verbena
  • Coreopsis
  • Gaillardia
  • Nasturtium
  • Marigold

For more options, see our printable lists of drought-tolerant plants:

Red leaves on forest pansy redbud.

Cercis Canadensis or “forest pansy” Redbud.

Tips for Choosing Drought-Tolerant Plants

Though they can’t always be identified by appearance, certain characteristics usually indicate drought-tolerance:

  • Native plants are often hardy and drought-tolerant.
  • Plants with gray or white foliage, or foliage with a silvery underside, tend to use less water.
  • Small or narrow leaves reduce water usage and transpiration (water loss through the leaves).
  • Succulent plants survive by storing water in their thick, spongy-feeling foliage.
  • Ornamental grasses are often drought-tolerant, though turf grasses usually are not.
  • Many plant labels now give water usage and drought tolerance, so your local plant nursery may have already done the research for you!
Primroses flowers interplanted with dusty miller.

Primroses interplanted with "dusty miller" make a garden appear cool.

Most plants need water to become established and benefit from occasional irrigation during periods of extreme heat or drought. The idea is to minimize irrigation while still maintaining a healthy plant.

By choosing plants wisely, and maintaining your garden with water-conservation in mind, you can have a lush, colorful garden that is tough enough to withstand hot, dry summer conditions with very little maintenance required.

Mahonia and aucuba plants.

Mahonia and aucuba form a low-maintenance border.

Helping Your Garden Survive a Drought

  • Mulch deeply (2-4 inches) to help hold in moisture.
  • Enrich soil with organic matter so it will retain more moisture.
  • Limit fertilizing to prevent rapid growth that requires more water.
  • When you irrigate, water deeply to encourage root growth.
  • Avoid watering during the heat of the day or in windy conditions.
  • Use a drip or soaker system, targeting only the plants that need it.
  • Even healthy plants may wilt slightly during the hottest part of the day. Irrigate only if they do not perk up in the evening or early morning.
  • Plant shade trees to cut down on wind and evaporation.
  • Create a small reservoir of soil around each plant to prevent irrigation water from running off.
Blooming crape myrtles with wooden fence leading to garden.

Crape myrtles bloom in summer and make a shady retreat.

Further Information

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  • Butch Says:
    August 1st, 2014 at 11:44 am

    Although drought is not a real problem, living here in South Carolina, I do have “hard red mud” almost no topsoil and a ton of shade. Growing anything is a challenge. Will these drought tolerant plants work in my situation?
    Thanks


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