6 Tips for Growing a Drought-Tolerant Garden

You can still have a gorgeous garden even when rainfall is scarce. Follow this expert advice to grow drought-resistant plants that can handle any weather.

hummingbird and penstemonCourtesy Katherine Poulsen
Add drought-tolerant flowers like penstemon to feed pollinators even when rainfall is scarce.

How’s the Weather?

That might seem like simple chitchat to most people, but to a gardener it’s the start of a serious discussion. After all, our beloved flowers are at the mercy of the skies. And every summer, we seem to be faced with extra-hot, extra-dry conditions that can wreak havoc on our plants. Luckily, though, there’s a wonderful range of adaptable plants to try. Be sure to check out our picks for drought-resistant flowers and plants.

What is Drought?

Before we get to the plants, let’s first look at drought. Usually dry spells are normal, because weather is variable. But when they continue week after week, month after month or even year after year, it depletes every bit of moisture in the soil. In short, you’re dealing with a drought. Follow these tips to conserve water in the garden.

At this point, watering becomes an endless and expensive chore. Even worse, you might not be able to water at all if you live in a municipality that has drought restrictions. So what’s a gardener to do?

Add plants! Well, this isn’t quite as simple as it sounds. Sure, a drought mimics desert conditions, but in this case it’s a temporary desert. Most of us need plants that can thrive in both drought conditions and wetter environments, too.

This is why you can’t just plant a bunch of cacti or agave. When the rain returns, their roots won’t be able to draw up the extra water fast enough, and they may literally drown. The key is to have plants that can handle both: They can shrug off drought, yet they appreciate ample rainfall.

When is the Best Time to Plant?

When’s the best time to start drought-proofing your garden? Right now! Ideally, you want to get plants in the ground well before a dry spell hits. So there’s no time like the present to hit the garden center and start adding drought-resilient perennials to your garden.

Don’t expect them to work magic right away, though. Even the least thirsty plants in the world need moisture to get their roots established. Expect to water your new perennials for a full year, while they grow the roots they need to weather a drought without skipping a beat. Learn why fall is the perfect time to plant perennials.

What is Normal Precipitation in Your Region?

You probably have a good idea of what a normal amount of annual precipitation is like in your area. But many years aren’t exactly normal. Besides, the precipitation report doesn’t begin to tell the full story. In my neck of the woods, on the dry side of the Rockies, annual precipitation is almost entirely snow. Come the growing season, the sky shuts off like a faucet. Week after week can go by with nary a drizzle, or at most a tease that barely wets the soil. It’s a similar story in the Pacific Northwest, where winter is the infamous rainy season, followed by a long, lovely and usually dry summer.

Other parts of the country have a more balanced picture, with water falling year round as winter snow and summer rain. Still, no matter what the usual cycle of precipitation is where you live, Mother Nature has a habit of throwing a monkey wrench into the works. So it’s best to act like a Boy Scout and be prepared.

Plant Leaves Tell the Truth

Below ground, roots help a plant get through dry times. Taproots go deep, as do the fibrous roots of many prairie plants, so they’re able to draw up moisture even when the top foot of soil is bone dry.

Still, if a plant has big leaves or lots of smaller ones, even a very deep root will have trouble supporting the needs of the top growth. Hollyhocks, for instance, wilt very quickly in a drought, as do tomatoes.

So instead of examining the roots, take a look at the leaves, which are the main source of water loss. Sun and wind, plus the normal process of transpiration through which plants breathe, cause water to evaporate. Roots are constantly working to pull moisture from the soil to replenish that supply.

Drought-tolerant plants have all sorts of defenses to prevent water from being lost through their leaves. That’s why leaves are the No. 1 clue to how well plants will survive a scarcity of water.

Big green leaves, lush foliage? Times will probably be tough when drought sets in. Small leaves and fewer of them? There’s much less water needed overall. What about leaves with a coating of fuzz or a waxy layer? These are great adaptations to prevent water loss.

How to Find Drought-Resistant Plants

Both the garden center and a local native-plants group are good places to find drought-resistant flowers and plants for your area. Psst—drought tolerant penstemon are a hummingbird favorite.

It can take time to switch your plants over to drought-resilient varieties, but it’s a good thing to keep in mind when adding new perennials to your garden. And it’s a good goal to have in general. After all, if you get the right plants in place now, your garden will look glorious no matter how stingy nature is with water.

Sally Roth
Sally Roth gardens in desertlike conditions in the High Rockies but she can't resist plants with colorful foliage, like coleus.