Planting for Drought Tolerance

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Planting for Drought Tolerance

Watering the garden comes at a cost.

Even if the water you use comes from the rain barrels at the end of your gutter, there’s still the cost of you pay in lugging around watering cans or pulling out hoses. To help save time, effort and costs, try designing your garden with plants that readily stand up to drought.

With any garden design, it is important to put the right plant in the right place. So, put sun lovers in sunny spots and shade lovers in shady spots. Along with this, be sure to group plants with similar watering needs together. If you accidentally plant several drought-hardy plants near something that requires regular watering, you’ll find yourself out there watering all the time, or you’ll find that one plant dead among the drought-hardy others.

Many woody herbs make fantastic choices in building drought tolerant spaces. And, they look great when combined. Evergreen shrubs like lavender, sage and rosemary are the foundation of any great herb garden.


A little groundcover thyme at the bottom and perennial oregano almost completes the space. Plus, once this combination of plants is established, they require very little supplemental water during drought.

If fragrant, edible herbs aren’t all that you’re seeking, consider popping in a few sturdy, not-prickly succulents to add different forms and flowers to the garden. Sedums grow in most locations and come in a range of sizes and colors. Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ offers grey-green foliage that rises to about 18” where, in late summer or early fall, it is topped with flat pink flowers that bees love. Once the bees are done with it, the flowers turn to tiny seeds that chickadees adore in early autumn.


If you’re looking for a groundcover succulent, consider Hen ‘n Chicks (Sempervivums), which grow in spreading rosette forms – beginning with a “mother hen” followed by her little “chicks”. Echevarias are another group of great succulents, ideal for milder climates or as houseplants.

Looking for larger options to add seasonal privacy to your drought garden? Try adding in a tall ornamental grass like Miscanthus or a hardy deciduous tree like a Cotinus (Smoke tree).

Need something evergreen? Include a dwarf Mugo Pine for hardy year-round interest in smaller spaces. Or, if you need something big, consider its cousin the Scotch Pine for orange bark and grey-green foliage. Want something broad-leaved, evergreen and blooming? Try out a Hairy Manzanita or a David’s Viburnum instead.

Regardless of your growing zone, there’s bound to be something your local nursery can suggest to help you create a beautiful drought tolerant garden. Remember though: being sure to care for your young plants is key to keeping it going for years to come. Nearly every plant, including those listed as “drought tolerant”, require at least three years of supplemental watering during the dry season in order to become established and able to tolerate periods of dryness. So, don’t just pop in a drought garden and forget about it. Be sure to water it regularly for those first few years. Then, back off on the watering, but keep an eye on the garden. Sometimes in the roughest summer, even the hardiest of plants appreciate one or two sips from your watering can.