Tips for a Drought-Tolerant Garden
Save time, money, and water
Mention waterwise or xeric gardening, and images of cacti and gravel come to mind. However, drought-tolerant plants don’t have to look sparse and bare—it’s possible to have a vibrant garden that thrives during a hot, rainless summer. And if you live in an area that typically gets plenty of water, count on waterwise plants to get your garden through dry spells without hours of extra pampering and watering.
A waterwise garden or xeriscape is a colorful, creative landscape with low water use, efficient irrigation, and a diversity of interesting plants. (The term “xeriscape” is a combination of the Greek word “xeri,” meaning dry or needing little water, with the word “landscaping.”) Follow these steps for a beautiful xeric garden that saves time, effort, money, and water.
Choose the right plants. To get an idea of which plants are drought tolerant in your region, look at fields or dry outcroppings in the midst of dry periods to see which plants are surviving. Talk to county extension agents, nurseries, and local plant societies about which drought-tolerant species thrive in your area.
In addition, looking at the plant itself can tell you whether it might be drought tolerant. For
| Hens and Chicks
example, plants in the Asclepias genus and Baptisia genus have deep roots that can dig deep to find available water. (Plants with shallow roots close to the surface need more frequent watering.) Gray-foliaged plants that reflect heat and sunshine, such as lavender and artemesia, also thrive on minimal water. Succulents with a waxy coating such as sempervivums (hens and chicks) bask in full sun with scant soil and water because their waxy coating reduces transpiration of water from the leaves. Fleshy, water-retentive sedums, leathery-leafed yuccas, and succulent euphorbias are also drought tolerant.
Prepare the soil. While some drought-busters can grow successfully in well-amended garden soils, most prefer lean, well-drained soils. For example, if the soil is excessively fertile and rich, white gaura (Gaura lindheimeri) flops and declines rapidly. Salvia and penstemon also require lean, porous soils—if soil is too heavy, penstemon loses its vigor and eventually dies, while salvias meet their demise when heavy soils remain waterlogged in winter.
At a minimum, loosen existing soil by rototilling or double digging to increase aeration. Get your soil tested at a soil lab or local cooperative extension to find out which amendments your soil needs. If your area has cold, wet winters and your soil is high in clay, for example, you have a combination that’s often lethal to xeric plants.
Give drought-tolerant plants a healthy environment. When planting a xeric garden, apply a 2- to 3-inch layer of double-shredded hardwood mulch. Mulch snuffs out weeds, reduces moisture evaporation (keeping roots hydrated longer), and eventually breaks down into organic matter that
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enriches the soil. If you live in an area with heavy clay soil, mulch xeric plants such as lavender and salvia with small pea gravel or coarse sand instead of double-shredded hardwood. Weed frequently in the spring so weeds don’t get out of control; they quickly compete with garden plants for water and nutrients. Don’t fertilize water-stressed plants; fertilizer salt can burn water-deprived roots.
Water wisely. Most plant problems result from too little or too much water. Consider the age and type of plant, temperature, and soil type when watering. Drought-tolerant plants need one to two years to grow an extensive root system that enables them to withstand dry conditions, so water them regularly their first couple of seasons until they are well established. If possible, use a drip irrigation system instead of running a sprinkler for 30 minutes. This reduces weeds and delivers water only where it’s needed.
Excessive watering of foliage encourages disease. Saturate the soil, not the foliage, and water deeply and infrequently to encourage plant roots to grow deeper in search of water, resulting in a healthier root system. Water in the morning when evaporation is minimal to hydrate plants before the heat of day arrives.
Place plants with similar watering needs together to reduce your watering chores. Put thirsty
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plants close to a reliable water source, such as the end of a drainage pipe or a low depression where rainwater collects. Well-established xeric plants, on the other hand, will do well in areas further from a water source.
No, we’re not talking about plant pornography. The Garden Centers of Colorado has come up with a clever way to educate the public about xeric, or drought-tolerant, plants—an X-rated labeling program. Each plant is tagged with an X, XX, or XXX.
X plants require less than 1 inch of water per week, XX plants require 1⁄2 inch of water per week, and XXX plants need 0 to 1⁄2 inch of water every other week. For plant lists and xeriscaping tips, go to www.xratedgardening.com.
Kim Hawks is a garden writer in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Monday, June 28, 2010 3:49 PM
Also can't find article on making a fairy garden. Always like to see if other people have ideas I didn't think of.
Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:17 PM
xratedgardening.com doesnt work. however www.plantselect.org does and is a great site for information on drought resistant plants and plants for gardening in the rocky mountains.
Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:19 PM
oh and yuccas are horribly invasive!! They are like mint once you have them you cant get rid of them. I shake my head in horror anytime yuccas are recommended. But if you really want yuccas come to colorado springs co, its one plant you see a whole lot of and im sure anyone would love to have you come get some out of their yard.
Thursday, July 22, 2010 7:58 AM
Yuccas are fine in a rock garden where they can be contained
Saturday, July 24, 2010 10:51 AM
Yuccas are hard to get rid of once grounded and the Hummingbird Trumphet is another had to get rid of once grounded..pops up everywhere. But I do love drought tolerant plants!!!
Saturday, July 24, 2010 10:53 AM
Excuse my spelling errors above... Hummingbird Trumpet is another plant hard to get rid of once grounded.
Friday, March 04, 2011 2:17 PM
I purchased hens and chicks last year (2010). After planting they simply disappeard...they were planted in super dry area I thought perfect for this type. Will they come back or have I simply lost my money. Believe me...they were not cheap.
Wednesday, March 30, 2011 11:41 AM
Even though plants are perfect for growing in very dry conditions, they need care and frequent watering until they are settled in, and root growth has had a chance to develop. If the hens and chicks went in and were not tended and watered then you may have lost them. Everything, no matter how drought tolerant, need to be well watered initially.
Monday, July 04, 2011 7:52 PM
I have invested in quite a few succulents this year, including hens and chicks. I live in Fort Worth, TX and we are having a fairly hot dry summer this year. I find the succulents can take the heat, but they don't necessarily love the sun. A couple of them have burned up even though they get regular water, whereas others are doing fine. I was warned about the sun (vs. heat) when I bought them, and it seems to be true.
Tuesday, July 12, 2011 2:27 PM
I live in San Antonio, Texas and have been xeriscaping successfully for over 20 years. Yucca isn't invasive in this area, but Trumpet Vine definitely is. Honeysuckles are also extremely invasive. Asian Jasmine does a good job as a drought tolerant ground cover here, but like all other vines, must be contained. I've had wonderful luck with the perennial salvias, not so much with the annuals. Texas Gold Columbine can withstand drought quite well if planted in a shady area or an area that gets only a little sun in the morning; unfortunately, it's a biennial and I have had no luck getting it to reseed. All the coneflowers do great here and butterflies love them. The post above about some succulents being susceptible to sunburn is very much correct. My hens and chicks burned to death within the first two weeks, even though they were getting regular water. They just couldn't take the heat of the sun!
Sunday, April 15, 2012 9:59 PM
I am going to start a garden in the front of my daughters house. We live in upstate ny. Picture the house: small, 1 floor. Beautiful, just built wooden stairs and small landing right in the middle. I have to design a garden that will enhance the stairs and walkway. My daughter likes straight lines and the house gets full sun all day in the front. I was thinking of keeping putting 3 shrubs on each side of the stairs. Azalea, PJM Rhod and Forsythia. I can keep all of those pruned and tidy. Also thinking about adding iris's, black eyed Susan's, and day lilies on each side. Does anyone have any ideas? I think a flat cobblestone border would be best and of course mulch. I want simple, but beautiful with color all year. No evergreens, vines or trees. Thanks, Stacie
Saturday, June 09, 2012 11:28 PM
I live in the sand hills and i mean sand . This is the first time ive tried planting flower, does anyone have any ideas
Tuesday, July 17, 2012 10:27 AM
I live in the suburbs of St. Louis MO. We are in a drought situation now but I started a garden by the woods behind us . Our dirt is about 2 -4 inches of topsoil and then clay and rocks. How much topsoil and compost is recommended and plants since I am in zone 6 with partial shade. I do not want to water alot and also what kind of mulch you recommend?