Designing a Drought Tolerant Garden

Water conservation is a hot topic these days. Water shortages have caused many municipalities to impose watering restrictions (at least during heat waves) and rising water costs have motivated many homeowners and municipalities to establish more drought tolerant gardens and landscapes. For those living rural or on well water, plants that can survive mostly on rainfall are essential. Following are some photos of drought tolerant gardens and plant lists to help you select the right plants for your drought tolerant garden.

Front bottom; a peony (just coming through the ground), to the left a barberry, to the right burning bush, behind that euonymus, boxwood and spiral juniper.
Veronica spicata, junipers, phlox, dwarf Alberta spruce.
Thread leaf false cyprus, juniper cloud tree, juniper, dwarf blue spruce standard, weeping Norway spruce, columnar eastern white pine.
Daylily, cone shaped yew, potentilla, dwarf Korean lilac standard, Japanese yew; the flowering annuals out front are supertunias, ageratum, geranium, sweet alyssum.
barberry, euonymus, nest spruce, potentilla, dwarf Alberta spruce, weeping juniper standard, boxwood, lime light hydrangea, blue fescue grass.

Tips for Designing a Drought Tolerant Garden:

  1. Whether your soil is sandy or clay adding generous amounts of compost yearly will help the soil to better retain moisture.
  2. Mulch your beds and borders to help hold the moisture in.
  3. Slow down wind velocities on your property by planting hedges and erecting fences to help reduce wind-related soil drying.
  4. Water infrequently but deeply. Once your plants are well established allow the top 2” to 3” of soil to dry out before watering. It is important to let the surface soils dry out to stress the plants slightly so that they respond by growing deep roots.
  5. Choose drought tolerant plants. These plants are usually characterized as having root systems that can grow deeply into the soil to ‘mine’ for moisture during periods of drought.

There are several visual characteristics that can help you determine if a plant is drought tolerant or not. As a general rule, drought tolerant plants have:

  1. Thick fleshy stems and leaves like succulents and cactus
  2. waxy coated leaves
  3. densely hairy leaves
  4. silvery, grayish or bluish foliage
  5. narrow leaves
  6. prickly leaves
Hidcote lavender step over hedge, echinecea, cone shaped boxwood, wax begonias.
Cone shaped yew, juniper cloud trees with a border of Stella de Oro daylilies.

There are many wonderful plants that are fairly drought tolerant once established. Some of my favourites include:


  • Blue fescue
  • Blue oat grass
  • Karl Foerster feather reed grass
  • Switch grass
  • Maiden grass

Shade Trees

  • American elm
  • Austrian pine
  • Crape myrtle
  • Dawn redwood
  • Eastern redbud
  • Ginkgo biloba
  • Goldenrain tree
  • Green ash
  • Hawthorn
  • Kentucky coffee tree
  • Northern catalpa
  • Oak
  • Pecan
  • Persian ironwood
  • Purple leaf plum
  • Red buckeye
  • Scotch pine
  • Shagbark hickory
  • Thornless honeylocust

Ornamental Trees and Shrubs: 

  • Barberry
  • Beauty bush
  • Blue Beard
  • Boxwood
  • Butterfly-bush
  • Burning bush
  • Chinese abelia
  • Cotoneaster
  • Double flowering plum
  • Euonymus
  • Junipers
  • Lilacs
  • Mimosa
  • Pin Cherry
  • Potentilla
  • Quince
  • Redosier dogwood
  • Rugosa rose
  • Spirea
  • Scarlet firethorne
  • Summac
  • Weeping Carigana
  • Witch hazel
  • Yew


  • Allium
  • Lavender
  • Oregano
  • Rosemary
  • Sage
  • Savoury
  • Thyme


  • Anise hyssop
  • Artemisia
  • Baby’s breath
  • Bearded Iris
  • Beardtongue
  • Butterfly Weed
  • Catnip
  • Coreopsis
  • Coneflower
  • Columbine
  • Day Lilies
  • Daisies
  • Dianthus
  • False indigo
  • Gaillardia
  • Globe Thistle
  • Golden marguerite
  • Hardy ice plant
  • Helleborus
  • Hens and Chicks
  • Hollyhock mallow
  • Lavender
  • Lamb’s Ears
  • Liatrus
  • Periwinkle
  • Peony
  • Phlox
  • Red hot poker
  • Russian Sage
  • Sea Holly
  • Sedum
  • Salvia
  • Snow in summer
  • Thrift
  • Yarrow
  • Yucca


  • Amaranth
  • Begonia
  • Calendula
  • Cleome
  • Cosmos
  • Dianthus
  • Dusty Miller
  • Gazania
  • Geranium
  • Lantana
  • Marigold
  • Purple Fountain Grass
  • Sweet Alyssum
  • Verbena
  • Zinnia

Note: Many of the above-mentioned plants, although fairly drought tolerant once established, will perform very well in a moist environment.


With so many wonderful plants to choose from it has become easier than ever before to create beautiful, drought tolerant gardens and given the state of the environment and our busy schedules it just makes good sense.

Photo credits: all photos taken by the author.

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