Drought Tolerant Plants

September 18, 2015

No rain, no problem… or not as big of a problem.

I hope this summer has been treating you and your garden well, especially since we’ve finally been getting some rain! With the rain comes cooler temperatures, especially in the morning and at night. It’s a bit refreshing, isn’t it? Fall must be just around the corner! It’s time to survey your garden and take note of what changes should be made for next year. Considering how hot and dry this past summer has been, replacing some of your high-maintenance drama-queen plants with some drought tolerant plants would be a great way to conserve water and save yourself some maintenance time in the garden, and we’ve got a few suggestions for you!

But first, the fine print: when a plant is considered ‘drought tolerant,’ it means that means the plant can tolerate hot spells without water once its root system is established. In order for any plant to thrive and look its best, it needs consistent care and watering for a minimum of 3 years after being planted in the garden.


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Podocarpus alpinus ‘Blue Gem’  – Photo by Monrovia

Podocarpus alpinus ‘Blue Gem’

Blue Gem Alpine Plum Yew: Here’s a beautiful and versatile conifer that does well in partial to full sun and well-drained soil. Blue, finely textured foliage mounds and spreads as the plant grows, which can be pruned or left unpruned for a more native look. Red-tinted new growth appears in spring and remains until the following winter, contrasting beautifully for the entire growing season with the rest of the shrub’s blue foliage. The conifer gets its drought-tolerant ability from being native to the rocky mountains of Tasmania.


Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ – Photo by Heidi Skievaski

Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’

Feather Reed Grass: Ok, so there’s a backstory to this plant. In July, we drove through a subdivision that had a community space with a garden. The garden (seen in the photo above) was planted in spring, doesn’t have any irrigation, and the only plant that was holding its own against this summer’s drought was the Karl Foerster grass. When planted in the correct conditions, we 100% stand behind this ornamental grass now.

This drought tolerant, deciduous grass does best in full sun and well-drained soil where it gets to be 2-3 feet tall and 2 feet wide. When the ‘flowers’ (the tall feathery tufts) appear, it becomes about 6 feet tall. These plumes emerge as rosy pink before changing to maroon, then to bronze, and finally they become a rich golden color which lasts through winter. Karl Foerster grass is upright in shape and adds visual structure to gardens, whether in mass plantings as a seasonal screen, or intermingled with perennials. In 2001, the Perennial Plant Association named Karl Foerster as ‘Plant of the Year’ and said it was “one of the most versatile, attractive, and low maintenance ornamental grasses.”


Abelia x grandiflora ‘Kaleidoscope’ – Photo by Heidi Skievaski

Abelia x grandiflora ‘Kaleidoscope’

Gold Variegated Abelia: This drought tolerant, evergreen shrub gets to be about 3 feet tall and 3 feet wide and feels at home in rich, organic soil but will tolerate clay or sandy soil as long as there is adequate drainage. Abelia’s relatively small size combined with its dynamic color transformation through the year make it a great choice for small gardens where every square inch counts! In early spring, tiny light-green leaves appear with bright yellow edges, maturing to have dark green centers and lime green edges. White flowers bloom in summer through fall which provide food for bees and butterflies. The growing season is finished beautifully as fall colors of red, orange, and yellow wash over this shrub. We suggest planting Abelia in full sun to get the best color transformation, but it will do fine in light shade also.


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Acanthus spinosus – Photo by Macplants Berrybank Nursery

Acanthus spinosus

Bear’s Breeches: This drought tolerant, semi-evergreen perennial has beautifully textured, lacey green foliage that gets to be about 1-2 feet tall and 2 feet wide, making it another great candidate for small spaces in the garden. By the middle of summer, dramatically tall stalks of purple buds emerge and tower over the foliage, making this plant reach about 4 feet in height. Shortly after, white flowers emerge. This Acanthus is native to southern Europe, and grows best in drained soil with full sun to dappled shade.

Be warned that even though this plant is drought tolerant, it is not necessarily low maintenance. If it doesn’t get sufficient water, Acanthus will go dormant, and the foliage will need to be cut back to make way for new growth in the same growing season. Be careful when handling this perennial though, each flower has a sharp spine. Hard freezes can also damage the foliage, in which case any damaged leaves should be removed to keep it looking fresh.

What has stood the test of drought in your garden this year? Have any plants disappointed or pleasantly surprised you?



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