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No Rain, No Pain: Easy Drought-Tolerant Plants

It seems that water shortages and droughts are the new norm for certain parts of the United States, especially in the western, southwestern, and southern regions. From California to Texas, farmers are plowing under fields, mandatory water restrictions are in place or about to be enforced, and customers are urged to conserve, conserve, conserve. Yet, it’s still common to see large stretches of lawn or other water-thirsty plants in front of homes, business, and retail spaces. Since the EPA estimates that landscape irrigation uses up almost seven billion gallons of water per day, our yards seem a likely place to make tangible changes. Planting drought-tolerant plants is a good place to start.

Not All Prickly Pears
Many people assume that a drought-tolerant yard is one consisting of lava rocks and cactus. Xeriscaping, which refers to gardening and landscaping that minimizes the amount of water used, focuses on plants that are well adapted to the climates in which they are being planted. This results in yards that span the board in terms of color, foliage, form, and fragrance. And unlike tender ornamentals and needy lawns, these drought-tolerant plants are almost always less maintenance.

The best place to look for plants that don’t need a lot of extra water or help is with a native plant nursery. Whatever grows naturally in your area is already adapted to it; that means it can thrive in summer dry, hot, or harsh climates. Natives are also usually more disease-resistant and they attract native pollinators, so expect to see more butterflies, hummingbirds, and beneficial insects in your yard.

Looking outside of your own range, choosing plants that have similar climate adaptations to your own should also work. For instance, if you live in summer dry areas like parts of the West and Southwest, you can usually pick from areas that are similar, meaning Baja, the Mediterranean, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Chile. Not all plants from other regions or microclimates will survive in yours, so be sure to check growing requirements.

Pretty Perennials
Perennials are those plants that stick around all year, but usually flower for a few seasons. For this reason, it’s important to pick the perennial not just for the flower, but also the leaves. These are a few of my favorites.

Beard Tongue (Penstemon spp.)
Penstemon is a huge genus of flowering perennials that have beautiful flowers in the spring and summer. Flower colors come in a huge variety, including purple, red, violet, and white; most grow between one to four feet tall. They are endemic to North America and do well in hot dry areas, including rock gardens. Many of the desert species won’t do as well in areas with high rainfall or humidity.

Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
Echinacea has a daisy-like flower that is usually pink or purple and very striking. It grows two to three feet and blooms throughout summer and into fall, and once established requires very little water. Native to the eastern United States.

Sages (Salvia spp.)
Salvias are wonderfully diverse, hardy, and colorful plants. Many perennial species have long flowering seasons and do well in hot climates. They range in color from purple, white, violet, and pink, with grey-green leaves. Some species of salvias look more like woody shrubs than perennials and most, but not all, need little water. Almost all thrive in sun. Good drought-tolerant varieties include hummingbird sage, Mexican bush sage, and autumn sage.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
Yarrow is a tough plant that looks delicate, with tiny pink, yellow, or white flowers lumped on flat flower heads. The leaves are pale green with a fern-like texture. They like full sun and once established are very drought-tolerant. 

Lavender (Lavandula)
A classic Mediterranean, drought-tolerant plant with fragrant leaves and flowers. Lavenders look best when planted in mass and are hardy perennials that will last many years. There are multiples types of lavender to choose from, depending on what shape and color flower you want. They thrive in hot, dry climates and are highly attractive to bees.

Gorgeous (Ornamental) Grasses
Not to be confused with lawns, ornamental grasses add movement, texture, and color to a yard and when chosen right, look great even in the driest heat of summer.

Blue Fescue (Festuca glauca)
Fescue is a small, ornamental grass that has a greenish-blue color and spiky blades. It looks good in rock gardens and as an accent plant. It does well with minimal water and should be divided every few years.

New Zealand Flax (Phormium tenax)
This dramatic plant makes a great focal point in the garden and survives in high heat and low water. It varies in size and colors range from deep burgundy to pinkish-green. Although it will tolerate water, it can also go with little.

Deergrass (Muhlenbergia rigens)
Native to the Southwest, this grass grows up to three feet with plumes rising up another two more. It grows fast and likes sunny areas. Once established, it only needs water once or twice a month during dry times.

Hardy Herbs
Many herbs, including basil, cilantro, and parsley, are tender and heat- or cold-sensitive, but a few can withstand the assaults of drought and scorching sun.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus official and prostrates)
Sometimes a shrub, sometimes a climber, rosemary comes in many types and varieties, but almost all are drought-tolerant and hardy. Its spring and summer flowers attract bees and its leaves are wonderful for cooking.

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
There are many different types of thyme, ranging from ground covers to upright stalks. Almost all are drought-tolerant and provide nice color to dry gardens as well as ingredients for the kitchen.

Oregano (Origanum spp.)
Oregano does well in hot, dry areas, though it might appreciate a little summer water. Too much, however, will dilute its flavor. Like rosemary and thyme, it doesn’t mind being left alone. I have oregano in a planter that I’ve neglected all fall and winter, and it looks remarkably lively after the rains, perfect for picking.

Even drought-tolerant plants need to be regularly watered for the first year or two, or until established. And remember the water-wise gardening basics of mulch (to keep in moisture), planting those plants with similar water requirements together, and watering in the early morning or evening when less water will be lost to evaporation. 

This is the tip of the iceberg of low-water plants—just a few of my favorites. With all the amazing succulents, cacti, native shrubs, wildflowers, and even some low-water vegetables out there, it makes you wonder why we would plant anything else. Perhaps soon we won’t have a choice.