Drought-Tolerant Plants For Every Landscape & Plant Type

drought tolerant plants in a front yard

This article was initially published on natureofhome.com. We’ve republished it because a part of healing water is reducing the amount of water that is used on landscape irrigation. Drought-tolerant native plants are the key to making this work, along with many other benefits. Plus, they’re beautiful and require less maintenance. Enjoy! I hope it inspires you to plant drought-tolerant plants and help save our water supply.

Drought sounds like a gardener’s worst nightmare. But despite the common association of gardening with watering cans or hoses, many plants can tolerate periods of drought once they are established. 

So many that it would be impossible to survey them all here. Instead, we’ll go over a few of our favorite drought-tolerant plants. Plus, we’ll offer some tips for additional ways to make your plants more drought-tolerant.

A Quick Definition

Before we dig into specific types, let’s start with a quick definition to define the meaning of drought-tolerant plants.

A drought-tolerant plant is any plant that can survive long periods without water. You can identify many of these plants by the appearance of visible characteristics that help them resist drought and harsh sun rays. 

Some plants use a silver leaf color to reflect harsh sun rays. By reflecting sunlight, this foliage reduces the water loss that would otherwise occur via transpiration. 

On other plants, fine hairs protect stems and leaves. These hairs help trap moisture at points of delicate plant tissues. They also function as a physical barrier that limits air movement across the leaves, thus reducing transpiration. 

Succulent leaves and taproots store water, helping plants to tolerate dry spells. 

Drought-Tolerant vs. Drought-Resistant

While preparing your gardens for harsh summer weather, you’ll probably come across the term drought-resistant. Drought-resistant and drought-tolerant do not indicate the same thing, even though people use the terms interchangeably. 

Drought-tolerant plants will survive on minimal rainfall for short periods. Drought-resistant plants can survive without water for long periods. 

You might also come across the term xeriscape or xeriscaping (PDF). These terms refer to a landscaping style that deliberately uses drought-tolerant plants to achieve water conservation goals. 

Similarly, water-wise indicates gardening that incorporates sensible water usage techniques. This strategy and associated gardening practices can also be called a dry garden, dry landscaping, water-smart, water-conservation, and desert landscaping. 

Drought-Tolerant vs. Heat-Tolerant

These two terms reflect often related conditions. However, they don’t refer to the same kind of tolerance. Remember: droughts can occur in the winter as well in the summer. The word drought simply refers to an extended period without moisture. 

Heat tolerance refers to a plant’s ability to endure heat stress rather than water scarcity. (Even under intense heat, heat-tolerant plants can sustain vital leaf gas exchange.) So, while many heat-tolerant plants are also drought-tolerant, the terms should not be regarded as interchangeable. 

Drought-Tolerant Plants For Pots

Potted plants typically require more water than bedded plants because there is less available moisture in the soil. It also means less space for roots to spread, limiting their ability to capture what moisture is available. The soil in pots has a higher temperature than ground soil, meaning it dries out faster. 

Nevertheless, if you want to grow a container garden, you have many options for drought-tolerant plants. Here are a few favorites: 

Annuals


Blue Marguerite Daisy

Genus Name:Felicia amelloides
Zone:10-11
Features:Spring & Summer Blooms
Height:1-3′
Width:1-2′
Light:Part to Full Sun
Propagation:Stem Cuttings and Seed

Lantana

Genus Name:Lantana
Zone:8-11
Features:Summer & Fall Blooms
Height:6-12″, 1-3′, 3-8′
Width:16″-4′
Light:Full Sun
Propagation:Stem Cuttings and Seed

Morning Glory

This flower is a cottage garden classic. Loved for its trumpet-shaped flowers that blossom from summer to fall. Available in a range of colors, some also feature variegated foliage.

Grows well in warmer weather with structures such as trellises, arbors, and fences.

Genus Name:Ipomoea mauritiana
Zone:10-11
Features:Summer & Fall Blooms
Height:3-8′, 8-20′
Width:5-20′
Light:Full Sun
Propagation:Stem Cuttings and Seed

Zinnia

Zinnia is one tough annual and comes in various sizes and colors. Pollinators also love them. Use low-growing Zinnias for landscape or garden borders. And tall varieties for fresh cut flowers. Plus, they are deer-resistant.

Genus Name:Zinnia
Zone:2-11
Features:Summer & Fall Blooms
Height:3-8′, 1-3′
Width:12-18″
Light:Full Sun
Propagation:Stem Cuttings and Seed

Perennials


Geranium

Geranium’s often get confused with annuals (genus Pelargonium), but there are more than 300 varieties of perennial Geraniums. So, you can find one that will work with practically any spot in your landscape.

Genus Name:Geranium sp.
Zone:3-9
Features:Spring Through Fall Blooms
Height:6-12″, 1-3′, 3-8′
Width:6″ – 4′
Light:Shade, Part Sun, Full Sun
Propagation:Division and Seed

Periwinkle

Works great as a ground cover or in a container. Features shiny evergreen leaves with blue flowers

Genus Name:Vinca
Zone:4-9
Features:Spring Through Fall Blooms, Evergreen in Winter
Height:6-12″, 1-3′
Width:Indefinite
Light:Shade, Part Sun, Full Sun
Propagation:Stem Cuttings and Division

Salvia

Salvia is a relative of mint and features long blooms. Available in a range of colors and sizes. Make for excellent drought-tolerant planting that hummingbirds will love (along with pollinators).

Genus Name:Salvia
Zone:3-10
Features:Spring Through Fall Blooms
Height:1-3′, 3-8′
Width:1-3′
Light:Part Sun, Full Sun
Propagation:Stem Cuttings, Division and Seed

Herbs


Calendula

Also known as pot marigolds, the calendula resembles daisies and features great fall blooms. It is also a drought-tolerant edible plant, as you can eat the blossoms.

Genus Name:Calendula
Zone:2-11
Features:Spring & Fall Blooms
Height:1-3′
Width:1-2′
Light:Part Sun, Full Sun
Propagation:Seed

Catmint

Catmint is easy to grow and versatile. It features deep purple blooms that blossom at the beginning of summer.

Genus Name:Nepeta
Zone:3-9
Features:Summer & Fall Blooms
Height:6-12″, 1-3′, 3-8′
Width:12-36″
Light:Part Sun, Full Sun
Propagation:Seed, Division & Stem Cuttings

Lavender

Lavender will delight with its aromatic oils. For more flavor and scent, choose darker flowers.

Genus Name:Lavandula spp.
Zone:5-10
Features:Summer Blooms
Height:1-3′
Width:1-3′
Light:Full Sun
Propagation:Seed & Stem Cuttings

Rosemary

Genus Name:Rosmarinus officinalis
Zone:8-10
Features:Spring & Summer Blooms
Height:1-3′, 3-8′
Width:2-4′
Light:Full Sun
Propagation:Seed & Stem Cuttings

Thyme

This is also another drought-tolerant edible plant. Thyme is perfect for adding some additional flavor to food while also adding texture to the landscape. Some people even use thyme as a lawn substitute.

Genus Name:Thymus
Zone:4-9
Features:Spring Blooms
Height:Less than 6″, 6-12″
Width:1-18″
Light:Full Sun
Propagation:Seed, Layering, Division & Stem Cuttings

Grasses & Ferns


Big Bluestem

When people think of big bluestem grass, they think of vast parries in the midwest. This grass will add color to your landscape year-round.

Genus Name:Andropogon gerardii
Zone:4-9
Features:Fall & Spring Blooms
Height:3-8′
Width:2-3′
Light:Full Sun
Propagation:Seed, Division

Foxtail Fern

Genus Name:Asparagus densiflorus
Zone:9-11
Features:Attracts Birds
Height:1-3′
Width:18″-3′
Light:Full Sun
Propagation:Seed, Division

Maiden Grass

Genus Name:Miscanthus
Zone:4-9
Features:Summer & Fall Bloom, Colorful
Height:3-8′
Width:2-6′
Light:Part Sun, Full Sun
Propagation:Seed, Division

Mondo Grass 

Many gardeners use mondo grass as a drought-resistant turf replacement in shady areas.

Genus Name:Ophiopogon
Zone:6-10
Features:Summer Bloom
Height:Less than 6″, 6-12″, 1-3′
Width:1-12″
Light:Shade, Part Sun, Full Sun
Propagation:Seed, Division

If possible, move container plants out of direct sun during periods of extended dryness. Warm soil aids the evaporation process, so shading plants (i.e. keeping soil temperatures down) is an easy way to slow moisture evaporation. 

Glazed or nonporous pots will also help your plants survive droughts by preventing water evaporation through the container. The mass of a substantial pot will also help keep the soil cooler. 

Drought-Tolerant Plants For Beds 

Although the soil in garden beds will dry out less quickly than the soil in pots, you still need to make considerations for drought tolerance. You can move pots to shady positions, but once you’ve planted your beds those plants will have to endure any sun that shines on them. 

In addition to considering the position of your beds, also consider which flowers you plant. For the most part, any drought-tolerant flower you plant in a pot will also survive in a bed. (The same cannot always be said the other way around.) 

Annuals


California Poppy

Genus Name:Eschscholzia californica
Zone:2-11
Features:Spring, Summer & Fall Blooms
Height:6-12″
Width:Up to 12″
Light:Full Sun
Propagation:Seed

Cosmos

Genus Name:Cosmos
Zone:2-11
Features:Summer & Fall Blooms
Height:1-3′. 3-8′
Width:1-2′
Light:Full Sun
Propagation:Seed

Sweet Alyssum

Genus Name:Lobularia maritima
Zone:9-11
Features:Spring, Summer & Fall Blooms
Height:1-6″, 6-12″
Width:1-12″
Light:Part Sun, Full Sun
Propagation:Stem Cuttings, Seed

Perennials

Coneflower

Genus Name:Echinacea
Zone:3-9
Features:Summer & Fall Blooms
Height:1-3′
Width:1-2′
Light:Full Sun
Propagation:Seed, Division

Dusty Miller

Genus Name:Jacobaea maritima
Zone:7-10
Features: Fall Color
Height:6-12″, 1-3′
Width:1-2′
Light:Full Sun
Propagation:Stem Cuttings, Seed

Sedum

Genus Name:Sedum
Zone:3-10
Features:Fall & Summer Blooms
Height:1-6″, 6-12″, 1-3′
Width:6″ to many feet
Light:Part Sun, Full Sun
Propagation:Stem Cuttings, Seed & Division

You can also plant herbs, grasses, and ferns in beds. Just keep in mind that some herbs (mint comes to mind) will spread prolifically if not contained within a pot. 

Drought-Tolerant Succulents

There is a reason succulents have skyrocketed in house-plant popularity. In addition to their cute and varied appearances, succulents thrive on little water. (In fact, too much water can ‘drown’ your succulent.) 

A quick scroll through an Instagram Influencer’s profile will show you succulents in attractive ceramic pots and elaborate macrame. However, you don’t need to confine your succulents to indoor gardens.

Here are some drought-tolerant succulents that work well as shrubs or ground cover. 

Shrubs


Agave

Genus Name:Agave
Zone:5-11
Features:Summer Blooms
Height:1-3′, 3-8′, 8-20′, 20′ or Larger
Width:1-10′
Light:Full Sun
Propagation:Seed & Division

Aloe

Below is Aloe vera. Another excellent variety is Aloe Arborescens.

Genus Name:Aloe vera
Zone:10-11
Features:Drought Tolerant
Height:1-3′
Width:6-12″
Light:Full Sun
Propagation:Division

Jade Plant

Genus Name:Crassula
Zone:11
Features:Spring & Winter Blooms
Height:3-8′
Width:2-3′
Light:Full Sun
Propagation:Stem Cutting

Ground Cover


Lizard’s Tail

They are also known as Crassula muscosa.

Moss Rose

Genus Name:Portulaca spp.
Zone:10-11
Features:Summer & Fall Blooms
Height:Less Than 6″, 6-12″
Width:Up to 18″
Light:Full Sun
Propagation:Stem Cutting, Seed

Houseleek Sempervivums

In addition to their ability to tolerate dry weather, succulents also offer easy propagation – meaning you can take clippings from your flower beds to create a low-water indoor garden.   

Drought-Tolerant Shrubs

The key to successful shrub cultivation is to select shrubs based on specific growing areas. This selection pertains to your growing zone. But you should also base your decision on the soil quality and exposure of the precise location where you plan to plant your shrubs. (Also, be aware that many drought-tolerant shrubs are invasive plants.) 

Remember, even the most drought-tolerant shrubs require sufficient watering while establishing their root systems. But once they have formed mature root systems, shrubs such as the following will use water efficiently: 

  • Evergreen Shrubs: Adam’s Needle, Eastern Arborvitae, Evergreen Sumac, Juniper
  • Flowering Shrubs: Bougainvillea, Butterfly Bush, Cistus, Forsythia, Lilac

Popular Mediterranean herbs rosemary and lavender will grow to shrub size if given adequate room. When not contained by a pot, lavender can grow over two feet tall and four feet wide. At maturity, certain types of rosemary can reach a height of up to six feet and a spread of eight feet. So don’t be afraid to release these herbs from their pots!

Drought-Tolerant Trees

When correctly selected, trees are an excellent addition to a drought-tolerant garden. Once established in the ground, they will require watering much less frequently than a potted perennial. 

Choosing native trees will ensure that these new additions to your backyard are already suited to your region’s soil and climate. 

Also, look for small-leafed trees over large-leafed trees as smaller leaves aid trees in more efficient water usage. 

Here are a few favorites: 

  • Deciduous: Bald Cypress, Hackberry, Hickory, Oak, Paperbark Maple
  • Evergreen: Holly, Shortleaf Pine, Snow Gum, Virginia Pine

Generally, thin leaves allow evergreen trees to tolerate drought better than deciduous trees. However, this is not always the case, so check local recommendations before purchasing enough pines to form a small Christmas tree farm. 

How to Help Your Plants Survive With Minimal Water

Now that you’ve planted drought-tolerant plants, check out these additional tips for maintaining a garden with minimal water: 

  • Apply mulch to help keep the soil cool. A two- to three-inch layer on the soil’s surface will protect the roots of your plants from harsh sunlight and help the surrounding soil retain moisture. Mulch also prevents soil crusting. This prevention is a crucial benefit as soil crusting reduces water’s ability to penetrate soil down to the root system. Unlike sand or clay soils which reflect light and heat back up to surrounding plants, dark mulch with an uneven surface will limit reflectivity.  
  • Use organic matter to improve moisture availability (as well as soil drainage). Add organic matter to the soil before you plant drought-tolerant plants. 
  • Avoid fertilizer. Adding fertilizer to your soil will encourage plants to grow rapidly. This excess growth will require extra watering to prevent it from flopping in summer. It will also be more susceptible to frost in cold months. 
  • Plant small specimens early in the growing season. This advanced planting will allow your plants to acclimate to their environment over time. This gradual development will give them a better chance at defense when harsh conditions occur.
  • Weed your borders, beds, or pots. Although weeding by hand can be a literal chore, weeds suck up precious moisture (and nutrients) from your cultivated plants.
  • Shade plants that are more vulnerable to drought conditions. When planning your garden layout, try to place drought-tolerant plants in areas that receive the most sun and exposure.
  • Prune sparingly during a drought. (Pruning can encourage growth, requiring additional water usage.)

Additionally, try conserving rainwater. For those gardeners who are really dedicated to water conservation, keep a bucket near the shower to collect water as you wait for your shower to heat up. 

Top Tip: Avoid the temptation to water your lawn as this will consume huge amounts of water. If your lawn is established, its root system will help it survive droughts. Even grass that has turned yellow or brown will recover upon the next rainfall. 

Prioritize Your Watering 

Climate change is making droughts and record-breaking heat more common. To curb water usage during drive spells, some municipalities impose water-hose bans, mandatory water rationing, or water-wise landscaping incentives. 

Whether you want to maintain your garden within these limitations or just want to lower your home’s water bill, try to prioritize which plants you water (and how you water them). 

Especially if you water your garden with a hose, it can be tempting to water your garden indiscriminately. However, not all plants require the same amount of water. Creating a summer watering plan is another way to reduce water usage during hot months. 

Hint: The occasional thorough watering is more beneficial than a more frequent but less-thorough watering. 

Here’s a quick rundown of how often you should water certain plants during a drought: 

  • Once a Day: seedings, young plants, cuttings, anything not yet established
  • Once a Week: shallow-rooted plants 
  • Once Every Two Weeks: shallow-rooted shrubs
  • Do Not Water: mature shrubs, hedges, trees, lawns

Try to narrow your irrigation system so that you only water areas that require moisture. Sprinkler systems might be easier to use than a watering can, but they are highly inefficient – especially when compared to drip irrigation systems. 

If possible, water your plants in the early morning. This time will allow water to travel down to the roots before the sun heats the soil, hydrating them before the heat of the day. 

Particularly when using water sparingly, water plants at the base so that it will travel to the roots. Watering plants at the leaves will encourage evaporation before the water even reaches the roots. 

Videos

The video below will show you 50 more drought-tolerant landscaping ideas:

When In Doubt, Survive Drought By Keeping It Local

Selecting plants that are well-suited to your garden’s growing conditions is one of the best ways to make your garden more environmentally beneficial. Not only do native plants help the local ecosystem thrive, but they also tend to be drought-tolerant. 

Want to cultivate an attractive garden while also conserving water? Contact local universities or garden centers to learn about drought-tolerant plants native to your region.