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Drought-Tolerant Gardens

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Ample water is not a requirement for a beautiful garden. Water-conservation in the garden is very doable. Water-smart gardening can save time and money.

A drought-tolerant garden makes the most of the water it gets. “Xeriscaping” is a term used for growing naturally drought-adapted plants using water-saving methods.

A xeriscape does not need to look like a desert. A xeriscape can easily be mistaken for a well-watered garden.

Drought tolerant plants and landscaping
Drought tolerant plants and landscaping

How to grow a drought-tolerant garden

Here are some basic ways to grow a xeriscape, drought-tolerant garden:

Plant selection

Choose plants that don’t require a lot of water. Plants native to your region are a good place to begin; they are adapted to the rainfall in your region. Choose plants native to other regions of the world similar to where you live; they too will survive on the rainfall in your region.

Prepare the soil

Prepare the soil in your garden to hold water. Humus or soil rich in aged organic matter naturally holds water and is well-drained. Humus is dark brown or black and crumbly; it is not sandy or clay-like. Humus soil particles are sponge-like; they hold water and emit it slowly. Add aged compost or commercial organic planting mix to your planting beds to create a humus-rich soil. Add 6 inches of aged compost or commercial organic planting mix to your planting beds and turn it under to 10 inches; add more aged compost to the soil surface twice a year.

Group plants

Group plants together by their water needs. This will make watering easier. Group moisture needy plants together where the soil is naturally moist or plant them where they are shaded in the afternoon. The north side of a building or wall will be less dry than the south side. Group very drought-tolerant plants together as well; these can be watered occasionally rather than regularly. Group plants by their soil needs; some plants prefer sandy soil, others not.

Use the shade

In hot and dry regions use afternoon shade to protect plants that need more water than others in the garden. Midday to midafternoon is the warmest time in the garden and the time when soil moisture evaporates most quickly. Plants in pots and containers will need less water if they get afternoon shade.

Mulch around plants

Mulch will stem soil moisture evaporation and protect plant roots in hot and dry regions. Mulch will keep the soil cool. Mulch suppresses weeds which compete with ornamental plants for soil moisture. Aged compost or planting mix are good mulches which feed the soil. You can also mulch with chopped leaves, straw, and even gravel.

Drip irrigation

Drip irrigation is a good way to save water. Micro-irrigation lines and emitters deliver water directly to plants; water is not wasted on unplanted areas of the garden. Drip irrigation systems can be placed on timers to deliver water in cooler times of the day when there is less evaporation. If you don’t want to install an irrigation system, run hoses to planting beds and use water wands or hose-end sprinklers to deliver water exactly where plants need it.

Reduce lawn

Replace water needy lawns with flowers and shrubs. Lawn grasses are shallow-rooted and need more water more often than deeper-rooted annuals, perennials, and shrubs. Flowering groundcover plants mixed with perennials and shrubs can replace lawns. Replace large lawns with stroll paths and flower beds.

Drought tolerant catmint
Small gray leaves such as catmint plants, Nepeta racemosa, can indicate a drought-tolerant plant

How to spot drought-tolerant plants

Many plants have evolved to conserve water; plant color and texture are often indicative of drought-tolerant plants. Here are some characteristics of plants that need less water:

  • Silver or gray leaves
  • Hairy or furry leaves
  • Thick, waxy, and succulent leaves
  • Small, fine-textured leaves
  • Thorns
Perennials black-eyed Susan and red butterfly weed with annual cosmos
Perennials black-eyed Susan and red butterfly weed with annual cosmos

Drought-tolerant annuals and perennials

Common NameBotanical NameZones
AgapanthusAgapanthus spp.8-10
AgaveAgave spp.8-11
AloeAloe spp.Varies
ArtemisiaArtemisia spp.Varies
Baby’s breathGypsophila paniculata3-9
Basket-of-goldAurinia saxatilis4-8
Bear’s breechesAcanthus mollis6-10
Black-eyed SusanRudbeckia fulgida3-10
Blanket flowerGallardia x grandiflora2-10
Blazing starLiatris spicata3-9
Butter daisyMelampodium leucanthumAnnual
Butterfly weedAsclepias tuberosa4-10
California poppyEschscholizia californicaAnnual
CatmintNepeta x fassenii4-9
Coneflower, purpleEchinacea purpurea3-9
CoreopsisCoreopsis spp.4-9
CosmosCosmos spp.Annual
Echeveria (most)Echeveria spp.8-11
Euphorbia (most)Euphorbia spp.Varies
Evening primrose, showyOenothera speciosa3-9
False sunflowerHeliopsis helianthoides4-9
Feather grassStipa spp.Varies
FlaxLinum perenne5-8
Flax, New ZealandPhormium tenax8-11
Fountain grassPennisetum alopecuroides5-9
GauraGaura lindheimeri5-9
Geranium, hardyGeranium sanguineum3-8
Iris, beardedIris x germanica3-10
Lamb’s earsStachys byzantina4-8
Lavender, EnglishLavandula angustifolia5-8
Love-in-a-mistNigella damascenaAnnual
MarigoldTagetes spp.Annual
Mexican sunflowerTithonia rotundifoliaAnnual
Moss rosePortulaca grandifloraAnnual
Muhly grassMuhlenbergia spp.7-10
Naked ladiesAmaryllis belladonna5-9
Ox-eye daisyLeucanthemum vulgare5-9
PenstemonPenstemon spp. (many)Varies
PoppyPapaver spp.Varies
Pot marigoldCalendual officinalisAnnual
Red-hot pokerKnifphofia uvaria5-9
Red valerianCentranthus ruber4-8
Russian sagePerovskia atriplicfolia3-9
SantolinaSantolina chamaesyparisus6-9
Sea lavenderLimonium spp.8-11
Sea thriftArmera maritima3-8
Sedums; stonecropSedum spp.4-9
Snow-in-summerCerastiu tomentosum3-7
Spider flowerCleome hassleranaAnnual
Spurge, cushionEuphorbia polychroma4-8
StaticeLimonium spp.Varies
StrawflowerHelichrsyum braceatumAnnual
SunflowerHelianthus annuusAnnual
Swan river daisyBrachycome iberidifoliaAnnual
Verbena (most)Verbena spp.Varies
YarrowAchillea spp.3-9
YuccaYucca spp.4-10
ZinniaZinnia elegansAnnual
Zinnia, narrow-leafZinnia angustifoliaAnnual
African iris, Dietes bicolor
African iris, Dietes bicolor, drought-tolerant bulb

Drought-tolerant bulbs

Common NameBotanical NameZones
Allium, ornamental onionAllium spp.4-10
AmaryllisHippeastrum spp.7-11
CrocosmiaCrocosmia x crocosmiiflora6-9
CrocusCrocus spp.3-8
Iris, German beardedIris hybrids3-10
Iris, AfricanDietes iriodiodes, D. bicolor8-10
Peruvian lilyAlstromeria spp.6-10
Society garlicTolbaghia violacea8-11
TulipTulipa spp.3-7
Porcelain berry vine, Ampelopsis, vibrant autumn color

Drought-tolerant vines

Common NameBotanical NameZones
Bittersweet, AmericanCelastrus scandens3-8
Black-eyed Susan vineThunbergia alataAnnual
Boston ivyParthenocissus tricuspidata4-8
Euonymus, wintercreeperEuonymus fortunei4-8
FirethornPyracantha coccinea6-9
Honeysuckle, trumpetLonicera sempervirens4-9
Morning gloryIpomoea tricolorAnnual
Porcelain berry vineAmpelopsis brevipedunculata4-8
Silver lace vinePolygonum aubertii4-9
Trumpet creeperCampis radicans4-9
Viginia creeperParthenocissus quinquefolia4-9
WisteriaWisteria spp.5-9
Dense and robust clumping Fountain grass growing along path

Drought-tolerant ornamental grasses

Common NameBotanical NameZones
Dwarf pampas grassCortaderia selloana ‘Pumila’7-10
Blue fescueFestuca glauca4-9
Blue oat grassHelictotrichon sempervirens4-9
Feather grassStipa spp.Varies
Fountain grassPennisetum alopecuroides5-10
Silver grass; miscanthusMiscanthus sinensis5-10
Switch grassPanicum virgatum4-9
Drought-tolerant shrubs and grasses
Drought-tolerant shrubs and grasses in front yard

Drought-tolerant shrubs

Common NameBotanical NameZones
Abelia, glossyAbelia x grandiflora6-9
BarberryBerberis spp.4-8
Bayberry, northernMyric pensylvanica2-6
BluebeardCaryopteris x clandonensis5-8
BroomsGenista spp., Cytisus spp.4-8
Butterfly bushBuddleia spp.5-10
CeanothusCeanothus spp.8-10
Chase treeVitex agnus-castus6-10
Currant, alpineRibes alpinum2-7
HoneysucklesLonicera spp.Varies
MahoniaMahonia spp.Varies
ManzanitaArctostaphylos spp.Varies
MockorangePhiladelphus spp.4-8
OleanderNerium oleander8-10
Potentilla, shrubbyPotentilla fruticosa2-7
Rose-of-SharonHibiscus syriacus5-9
Rose, rugosaRosa rugosa3-9
SnowberrySymphoricrapos albus3-7
Staghorn sumacRhus typhina3-8
Palo Verde tree blossoms in back patio
Palo Verde tree blossoms in patio

Drought-tolerant trees

Common NameBotanical NameZones
Acacia, BaileyAcacia baileyana8-10
Ash, greenFraxinus pennsylvanica3-9
Bald cypressTaxodium distichum4-10
Bay; sweet bayLaurus nobilis8-11
Birch, riverBetula nigra4-9
Birch, WhitespireBetual mandschurica japonica4-7
Buckeye, CaliforniaAeschulus californica6-10
Buckeye, OhioAesculus glabra3-7
Cedar, blue atlasCedrus libani ‘Glauca’6-9
Cedar, deodarCedrus deodara6-9
Crape myrtleLagersroemia indica7-9
CypressCupressus spp.Varies
Desert willowChilopsis linearis8-9
Elm, ChineseUlmus parvifolia5-9
Fir, whiteAbies concolor3-7
GinkgoGingo biloba3-9
Hawthron, WashingtonCrataegus phaenopyrum3-9
Honey locust, thornlessGleditsia triacanthos var. inermis3-8
Incense cedarCalocedrus decurrens5-8
JunipersJuniperus spp.Varies
Linden, silverTilia tomentosa3-7
Magnolia, southernMagnolia grandiflora6-10
Mahonia, leatherleafMahonia beali6-9
Maple, AmurAcer tartaricum spp. ginnala2-6
Maple, NorwayAcer platanoides3-7
Maple, redAcer rubrum3-9
Maple, silverAcer saccharinum3-9
MesquiteProsopis glandulosa10-11
Mountain, ash EuropeanSorbus aucuparia3-6
Oak, burQuercus macrocarpa2-8
Oak, pinQuercus palustris4-8
Oak, whiteQuercus alba4-9
Oak, willowQuercus phellos4-8
OliveOlea europaea8-10
Pagoda tree, JapaneseSophora japonica6-8
Palo verdeCercdium9-10
Pine, AustrianPinus nigra4-7
Pine, JackPinus banksiana2-6
Pine, Japanese blackPinus thunbergii5-7
Pine, mugoPinus mugo2-7
Pine, ScotchPinus sylvestris3-7
Pine, whitePinus strobus3-8
PistachioPistacia chinensis6-9
RedbudCercis canadensis3-9
Russian oliveElaeagnus angustifolia3-8
Serviceberry, shadblowAmelanchier spp.3-8
Sugarberry; hackberryCeltis spp.Varies
YellowwoodCladrastis lutea6-8
YuccasYucca spp.4-10

Written by Stephen Albert

Stephen Albert is a horticulturist, master gardener, and certified nurseryman who has taught at the University of California for more than 25 years. He holds graduate degrees from the University of California and the University of Iowa. His books include Vegetable Garden Grower’s Guide, Vegetable Garden Almanac & Planner, Tomato Grower’s Answer Book, and Kitchen Garden Grower’s Guide. His Vegetable Garden Grower’s Masterclass is available online. has more than 10 million visitors each year.

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