If you reside in an area that has an arid climate or in a region that suffers from droughts on a fairly regular basis – southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of southwestern Texas, for example – you might be under the impression that having a beautiful landscape is a pipe dream; however, nothing could be further from the truth!
While yes, gardening in drought conditions can be difficult, with the proper planning and care, including the right plants, you can have a beautiful landscape, despite the lack of rain.
Plants are the foundation of any landscape, including in dry regions. Though you may not have as many options as someone who lives in a region where rain isn’t a concern, the good news is that there are plenty of drought tolerant plants to choose from – surprisingly a lot, actually.
Drought tolerant plants come in a wide variety of colors, shapes, sizes, heights, and textures, and can add wonderful depth, interest, and dimension to your landscape. And because these plants are drought tolerant, they don’t require a lot of water to thrive; in fact, they thrive in dry conditions.
If you reside in a dessert-like region or a location where droughts are pretty common, keep on reading for some fantastic drought tolerant plants to consider that will make your landscape pop and the envy of your neighbors.
Gardening in Drought Conditions
Before we jump in and explore the wide variety of drought tolerant plants, we want to take a moment to discuss gardening in drought conditions. As every gardener knows, if you want your plants to thrive, you need to be well-educated about the conditions you’re working with so that you can plan appropriately, including selecting the appropriate plantings, and practicing proper care and maintenance.
What is a drought?
So, what is a drought, anyway? According to National Geographic, “A drought is a period of time when an area or region experienced below-normal precipitation.” The description goes on to say, “The lack of adequate precipitation, either rain or snow, can cause reduced soil moisture or groundwater, diminished stream flow, crop damage, and a general water shortage.”
What is an arid region?
World Atlas describes an arid region as one that, “experiences a severe lack of water to the extent of preventing and hindering the growth and development of animal and plant life.” The website also points out that, “Arid environments are diverse in terms of soil, climate, water balance, flora, fauna, and human activities.”
A climate is considered “arid” when it receives less than 10 inches or precipitation over the course of a year. Regions that receive an average of 10 to 20 inches of rain each year are considered “semi-arid”. While arid climates are usually associated with sand-covered, desert landscapes with minimal greenery, and the conditions are generally hot and dry, other types of landscapes are also considered arid. For example, you might be surprised to learn that the Arctic and Antarctica are considered arid or desert regions, as they receive less than 10 inches of rainfall each year.
Rainfall in an arid climate is sporadic and when it does rain, it usually comes on quickly, and creates deluge conditions. The rain usually ends as quickly as it came in, but in the short period of time that it does fall, the aftermath can be devastating. Since conditions are so dry for so long, the soil dries out and becomes very compact, and therefore, it is unable to absorb the deluge of water fast enough to effectively capture it. Streams and rivers can swell in a matter of minutes, and flooding can be quite serious and destructive.
What regions are affected by drought conditions?
As mentioned, the Southwest region of the United States is classified as arid or semi-arid, and as such, droughts are most commonly experienced in these locations. This includes southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and some parts of southwestern Texas. That said, it’s important to note that this isn’t the only region that is affected by drought conditions. Any area can experience a drought – even areas that usually receive 20 or more inches or rain per year; although, in these areas, you really don’t need to worry about making special accommodations for your landscaping.
How do plants survive in arid climates?
Surprisingly, there are a lot of plants that can survive in arid, drought-like conditions. But wait, plants need lots of water to live, so how, then, do they survive when there’s minimal rain? Plants that are able to survive in drought conditions have adapted over time to cope with short water supplies.
Perennial species remain inactive (dormant) for the majority of their lives, and they only grow and reproduce when they have access to water. Because of they have adapted their activity and inactivity cycles around their access to water (and some species also take additional factors, such as temperature, into consideration), they have become quite hardy over the years, and are able to survive for prolonged periods of time without water.
Annual (plants that grow, blow, and die annually) drought tolerant plants go through their life cycles very quickly, going from a seed to blooms that produce seeds, and then distribute their seeds in the days that follow rainfall. Once their seeds are distributed, the plants will die off and the seeds will lie waiting for the next time it rains, and when rain does finally fall, the seed will grow, and the new plant will continue the same aforementioned cycle. Some species of annual drought tolerant plants, such as the Desert Paintbrush and the Desert Sand Verbena, have a life cycle that spans for just a few days or hours.
The most famous of all drought tolerant plants are the cacti. Some species of cacti have very few leaves, or no leaves at all, which minimizes the amount of moisture loss (plants express moisture into the air through their leaves, a process known as “transpiration”). Other species of cacti are equipped with very long root systems that extend far down into the ground, and they are saturated with moisture from the water table.
Drought gardening tips
As in all types of climates and conditions, proper planning for your gardens is an absolute must if you reside in an arid climate or in a region where droughts are common. With the following tips, you can make the most of your landscape.
- Mulch is your friend. Mulch does much more than make a garden look finished and enhances its aesthetic appeal; it also helps to retain moisture around plants. If you’re gardening in drought conditions, mulch is definitely your friend. By adding a layer of mulch that’s about 4 inches thick, you can reduce the amount of water your garden needs by about half. Get yourself some high-quality organic mulch and apply liberal amounts around the base of your plants right after you put them in the ground.
- Try raised beds. Instead of planting directly in the ground, you might want to consider planting in raised garden beds instead. The soil in a raised bed will retain much more moisture than the ground, so you won’t need to worry about watering as often.
- Plan your watering schedule wisely. As a general rule of thumb, you should never water your plants in the middle of the day in drought conditions. The water will almost instantly evaporate, and it won’t have a chance to saturate the ground and get to the roots of your plants. If you water during the middle of the day, you might as well just water the air! It’s best to water either very early in the morning, before the sun comes up, or very late in the evening, after the sun goes down, as evaporation won’t occur as quickly. If you have an automatic sprinkler system, set the timer so that it goes off at one of these times.
- Give drip irrigation a try. In drought conditions, drip irrigation is very effective. With a drip system, the water will be deposited directly into the roots of the plants, and as such, your plants will have more of a chance to absorb the water, as the risk of evaporation is minimal.
- Weed regularly. Weeding doesn’t just enhance the aesthetic appeal of your garden; in drought conditions, it’s vital for the survival of the plants that you want to keep! Why? Because weeds compete with your plants for water and nutrients, so if your flower beds are overrun with weeds, your plants are going to struggle to survive. To improve their chances of survival, weed on a regular basis.
- Pick drought tolerant plants. In all conditions, the types of plants that you choose will have a huge impact on the success of your gardens. In drought conditions, you want to make sure that you select plants that can survive for prolonged periods of time without water. If you plant species that require a lot of water – hydrangea, for example – they definitely aren’t going to survive in drought conditions. Sure, you might be able to keep them going by watering them regularly, but when you’re in the midst of a drought, you may face watering restrictions, and if that happens, watering your flower beds on a regular basis won’t be an option, and thus, your plants will shrivel up and die.
The Best Drought Tolerant Plants
Now that we’ve reviewed what drought and arid conditions are, explained the reasons why some species of plants fare well in dry conditions, and have share drought gardening landscaping tips, let’s discuss why you are reading this article in the first place: the best drought tolerant plants.
While it is true that all plants do need water, some not only survive when water is in short supply, but they thrive! Surprisingly, the list of these hardy plants is actually quite long. If you live in a region where the climate is classified as arid, or in an area where drought conditions aren’t unusual, you’re in luck, because there are some pretty incredible plants that you can fill your flower beds with to create a stunning landscape – yes, even with minimal irrigation!
Without further ado, here’s a look at some of the most resilient plants that can survive in dry conditions.
There’s no doubt that you’ve heard of aloe before; in fact, you’ve probably used it yourself! Known for its medicinal qualities and ability to sooth sunburns and heal wounds, aloe vera is a succulent plant that thrives in dry climates, but that’s just one type of aloe; there are several different species, including jewel, coral, soap, and tiger. All of them grow large rosettes, and all of them do well in dry climates. The appearance varies and depends on the species, with some types featuring grayish leaves, and others featuring vibrant green leaves; some even have leaves that feature a mottled or striped appearance.
In the summer months, the majority of aloe plants only need to be watered about once every other week; that is, of course, if it hasn’t rained. If it has rained, you can adjust your irrigation schedule. In the winter season, cooler temperatures combined with increased chances for rainfall typically provides aloe plants with the water that they will need to survive throughout the season without needing to do any supplemental irrigation.
If your aloe plants are potted, make sure that the soil is completely dried out before you water them; if the soil is still wet, the leaves will start to shrivel up, will rot, and eventually, the plant can die. Also, it’s important to plant your potted aloe plants in a high-quality, nutrient-rich potting soil that drains well; make sure that the pot is equipped with drainage holes, too!
Aloe is hardy in USDA growing zones 10 through 12. It likes full sun conditions, and it prefers sandy, dry, well-draining soil.
With approximately 250 different species of flowering plants, this genus is primarily found in North America, where it can grow in abundance in the wild. They are very adaptable and can grow in a variety of different climates, including mountains, plains, and deserts; and of course, they’re drought tolerant. Typically, tube-shaped flowers bloom in clusters along the plants rigid stems, and they attract all types of pollinators, including butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees.
No matter the species, beardtongue requires very little maintenance and once its established, it thrives in drought conditions. If it hasn’t rained in a while, they really only need to be watered once every few weeks; however, it’s important to note that they must be planted in sandy soil that drains well and drains quickly, otherwise, the roots can rot and the plant can die. Furthermore, if the conditions are right, beardtongue can spread rapidly and can become an invasive plant, so unless you want to have a large patch of them, be ready to keep an eye for new shoots and pull them up to keep the spread under control.
Beardtongue is hardy in USDA growing zones 3 through 8, and the bloom colors vary from white to purple, and depend on the species. They do best in full sun and they need soil that drains very well.
If you love artichokes, well, you’re in luck, because these yummy edible plants are very drought tolerant and they make a lovely addition to a garden. You might be surprised to learn that artichoke plants can grow as tall as 6 feet tall (though the average is usually somewhere around 3 to 4 feet). They produce lower flower buds, which appear on the end of thick stems, and it’s these buds that you consume. When they aren’t harvested, the buds will open and will produce beautiful purple flowers. The leaves of the artichoke plant are lobed and are green to grayish-green in color. The leaves are covered with prickly spines, so do exercise caution if you plan on harvesting them.
Artichokes are native to the southern Mediterranean, so if the climate in your area is similar to the climate in the plant’s native land, it can make an attractive ornamental drought tolerant plant. These perennial plants require very little maintenance and only need to be watered lightly when they are well-established. Do note that like most drought tolerant plants, artichoke has to be planted in well-draining soil, otherwise the roots can rot.
Hardy in USDA growing zones 7 to 11, artichoke enjoys full sun exposure, and likes rich, well-draining soil, and can tolerate drought well.
This genus of plants is comprised of hundreds of different species, including shrubs and hardy herbs; tarragon, the cooking herb, is part of the Artemisia genus. These plants usually feature delicate and interested patterns on their leaves and produce white or gray highly aromatic foliage.
Artemisia does very well in mixed borders, especially when paired with succulents, like aloe and agave, ornamental grasses, and other types of drought tolerant plants. Some of the most popular types of Artemisia that are used for landscaping include California sagebrush, southernwood, and white mugwort.
Whichever type you opt for, make sure that they’re planted in well-draining soil. If you’re starting from seed, the seedlings should be watered when the soil dries out; however, once the plant is established, they can go for pretty long stretches without needing water, and they can do well in heat, too.
Artemisia is hardy in USDA growing zones 4 to 8, and while most species enjoy full sun locations, they usually need to be planted in a sheltered location that provides protection from strong winds that could damage the delicate foliage they produce. These plants produce yellowish to whitish blooms and they need to be planted in nutrient-rich, well-draining soil.
There are a lot of different species of ornamental grass that do well in dry conditions, and fountain grass is by far, one of the most popular. It grows quickly and forms clumps of narrow, reddish-purple leaves that arch over when the plant reaches its full height, which is about 3 feet tall.
During the summer months, fountain grass produces flower spikes that extend past the leaves and further enhance the plant’s aesthetic appeal. When planted in the full sun and in soil that has medium moisture content, the leaves will appear darker and shinier; however, it’s also drought tolerant, though the leaves may be lighter in color in dry conditions.
Fountain grass is hardy in USDA growing zones 9 through 10 and it produces blooms that are burgundy in color. They prefer full sun to partial shade, and should be planted in a location that is protected from powerful winds.
Native to the desert regions of Australia, the kangaroo paw genus has just 11 species of plants, as well as several subspecies. This plant grows so abundantly in Australia that the red-and-green kangaroo paw is the state flower of Western Australia. Typically, the plants form a rosette of green to grayish green leaves at their base, and tall, leafless flowers are produced at the ends of the rosettes.
Kangaroo paw plants usually grow in dry, sandy, well-draining soil, and they can not only survive, but they can thrive for long stretches without any rain, as they produce sap at their roots, and that sap feeds the plants. It should be noted, however, that they do still need irrigation and should be watered about once every two weeks if it hasn’t rained.
Kangaroo paw is hardy in USDA growing zones to through 11 and does best in full sun to part shade conditions. It likes rich, sandy, well-draining soil the best, and once established, kangaroo paw can produce blooms in a variety of colors, including yellowish green, pink, and red.
Wrapping up our list of the best drought tolerant plants is one of the best known plants there is: lavender. These aromatic herbs produce an amazing aroma, and the bluish-purple flowers that the plant produces are just as stunning as the aroma. There are several different species of lavender, and the size and shape of the leaves and the plants themselves vary.
Lavender does best in dry, well-draining soil, does best in full sun, and is hardy in USDA growing zones 5 through 8.