Birds need water. Plants need water. So it makes sense that moisture is an essential part of any backyard habitat. But keeping a garden irrigated can take a lot of work. That’s why using a mix of drought-tolerant plants is a great way to attract birds without spending precious time and money on watering.
Drought-Tolerant Plant Picks
A plant’s drought tolerance varies, depending on your soil, climate and location. It’s best to pick plants suited to your personal growing conditions. For example, hollyhocks do fine without supplemental water in areas that receive some summer rain. In regions with dry summers, however, these statuesque blooms will have a powerful thirst.
Growing conditions can also vary within your own garden. South and west exposures tend to dry out more quickly than areas facing north or east. Choose plants with a stronger drought tolerance for these hotter zones. Artemisia, cotoneaster, echinacea, rudbeckia, sedums and most salvias are good selections. These plants will also entice birds and butterflies with shelter and food.
A few shade-tolerant plants that can handle occasional drought include hostas, bear’s breech (Acanthus), hardy geraniums, heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica) and bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi).
Choosing Drought-Resistant Plants
As you devise your planting strategy, think vertically as well as horizontally. Choose a combination of plant sizes, and different colors, textures and seasons of bloom.
Small water-thrifty trees and shrubs add character and color. A few good choices are western redbud (Cercis occidentalis), chaste tree (Vitex agnus-castus), red-leaf rose (Rosa glauca) and strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo). Grapes, currants, gooseberries and other water-wise fruit-bearing shrubs and vines provide a great food source for many birds.
Growing Water Wise Plants
Start by mixing a 3- to 6-inch layer of organic matter, such as compost, into the soil before you plant. Doing this increases the water-retaining capacity of the soil and creates an environment that encourages roots to grow deeper, which makes it easier for the plants to find and absorb moisture during times of drought.
Adding organic mulch like compost, shredded leaves, herbicide-free grass clippings or aged sawdust to the surface is a good idea as well. This will conserve water by preventing weeds (which waste water and nutrients) and keeping soil temperatures cooler and moisture levels more consistent, while also reducing surface evaporation.
No plant can survive without water. Even drought-tolerant plants need consistent watering the first year or two as they become established. After that, the key is to water deeply and infrequently, which will promote a deeper and more extensive root system. The best time to water is in the cool of the early morning or evening. That way, more water seeps into the soil and less is lost through evaporation.
By growing the right water-thrifty plants and utilizing strategies that help maximize moisture, you can keep your landscape lush and winged visitors like birds and butterflies content during times of drought and beyond. What’s more, using less water to produce a downpour of color also gives you more time to sit back and soak it all in.
Dozen Drought-Resistant Plants for Birds
You can attract birds and decrease your water bill with these 12 water-wise plants. Once established in the garden, they will easily adapt to dry conditions, requiring little to no supplemental water during the dry season.
- Agastache (Agastache species) Known as hummingbird plant, licorice mint, Mexican hyssop or anise hyssop, depending on the species. Trumpet-shaped flowers attract hummingbirds, sphinx moths and butterflies. Seedheads provide food for birds. Zones 5 to 11; blooms from summer to fall.
- Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) Flat-topped flower clusters are a nectar source for butterflies and hummingbirds. Includes milkweed, the caterpillar host plant for monarchs. Zones 3 to 9; flowers in summer.
- Coreopsis (Coreopsis species) Nectar-rich blooms appeal to butterflies, such as skippers, buckeyes and painted ladies. Seeds provide food for sparrows, chickadees, finches and other seed-eating birds. Zones 3 to 11; summer to fall blooms.
- Germander (Teucrium chamaedrys) Evergreen shrubby perennial serves as a shelter site for hibernating butterflies. Whorls of nectar-rich flower spikes attract a variety of butterflies and beneficial insects. Zones 5 to 10; blooms in summer.
- Goldenrod (Solidago species) Flowers attract butterflies, including monarchs, blues and hairstreaks. Its seedheads attract varied bird species. Zones 3 to 10; midsummer to fall flowers.
- Lavender (Lavandula species) Aromatic flowers attract many butterflies, especially skippers, painted ladies and sulphurs. Finches and other birds dine on seedheads from early fall through winter. Zones 5 to 11; blooms in summer.
- Penstemon (Penstemon species) Bell-shaped flowers attract moths and butterflies, such as skippers and swallowtails, as well as hummingbirds. Provides seeds for birds and serves as a caterpillar host plant for some checkerspot butterflies. Zones 3 to 10; summer flowers.
- Purple coneflower (Echinacea species) Coneflower blooms offer nectar for fritillaries, skippers and viceroy butterflies, as well as hummingbirds. Late autumn seedheads attract finches, chickadees and nuthatches. Zones 3 to 10; flowers in summer.
- Rudbeckia (Rudbeckia species) Daisy-like flowers provide nectar for butterflies. Birds relish the seedheads. Zones 3 to 10; blooms summer through fall.
- Salvia (Salvia species) These annuals, biennials and perennials attract hummingbirds, butterflies and moths. Perennials are hardy in Zones 4 to 11, though it differs by variety; summer blooms.
- Sedum (Sedum species) Diverse group of succulents provide nectar for butterflies and, occasionally, hummingbirds. Late autumn to winter seedheads attract birds, including finches and chickadees. Zones 4 to 11; spring to autumn flowers, depending on species.
- Yarrow (Achillea species) Flattened clusters of tiny flowers attract hummingbirds and butterflies. Seeds appeal to many birds. Zones 3 to 10; summer to early fall blooms.