How To Plant a Lush Drought Tolerant Garden

The terms 'drought tolerant' and 'xeriscaping' might conjure up images of dangerous looking spiky plants and scrubby wildflower plantings to some, but experienced gardeners know better. Your garden doesn't need to look like a desert to be drought tolerant, and you don't even need cacti and succulents! Here's how I've made the most of the driest patch of dirt in my own garden without making it look drought tolerant.

This is the driest part of my garden. The soil is sandy and the irrigation is inconsequential.

Choose Plants That Return From the Roots
This week I was delighted to find find both my daylilies and callas rising from the dead after the recent rains, even though I already held a funeral for them. I really shouldn't have been surprised! Plants with enlarged corms, tubers and roots are often made to survive periods of drought. For proof, just look at the elephant ears, gingers and cannas that are available for purchase in bags at the nursery. As it turns out, they handle periodic neglect in the garden too.

This swale does a wonderful job catching water so it can soak into the soil slowly.

Stop Runoff in Its Tracks
Next time your garden receives a good drenching, take a look at how it's slipping through your fingers and into the gutter. There are easy ways to keep that valuable rainwater in your tight little fists. I dug a swale in the sunniest, driest part of the garden and lined it with rocks so that the sheets of water get caught up in my ingenious little trap and sink into the soil before they get carried away. Believe it or not, this miniature rain garden has made a big difference and it even provides that calming stream bed look!

Choose Plants From Dry Places
I know it seems obvious, but plants from parched locales will do better in your garden's dry spot. Before you start picking plants from the deserts of the American southwest, consider the many other dry spots around the world. There are the cerrado and restinga regions of Brazil, the seasonally dry regions of India and South Africa - even many of the resort areas of Florida, the Caribbean and Bali are in the middle of sandy coastal habitat! Of course the most foolproof solution is to look for plants that tolerate the dry regions of your own state.

These palms, bromeliads and ferns are tough as can be, but boy do they look elegant.

Utilize Plants With Graceful Forms
So many drought tolerant plants just look too rugged and rangy... they look drought tolerant. That's why you need to plant something fluid and elegant like a lemongrass or a feather palm to give the impression of a much moister garden. I like to repeat the fountain-like form via liriope, agapanthus, bromeliads, spiderlily and daylilies to contribute a riverine beauty. I can't very well explain why it works, but it really does.

Amend the Soil With Organic Matter
Organic matter (topsoil, compost, manure, etc.) not only enriches the soil with nutrients, it also acts like a sponge and absorbs all of that rainwater. I have to confess that I'm horrible at following my own advice here, but let's face it. Since when was composted manure the most exciting purchase you've brought home from the garden center? Don't worry - as soon as the mosquitoes cool it I promise to utilize my compost heap for once.

Can there be anything lusher than a solid wall of green?

Pack in the Greenery
Remember, we're going for full and lush here. Use lots of the brightest and deepest greens that can take the drought and pack them in tightly so that the mass of foliage cools the soil and helps retain moisture. Plant solid naturalistic swathes of a single plant or texture to mimic the look of a naturally occurring sweep of botanical bliss. Creating rivers of plantings simulates the movement of water and keeps the eye moving through your oasis.

Mulch the Right Way
A lot of gardeners get their panties in a wad over the issue of mulching, but it really comes down to how you mulch. The problem: Mulch not only keeps moisture in, it also prevents rainwater from reaching the soil before it evaporates into thin air. When cypress mulch breaks down it also forms a watertight mat that rainwater skims over, missing the mark entirely. The solution: Leave pockets in the mulch for water to percolate through, and don't use too much. A couple inches is all that's needed to inhibit weeds and retain moisture.

This 'Ice Cream' banana thrives in this dry spot because its roots have established.

It's Not Drought Tolerant Until Established
Have you ever taken home a "drought tolerant" shrub only to watch it shrivel up weeks later? It makes since if you think about it. In order for most plants to withstand drought they must first plunge their roots deep into the cool moist soil below where they can branch out and absorb all of that hidden moisture. I once planted a small fig tree during the dry season and it died without delay. When I dug it up, the rootball was bone dry because so was the soil at that depth. I planted a larger fig in the rainy season after I learned my lesson, and it is now 100% drought tolerant. I just had my first homegrown fig to prove it!


  1. I think you should add "for Florida" to the title. ;)

  2. Hey, the pictures are of my garden in Florida but all of the tips apply to any place! :P

  3. Great article Steve. Your advice applies in my part of Australia as well. We can have extremes of long dry periods and heavy rains. "Desert" plants won't survive heavy rain but many "tropical" plants will survive dry conditions because "winter" in the tropics is usually quite dry.

  4. A very useful and informative article. Thanks!

  5. Thanks guys!
    Missy: I also have an area that gets flooded in some summers, but happens to be pretty dry right now. I've made the most of the drier soil by starting seedlings out there where it's normally too wet. I'll just transplant the seedlings once the rains return!

  6. Caro amigo,

    Thanks for your article!
    Your banana tree is very "charmante"


  7. Andrea Henry (Jamaica)April 3, 2012 at 3:02 PM

    Thorougly enjoyed your tips, ideas and presentations. Thanks very much, for sharing. I am rejuvenated to go out and do something different in my own garden. Bless you.

  8. Hi all,

    I read these great instructions but am a bit confused. Do you water the plants at all? I live in a hot dry area (Greece) but I plan to water these plants every day. Do I still need drought resistant plants? I realize that the heat will dry the soil quickly and much of the water will be evaporated, but if I give them a fair amount of water every morning, non-drought-resistant plants should be alright too, no?

    Also, I was thinking, what if I cover the soil with gravel? Will that help retain the moisture in the soil? Thanks a lot!


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