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Flowers, Fruits, and Frass

Grow a showy garden with less water: Plant drought-tolerant plants

small-leaved green sedum grows into pink stalked green-leaved sedum

Summer water stress in the garden happens.

Scorching temperatures combined with little to no water can be tough on plants. Grow a stunning landscape and conserve water by selecting plants that are drought-tolerant. Suited for harsh, dry summers, these plants do not require daily watering or care. Despite their rugged quality, gardeners will not have to settle—these tough plants are both beautiful and functional in the landscape.  

A lack of water is a major stressor for plants.

Although plants experience water stress due to a lack of rainfall or routine watering, they also lose water naturally through the pores in their leaves. During the process known as transpiration, the pores open to let carbon dioxide into the leaves for photosynthesis, but the open pores also allow water vapor to escape (evaporate). Signs a plant is stressed due to lack of water includes curling leaves, chlorosis (yellowing), stunted growth, and leaf scorch or drop.  

Drought-tolerant plants are adapted to dry conditions.

These plants are designed with special characteristics to increase water absorption and conservation. With deep, developed root systems, these plants resource water deeper in the soil which is beneficial during dry conditions. Many drought-tolerant plants also have smaller leaves to reduce the leaf surface area, less surface area means less exposure to evaporation (water loss). Leaves are also protected from evaporation by either, a wax-coating on leaves or tiny hairs on leaves—both trap water and reduce the amount of water lost. 

Right plant, right place

Regardless of growing conditions, selecting the right plant for the right place is the key to success in any garden.Always consider sunlight, soil, and site conditions before choosing plants for your landscape. Drought-tolerant plants thrive in hot, dry conditions.  

Dependable perennial plants that tolerant dry conditions:

  • baptisia
  • Joe pye weed
  • Russian sage
  • sedum
  • thread leaf coreopsis
  • showy goldenrod
  • liatris
  • little bluestem
  • purple coneflower
  • monarda

Care and maintenance of drought-tolerant plants

Although tough and dependable, these plants require some care and maintenance. Just like any newly placed plant, water well the first year. Watering deeply but less frequently is better than shallow more frequent watering; deep watering encourages the roots to grow deeper. Most plants grow best with at least one inch of water per week. After drought-tolerant plants are established, watering will only be necessary to keep plants healthy, if there is a prolonged period of dry weather.  

Most drought-tolerant plants prefer well-drained soil—this soil type encourages roots to spread as water drains away. Despite a preference for well-draining soil, some soil moisture is still needed. Minimize evaporation (soil moisture) and cool soil temperatures with shredded hardwood mulch. Maintain a weed-free environment to reduce competition for soil water and nutrients. Given these conditions, drought-tolerant plants need minimal fertilizer to thrive.  

Give your watering can a break, add drought-tolerant plants to your landscape.

Photo credit: Sedum by Ana Dominguez Ruiz on Unsplash

ABOUT THE AUTHORBrittnay Haag is a Horticulture Educator with University of Illinois Extension, serving Livingston, McLean, and Woodford Counties. Her work focuses on youth horticulture education, specifically through school gardens and Jr. Master Gardener programs. Brittnay provides leadership for three county Master Gardener programs and is responsible for developing community programs and providing expertise in horticulture and environmental sciences.