By Fiona Cumberpatch published
Choosing the best drought tolerant plants means that you can cultivate a low-maintenance garden which still looks lush and full of life. Dry, dusty or gravelly soil and full sunlight are challenging conditions for some plants but fortunately, there is a wide range of varieties which are adapted to grow in these sites, something which is increasingly important as climate change sees an increase in dryer, hotter summers.
Opting for drought resistant plants which require less water does not mean compromising on style or choice. There is absolutely no need to lose out on color, fragrance or impact for your flowerbed ideas.
Mediterranean plants are perhaps the best known to be drought resistant. Rosemary, bay, olive and lavender originate in countries where rainfall is low. Plants from South Africa, such as agapanthus, red hot pokers and crocosmia, will also take care of themselves once established.
However, even drought resistant plants will need some water when they are first planted. 'It is important to look after them when they are newly planted, and that means keeping them hydrated,' says plant expert and garden designer Laura Heybrook of Dale & Heybrook Garden Designers. Once the plants are established it is a different story. 'Drought resistant plants do not need watering,' she says.
Laura’s top tip is that, 'the bigger the plant, the longer they will need watering initially and that could be up through the first summer and autumn.' However, once rooted, 'you can go away on holiday and not have to worry about them at all.'
Here’s our pick of the best drought resistant plants, whether you are looking for a climber, a perennial, a statement plant or something to thrive in a patio pot.
10 of the best drought tolerant plants
1. Convolvulus cneorum
A Mediterranean native, it has soft, silvery foliage year-round. White trumpet shaped flowers with a yellow centre appear from spring to the middle of summer. It will grow slowly to a mound of around 60cm.
To keep the shape looking compact and bushy, prune it in summer after it has finished flowering. It is very tolerant of dry conditions and would work perfectly with Mediterranean garden ideas.
Also known as ‘rock rose,’ these evergreen shrubs are one of the best drought tolerant plants. They have a succession of pretty, tissue paper flowers, each one lasting for just a day. Try ‘Graysword Pink’ for grey-green leaves and saucer-shaped pale pink flowers.
Another lovely choice is ‘Alan Fradd,’ which has large white flowers with a crimson patch at the centre, combined with golden anthers. The plants will grow to around 1m tall and do not need much pruning, which makes it a truly low maintenance shrub.
Find more low maintenance garden ideas in our guide.
Lofty agapanthus with their long, strong stems, large spherical heads in purple, blue or white and narrow, strappy leaves, will create impact and height from mid-summer to early autumn. You can plant them in the ground in a sheltered spot in full sun, or put them in a pot to add a striking look to your container gardening ideas.
It's certainly worth learning how to grow agapanthus as these South African natives are herbaceous perennials, so they will come back year after year. 'Despite their exotic appearance, they are as tough as old boots,' says garden designer Laura Heybrook. 'You can leave them in a pot, go away on holiday, and they will still be flowering when you return.'
4. Erigeron karvinskianus
This plant, also known as Mexican fleabane or Mexican daisy, is one of those drought resistant plants which will grow from the crack in a pavement, or defy gravity by clustering over your garden wall ideas. It has tiny, starry white flowers on a mat of small leaves,
Placed in a pot, planted as a border edging or in gravel, it provides a fountain of flowers from May to October. It will die back in winter, only to emerge the next season. The only attention it needs is to tidy up long stems in the autumn. It is a prolific self-seeder, so once you have this plant in your garden, it is probably here to stay!
A classic flower for cottage garden ideas, the humble hollyhock produces lots of flowers on one tall spike. Choose from dark red, pretty pinks and pure white.
The young plants and seedlings need regular watering (the RHS recommends that the top 15cm of soil is kept damp, but not soggy in the first few months) but after that, these plants only need attention in very long, hot spells.
Once they have finished flowering, cut the spires down to ground level, and they will come back the following year.
There are hundreds of varieties of this useful plant, also known as spurge, making it a great addition to our list of the best drought tolerant plants. For hot, sunny sheltered spots, go for the Mediterranean type, with silvery grey leaves.
Euphorbia characias is a tall, billowy plant which will look good year-round. It has acid yellow flowers in the spring. Plant it in either the autumn or spring.
Euphorbia will also thrive in dry shade, and the zingy lime green foliage always makes a splash. Try euphorbia ‘Robbiae.’ There's more inspiration in our shade garden ideas.
Laura Heybrook cautions against planting euphorbias in a small garden if you have young children and are looking for family garden ideas as the milky sap can be an irritant to skin. These plants will also spread.
7. Olive tree
Drought resistant plants often have grey or silvery green leaves which reflect the sun’s rays, and the olive tree is a classic example. These elegant evergreens from the Mediterranean offer a holiday vibe in summer and welcome structure in the colder months.
Add some grit to the container if you are growing an olive tree in a pot, and use something like John Innes No 3 compost (one part grit to five parts compost is about right).
Water the tree for the first year, and after that it will require a regular can full to stop it from drying out completely. Olive trees will survive mild winters in the UK and in similar climates, but if the temperature is likely to plunge below minus 10˚C (14˚F), you will need to consider how to protect plants from winter by covering them with horticultural fleece.
There are 250 species of the ‘sea holly,’ which has angular, spiny thistle-like flowers with a jagged ruff around the head, on tough silvery blue or green foliage. These are tough, trouble-free plants which come back year after year.
Not only are they a top choice for the best drought tolerant plants, but they also thrive in poor soil, in coastal areas and in garden gravel ideas. They form structural clumps which provide interest all winter as the seed heads will stay upright. Or you can cut and dry them for a vase – find out how to dry flowers in our guide.
Opt for ‘Peacock Blue’ or ‘Big Blue’ for large, intensely colored flowers. Mix with ornamental grasses for a contemporary look.
9. Pineapple broom
With clusters of erect, yellow flowers on silky grey green foliage, this is a very good choice for the best drought tolerant plants. It's ideal for a wall cover shrub, as it can reach 4m in height and spread. Put a table and chairs nearby to take full advantage of the gorgeous pineapple scent of the blooms.
Originating from Morocco, the plant, also known as cytisus battandieri, will tolerate light, sandy, gritty soil and drought conditions, but make sure it is watered in for a few months after planting to make sure that it is properly established.
10. Red hot poker
They were big in the 1970s and now the red hot poker, or kniphofia, is back on trend. Perfect for hot-colored, tropical garden ideas, the tall, intensely colored flowers rise on long, strong stems above the blade-like evergreen foliage. ‘Mango Popsicle’ is a true orange, which really does resemble an ice lolly, while ‘Traffic Lights’ blends amber and green tones in one flower.
Leave plenty of room for this plant in garden borders so that it does not overwhelm other plants, but apart from that, it needs virtually no care or maintenance.
Do you ever have to water the best drought tolerant plants?
Even drought resistant plants need to be watered when they are first planted. This helps them to grow sturdy roots. 'The general rule is that the bigger the plant, the longer it takes for them to establish,' explains garden designer Laura Heybrook. 'This could be through the whole of their first summer and into the autumn. Once they are rooted, however, it’s fine to leave them.'
You'll find plenty of tips and tricks for watering plants in our guide.
How do you know if a plant is drought tolerant?
Always look at the plant label to understand which conditions the best drought tolerant plants require.
It is also possible to tell which plants are likely to be drought resistant by looking for certain characteristics. These include silvery colored or light leaves which reflect sunlight, and tiny hairs on leaves and stems which trap moisture.
Some of the other best drought tolerant plants, such as succulents, have fleshy leaves and stems which are water retaining.
How can you help plants to survive a drought?
Even the best drought tolerant plants can do with a little helping hand during long, dry hot periods of summer. 'It’s a good idea for gardeners to get prepared for hot weather,' says Chris Bonnett from Gardeningexpress.co.uk. 'Whilst we may be able to escape to the shade indoors, our plants cannot. In a drought, healthy green foliage will wilt, the brightest of plants can develop crispy brown edges, or die completely. Everything will grow slower – including weeds – and flowers will fade quickly or fail to appear at all.
'Droughts can even weaken your plants, increasing how susceptible they are to attack from insects, root rot and disease. Gardeners can take some simple steps to droughts ruining their crops completely.' Here's what you can try:
- 'Mulch can be layered over soil during particular warm or dry spells,' explains Chris. 'It will keep the soil cooler and shield the ground from direct sun, meaning that moisture stays in the soil longer. When it comes to watering mulch-covered plants, aim the hose underneath the mulch towards the soil to make the most of saving water.' Our guide to mulching has more useful tips.
- 'Watering plants first thing in the morning and last thing at night is better for them, as the climate is cooler,' Chris adds. 'Avoid thirsty plants like hydrangeas, as they like a lot of water and will try and get it from anywhere they can.'
- 'If you fertilize plants, stop at the first sign of a drought. This is because they encourage rapid growth and your plan won’t be able to cope without the moisture it needs!'
- 'It is a great idea to cut back and cull in the garden during a drought so that your most precious plants have the water they need to survive. Roots from weeds, like dandelions, tend to steal valuable moisture from the soil. Rip them all out and spend some time removing spent blooms from flowers before they start seeding to save energy.' Our guide on how to get rid of weeds explains the best methods for removing them from your garden.
An experienced freelance journalist, editor and columnist writing for national magazines and websites, Fiona now specialises in gardens. She enjoys finding and writing about all kinds, from the tiniest town plots to impressively designed ones in grand country houses. She's a firm believer that gardening is for everyone, and it doesn’t matter if you have a single window ledge or an acre, there’s always peace and joy to be found outside. The small town garden of her Edwardian terraced house is currently a work in progress as she renovates the property, but her goal is always to fill it with flowers, climbers, colour, fragrance – and as many of her treasured vintage finds as she can possibly fit in.
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