Attractive Shrubs for a Drought Tolerant Garden

Here are a few of our favorite drought tolerant shrubs for more temperate climates including some that you may already have in your garden.

Creating a garden filled with plants that are drought tolerant is more environmentally friendly than one that contains thirsty plants – particularly if you live in an area that is experiencing drought.  You would probably be surprised to hear that in addition to California and the Southwest, some areas in the Northwest and Southeast are also experiencing drought conditions.

Even if drought is not affecting your area, using plants that can survive on less water makes sense, because they are generally lower maintenance and better able to weather dry conditions as they may occur in your area.

In previous posts, we have shown you some beautiful, drought tolerant choices for ground covers and perennials.  Today, let’s look at some attractive shrubs – some of which you may surprised to find are drought resistant.

Lilac Shrubs
Lilac Shrubs

The fragrance of lilacs perfume the air in late spring.  Even when not in flower, lilac shrubs are attractive.  Lilacs like fertile soil that is well-drained – they don’t do well in soggy soil.  For maximum flowering, plant in an area that receives at least 6 hours of sun a day.

Most lilacs grow in zones 4 to 7, however, there are some varieties that will grow in zones 8 and 9.  Because lilac shrubs can grow quite large, they make great informal hedges along a property line or as a foundation plant.  Be sure to note how large the variety you select will grow to at maturity and allow enough room for them to spread out.  Lilacs don’t do well in the deep South or desert.

Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)
Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)

Lovely flowers in spring followed by colorful berries in fall make beautyberry a favorite of many gardeners.  I bet you didn’t know that this perennial shrub is also drought tolerant.  The species Callicarpa americana, is hardy in zones 7 to 11 while several species native to Asia are hardy to zone 5 gardens.  Beautyberry is a great choice for those who want to add an attractive shrub to the landscape that is pest and disease resistant.  In addition, it doesn’t require supplemental fertilizer.

A large shrub, beautyberry grows to 4 – 6 feet high and wide, which makes it a great choice to use for screening out an undesirable view, covering a wall or fence.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

A culinary favorite, rosemary is well known in the garden as a small shrub or ground cover in the landscape in zones 7 – 10.  Fragrant leaves cover stiff stems and small, light blue flowers burst forth in late winter in zones 9 and above while appearing a bit later in cooler zones.  The less you fuss with rosemary, the better it does.  It does best in most soils, except for heavy clay, thrives in full sun and usually doesn’t need supplemental fertilizer.   An added benefit is that rosemary attracts butterflies and is deer resistant.

For those who live in zone 6 on up, there is a new variety of rosemary that can survive subzero winters called ‘Alcade Cold Hardy’.  Even if you cannot grow rosemary outdoors all year, it does make a great container plant that you can bring indoors during the winter.  Both bush and ground cover varieties will be certain to add beauty to your garden and great tasting food to your table.

Boxwood (Buxus sp.)
Boxwood (Buxus sp.)

Many people are surprised to find boxwood shrubs on a drought tolerant list of plants.  But in the more temperate regions of the country, boxwood are considered drought tolerant, once established in the garden.  Boxwood shrubs have long been used in the American landscape since they were brought over in the 1600’s and since then have been used for edging, creating borders and for screening.

American, English and Japanese species of boxwood are most commonly grown in the United States and all can be used in zones 5 and above.  They do best in well-drained, fertile soil and although they will grow in full sun, a location with partial shade is best.

Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia)
Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia)

The distinctive spiky shape of Russian sage with its lavender blue flowers stands alone in the garden.  Native to Afghanistan (not Russia), this small shrub is often treated as a perennial in the garden.  Its silvery stems and leaves are fragrant and its flowers can appear as early as late spring and all the way into early fall, depending on your zone.  Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds are all attracted to this small shrub, but deer and rabbits are not.

Russian sage can be grown in a wide variety of climates all the way from zone 3 up to zone 10.  In colder climates, it will die back to the ground only to reappear in spring.  Those who live in the warmer zones of 8 and above will be able to enjoy the presence of this shrub all year long.  Extremely drought tolerant, Russian sage needs well-drained soil neutral to slightly alkaline soil, full sun and hot summers to look its best.

As you can see, some plants that you were already familiar with are also drought tolerant and deserve a place in your garden.  You can also select drought resistant plants that also will attract birds to your garden.  Check out our article “Drought Resistant Plants for Birds” for a list of plants that will add beauty to your garden while attracting feathered friends.

Noelle Johnson
Noelle Johnson is a horticulturist and certified arborist who lives and gardens in the desert Southwest. When she is not writing or helping other people with their gardens, you can find her growing fruits and vegetables, and planting flowering shrubs and maybe a cactus or two.