Creating A Drought-Tolerant Landscape: A Comprehensive Guide

With the increasing importance of water conservation, creating a drought-tolerant landscape has become a popular and environmentally responsible choice. Drought-tolerant gardens are not only sustainable but also low-maintenance and beautiful. This guide will explore what makes a garden drought-tolerant, provide tips on designing such landscapes, and offer insights into establishing and caring for drought-tolerant native and ornamental trees, shrubs, and perennials.

Crape Myrtles (Lagerstromia)
Crape Myrtles (Lagerstromia)

What Makes A Garden Drought-Tolerant?

A drought-tolerant garden is designed to thrive with minimal water. Key elements that contribute to a successful drought-tolerant landscape include:

  1. Plant Selection: It is essential to choose plants that are naturally adapted to dry conditions. These plants often have deep root systems, small or waxy leaves, and other features that reduce water loss.
  2. Soil Health: Healthy soil with good structure and organic matter content helps retain moisture and supports plant health. Amending soil with compost and mulch can significantly improve its water-holding capacity.
  3. Mulching: A thick layer of mulch around plants helps retain soil moisture, suppress weeds, and regulate soil temperature. Organic mulches like shredded hardwood mulch or leaf compost are particularly effective.
  4. Landscape Design: Grouping plants with similar water needs (hydrozoning) and incorporating hardscaping elements like gravel paths, rocks, and drought-resistant ground covers can reduce water use and maintenance.
  5. Water Conservation Practices: A drought-tolerant garden requires utilizing rainwater harvesting systems, reducing lawn areas, and avoiding overwatering.
Eastern Redcedar (Juniperus virginiana)
Eastern Redcedar (Juniperus virginiana)

Designing A Drought-Tolerant Landscape

Creating a drought-tolerant landscape requires thoughtful planning and design. Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you get started:

  1. Assess Your Site: Evaluate the conditions of your garden, including soil type, sun exposure, and natural water flow. Identify areas that receive the most sun and those that are naturally shaded or moist.
  2. Plan Your Layout: Design your garden with zones based on water needs. Place drought-tolerant plants in the sunniest, driest areas and reserve slightly more water-requiring plants for shaded or naturally moist spots.
  3. Choose Appropriate Plants: Select a mix of drought-tolerant native and ornamental trees, shrubs, and perennials that thrive in your climate. Consider a variety of textures, colors, and heights to create visual interest.
  4. Prepare the Soil: Improve soil structure by incorporating organic matter such as compost. This enhances water retention and provides nutrients for plants.
  5. Mulch Generously: Apply a thick layer of mulch around your plants to retain moisture, reduce weeds, and protect the soil. Organic mulches like bark chips, straw, or compost are ideal.
  6. Incorporate Hardscaping: Use gravel, rocks, and other hardscape materials to create paths, seating areas, and decorative elements that reduce the need for water-intensive plants.
Ninebark (Physocarpus)
Ninebark (Physocarpus)

Extensive Array Of Drought-Tolerant Plants Available At Garden Centers

Garden centers offer a wide range of drought-tolerant native and ornamental trees, shrubs, and perennials suitable for creating a water-wise landscape. Here are some popular choices:

  1. Drought-Tolerant Trees:
    • Redbud (Cercis canadensis): This native tree is known for its beautiful pink flowers in early spring. It is drought-tolerant and adds vibrant color to the landscape.
    • Eastern Redcedar (Juniperus virginiana): This evergreen tree is highly adaptable and drought-tolerant, providing year-round interest and wildlife habitat.
    • Crape Myrtles (Lagerstromia): A flowering tree with a stunning array of flower colors, Crape Myrtles are drought-resistant and perfect for adding ornamental value.
  2. Drought-Tolerant Shrubs:
    • Ninebark (Physocarpus): This shrub features colorful foliage and white to pink flowers. It thrives in dry conditions with minimal water.
    • Yucca (Yucca spp.): Yuccas are well-known for their drought tolerance and striking architectural form, making them ideal for dry landscapes.
    • Abelia (Abelia grandiflora.): With its beautiful bark and fragrant flowers, abelia is both ornamental and drought-tolerant.
  3. Drought-Tolerant Perennials:
    • Blanket Flower (Gaillardia spp.): This vibrant flowering perennial is extremely drought-tolerant and attracts pollinators to the garden.
    • Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia): Known for its airy blue flowers and aromatic foliage, Russian sage is perfect for dry, sunny spots.
    • Sedum (Sedum spp.): Sedums, or stonecrops, are succulents that come in various shapes and colors, all of which are excellent for dry gardens.
Abelia (Abelia grandiflora)
Abelia (Abelia grandiflora)

Establishing Drought-Tolerant Plants In The Landscape

Proper establishment of drought-tolerant plants is crucial for their long-term success. Follow these steps to ensure your plants thrive:

  1. Timing: Plant in the cooler fall or early spring months when moderate temperatures and moisture levels are higher. This allows plants to establish roots before the heat of summer.
  2. Planting: Dig a hole twice as wide as the root ball and slightly shallower than the root ball’s height. Backfill with native soil and a small amount of compost if needed. Avoid adding too much fertilizer, as it can encourage water-dependent growth.
  3. Watering: Water deeply and infrequently to encourage deep root growth. During the first growing season, keep the soil moist but not waterlogged. Once established, reduce watering frequency.
  4. Mulching: Apply a 2-3 inch layer of mulch around the plants, keeping it away from the plant stems. This helps retain moisture and suppresses weeds.
  5. Monitoring: Regularly check for signs of stress, such as wilting or yellowing leaves. Adjust watering and provide additional care as needed.
Blanket Flower (Gaillardia spp.)
Blanket Flower (Gaillardia spp.)

Aftercare For Drought-Tolerant Gardens

Once your drought-tolerant plants are established, they require minimal maintenance. Here are some aftercare tips to keep your garden thriving:

  1. Pruning: Prune dead or damaged branches to maintain plant health and shape. Many drought-tolerant plants benefit from occasional trimming to encourage new growth.
  2. Fertilizing: Drought-tolerant plants typically do not require frequent fertilization. If needed, apply a slow-release, low-nitrogen fertilizer in the spring.
  3. Weed Control: Keep weeds in check by regularly pulling them or using mulch to prevent their growth. Weeds compete with plants for water and nutrients.
  4. Pest Management: Monitor for pests and diseases and treat them promptly with organic or integrated pest management methods to protect your plants without harming the environment.
  5. Watering Adjustments: As plants mature, adjust watering practices to match their established needs. Reduce watering frequency and rely more on natural rainfall.
Sedum (Sedum spp.)
Sedum (Sedum spp.)


Creating a drought-tolerant landscape is an excellent way to conserve water, reduce maintenance, and support a healthy ecosystem. You can enjoy a beautiful and sustainable garden by selecting the right plants, designing an efficient garden layout, and following proper planting and aftercare practices. Visit Patuxent Nursery and let our experienced staff guide you through the diverse array of drought-tolerant native and ornamental trees, shrubs, and perennials to start your journey toward a water-wise landscape. With thoughtful planning and care, your drought-tolerant garden will flourish, providing lasting beauty and resilience in the face of changing environmental conditions.

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