Drought-Tolerance is King


Buckeye1Man, we’re having another dry summer here on the East Coast.  And now with sweltering heat it’s looking pretty crispy out there.  All over the neighborhood you see sprinklers a’spraying – and a’wasting lots of water. 

Not me, though.  Got no irrigation system, drip, overhead or otherwise.  Got a pretty big garden, though, big enough that the sprinkler has to be moved to 9 different locations, and still some hand-watering is required.  What a hassle!  And seeing the water shooting high into the hot, sunny air (coz you can’t get it all done in the early morning hours), the inefficiency of the sprinkler is obvious.

So, like growing numbers of ecogardeners, I’m trying to cut back on my use of water in the gDaylily300arden, particularly the large amount needed to keep turfgrass green in the summer.  I say let it brown, and brown it does and is.  I apologize to my visitors and suggest PhotoShopping the lawn a nicer color.  See how even avid gardeners are capable of sacrificing aesthetics for a good cause?  Damn right.

And that brings me to a new appreciation for super-drought-tolerant plants. Here are the heroes of my own garden, plants that survive the longest droughts of summer with no help from me:

  • Shrubs aucuba, nandina, Heleri holly, junipers, spirea, euonymous ‘Emerald Gaity’, weigela, bottlebrush buckeye, Meidiland rose ‘Alba’, and oakleaf hydrangea (in full shade).
  • Perennials hosta, sedum, Russian sage, daylilies, ornamental grasses, liriopGrassbloom400e, carex, solomon’s seal, garden phlox, euphorbia amygdaloides, purple coneflower, aster, black-eyed susan.

On the other hand, the award for worst-performing plant in my garden goes to rhododendrons, about which I’ve ranted over the years and of which I’ll have few to none if the planet keeps going the way it is.  I’m especially galled by the way they die – without giving a moment’s warning.  No helpful wilting to force me to water them;  they just up and die.

Seeking help in gardening with our hotter and drier summers, I devoured this article in Slate.  The author first takes issue with gardeners rejoicing over their new ability to grow crapemyrtles in the North, calling it "nuts" and warning, "Be careful what you wish for" because arriving with those crapemyrtles are kudzu, itchier poison ivy, record pollen levels, and so on.  Rainfall is more extreme, either nonexistent or coming in deluges.

Here’s the author’s advice for gardeners in the era of global warming:

  • Make your soil hold more water by adding organic matter
  • Choose plants that tolerate drought and a range of temperatures, like agastache
  • Mulch your trees

And she mentions the much-loved plant supplier High Country Gardens, which got me thSpireawhite2inking.  Should we all be planting for High Country these days?  Coz drought-tolerance is looking like an awfully good idea, saving as it does on my water bill, the local water supply, and my hours schlepping the garden hose all over the place.  But what about the humidity and warm summer evenings we have here in the East?  High Country’s excellent website addresses that question with this:  For "very hot, humid climates…note that xeric plants with very woolly foliage…may rot from
excessive rain and humidity." We’re also reminded to plant in the fall or early spring and that plants benefit from afternoon shade.  And then there’s this advice: plants should be watered regularly during the heat. Say what?  I wonder if I’m expecting too much of these plants altogether.

The Slate writer ends on this bright note:

tend to be the most adaptable of human beings. In fact, working in a
garden is an experience that trains you to be flexible and to find
consolations where you can. So the poppies never came up and deer ate
the roses? Well, the irises looked great, and the lilacs were fabulous.

Absolutely, gardeners are adaptable; we’re literally grounded in reality.  And until further notice, this gardener is adaNeon300pting by demanding drought tolerance of all new additions to the garden.  It’s just as important as that other pillar of sustainable gardening – resistance to disease and severe insect damage.  (Notice the tolerance of a few insect holes?  Yet another way that our sense of beauty is shifting to the natural, I submit.)

Now readers, can I pick your brains?

  • If you also garden in a humid place, have you tried High Country plants and how are they working out?
  • If you’ve replaced your lawn with something that can still be walked on, how’s it looking, and how much water does it need?
  • And finally, how "dormant" can my lawn get before it’s "dead"?


  1. Susan, I can’t answer your questions–but I can say a word about drought-tolerant perennials, since my garden soil is beach sand and I never water anything.

    The surprising stars, in addition to your list, are Ostrich and Japanese painted ferns, hellebores, euphorbia polychroma, liatris, peonies, heuchera, telekia, aruncus, and thalictrum. The complete stand-out, in my opinion, which you did mention, is Solomon’s Seal. It not only never wilts in 95-degree temperatures with no supplemental water, it’s also gorgeous. Is there anything better-looking than a variegated Solomon’s seal? George Clooney aside.

    And the biggest wuss, in my experience, is astible. They do nothing for me in summer except threaten to die.

  2. I can’t comment on High Country plants, but I do know how how dormant your lawn can get before it’s dead. Two years ago our city re-did our street, and in the process replaced the water mains. They put sod over the area where our water main was. It was beautiful, but unfortunately for the sod, I don’t water grass. So, by last July it was dead, dead, dead. I thought it was dormant at first, but it never grew back. The biggest clues are lack of any green grass whatsoever, even at the roots, and the gradual invasion of weeds of all sorts. Last fall and this spring the creeping charlie took over, and even though we’re in a drought situation – and the site is in full sun – the creeping charlie is still lush and green. Oh well – my justification for letting it all go to heck is that I plan to plant a prairie-inspired garden in that area. At least that’s what I tell the neighbors.

  3. I’ll second Tracy…you should be able to see some green near the soil, although from my experience it’s pretty hard to kill established lawn. My mother-in-law and I both refuse to water our lawns (and haven’t done so for years!) during the summer, and we both have hay right now. As soon as it cools off, it all greens up again.

  4. I refuse to water lawn also, and mine was yellow and crunchy under my feet a few days ago. Then we had nearly two inches of rain the other night and now most of it is green again.

  5. I live in southern Arkansas, where it’s very humid in the summer and we average 50″ of rain a year. My garden soil is pretty much sand, though, so it drains relatively quickly. I bought a bunch of High Country plants this year (mostly those that said they were okay for the southeast), and so far I am having success with most. The only fatality I have had is one achillea serbica, which was planted in a low spot and rotted. I moved 2 others to a higher spot, but I’m not confident they’ll make it, as we’ve been getting the edges of this Texas/Oklahoma rain and it is staying wet out there. On the other hand, black adder agastache and solidago are both happily living in a semi-boggy area where my downspouts discharge. I put them there because they tolerate a range from wet to seriously dry. I bought 3 white roses from High Country which are going gangbusters and amazingly have not succumbed to fungus. I also got russian sage, coronation gold yarrow, and a couple varieties of penstemon. None have gotten huge, but all look to be healthy.

  6. I hate the winters where I live. I actually wonder (every year) if I’ll live through them. (I wonder if THIS is the winter which will kill me, I think.) I do not like the winter here. But…

    We have water: Shores of the great lakes, lakes and ponds everywhere, rivers, my well overfloweth.

    I do love the green of Northern Illinois in Spring/Summer/Fall. I water and the water goes back to the water table from which I pumped it. Nice.

    I just read an interesting article about the national droughts may not really be “droughts” but just a return to the “normal state” (whatever that could be) of dryness after a particularly moist 20th century.

    That doesn’t sound too good.

    The quote was: “We have plenty of water. People just live in all the wrong places.” That doesn’t sound to good either.

    (I think the publication is in my car. I’ll look.)

    Gardeners are adapative. You are right.

  7. I should be able to report on High Country Gardens next year. After circling almost everything thing in their catalogue, I have on order 3 salvias, digitalis obscura, origanum x ‘amethyst falls,’ silene regia ‘prairie fire,’ fallugia paradoxa, and centranthus ruber ‘coccineus.’ The best thing is I ordered during their sale a couple of weeks ago and was able to select my own shipping date (late Sept). Salvias have done well for me in the past, so I’m not worried there and the rest — we’ll just experiment and see how they handle the humidity (and heaven help us — the hurricanes). We’ll see how it goes…

  8. Most of those High Country plants require full sun. They are of no help to me, though I love agastache and all that kind of stuff. I just can’t plant it.

    A good, established perennial will do well with little or no watering, but where I have a lot of moisture sucking tree roots I have to water and I find the pulsing sprinklers far more effiicient than the quiet arcing ones. And if you have containers you must water. Once again, the needs of the urban gardener are very different.

  9. Ah, High Country Gardens. I love their plants, as we’re summer-dry here and traditional European garden plants just can’t hack that without water. I started gardening in Massachusetts and adapting to the climate in California was rough; High Country is a nice guide to things that will thrive here in additional to the Mediterranean plants that are our staples.

    One note: several of High Country’s featured plants really don’t want ANY water in the summer. Salvias should be fine in humid summer-rain climates, but Ceanothus will die and Calochortus will rot. And on the other side are plants that are not cold-hardy enough to last through a Northeastern winter, like Brugmansia and several cactus. They’re usually pretty good about noting when a plant doesn’t tolerate summer rains.

  10. Hank wrote: “…my well overfloweth.” Mine literally does. Flows right out of the top of the wellhead into a drainage pipe unless someone is taking a shower. In early spring as the snow melts, water bubbles up in my lawn and leaves little soil volcanoes that I have to rake out once things dry out a little.

    I’ve got plenty of water and am mostly looking for plants that thrive with wet feet. Still, I have a few spots that are very dry and have some drought-tolerant plants there.

  11. I can’t comment on High Country Gardens’ plants either, but I just planted six different moisture/sun areas in my yard (mostly natives, some ornamentals, some annual beds) and I found that watering *deeply* at the roots with a watering wand every 3-4 days (not a sprinkler) kept even the newbies happy and it didn’t drive the water bill through the roof either. We went a good 4-6 weeks without the usual spring rains, so it was taking me 2 hours at a time to water everything, but it worked.

    The past week we’ve gotten soaking rains that have prompted explosive growth, and also point out that I need plants that can handle a range of extremes. I can’t just go for drought tolerance; there has to be rain tolerance and cold tolerance too.

    I’m hoping that matching the plant to the garden area will help with that, but only time will tell.

    As for the lawn, if our grass is any indication, you can’t even get rid of it by digging it up and throwing it in the compost bin, much less letting it go brown in the heat.

  12. I water my lawn. Yep. I do.

    And then I roll around it with my dogs… getting wet and bug-bitten and covered with stains.

    And then we all howl at the moon. And the go inside and watch Law and Order.

    That’s just me. That’s just how I roll. Don’t hate the player, hate the game baby.

    But… if the golf courses can water their lawns (and yeild operational revenues), and the garden centers can water their inventory of tiny-rooted-things-in-July (for profit), and countless acres of corn (which is not needed and grown for subsidy) can be watered… well… I can and will water my lawn.

    And I do.

    And I do not even expect anyone to pay me for the effort (in fact, I pay).

    What is all this I’m reading about normally sane people letting their lawns die?


    Have these people considered how much water it is going to take to restablish their new lawn? And here the real insult to injury… the sod for these replacement lawns is growing RIGHT NOW… and being watered.

  13. I think gardeners are more adaptive than most of the planet because we understand the adaptive natural of the world/ environment in which we live. I also happen to think that the garden and landscape design/ maintenance practice of Xeriscaping is the next “big thing”… once people realize how realistic and easy it is while everything is dying from dehydration! (There are 7 steps to accurately practice this method: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xeriscaping) Whether a garden coach, designer or backyard gardener, I think it would be beneficial for many to read up on this topic. Saving our lovely green plantings and our money may be at stake.

    On another note, replacing turf with an array of creeping perennial varieties is a great way to get rid of water-hungry lawns and still have a soft green place on which to walk and play… I’ve seen large and small lawns completely and partially replaced with STEPABLES plants (one variety or many), and the hardy little plants do great all over the country since they’re hardy for 3-9. http://www.stepables.com (I do work with this company, as a business person. As a gardener, I highly recommend these plants.)

  14. Here in Northern IL it is best to get plants that can take all extremes, heat, cold, drought, flood, famine… Instead of the High Country Garden thing, I do the prairie plant thing. During our devastating drought of 2005, in which my town imposed a total ban on all watering, my little prairie garden did just fine. The Echinacea, Liatris, Asclepias, Phlox & Asters bloomed, and the prairie grasses looked good. I lost several shrubs & the shade garden looked sad. The lawn was crunchy & brown (except for the weeds). The grass came back on its own. Then, in the year with above average rainfall (it happens), the prairie garden still looked fine, nothing rotted (except for the window frames).
    There are 2 different types of American prairie, the short grass prairie of the high plains which evolved to adapt to the peristent low rainfall of the area, and the tall grass prairie, generally East of the Mississippi, which evolved to adapt to wet & dry plus high humidity. East Coast gardeners would do well to emulate the tall grass prairie, as that more closely approximates their growing conditions.
    Northern IL may not be anyone’s idea of paradise, but we do not have to worry about major earthquakes, tsunamis, mudslides, wildfires, volcanos or hurricanes. And we have the tall grass prairie.

  15. Wow, what great comments. I can tell because they raise more questions than they answer, but maybe that’s just me.

    Hank and Craig – I’m happy to hear that you guys have enough water. That’s a good reality check for me. And Hank’s made me realize I just plain hate lawn care, always have, and really want to be delivered from it, and maybe unconsciously I’m trying to kill my lawn!

    In the meantime, I’ll go ask some lawn people to advise us on the most drought-tolerant of turfgrasses, at least. And Steppables? We’d like a guest article – with photos – from you guys, too. And an article about prairies, and one on drought-tolerant plants for shade. I do go on.

    And Greengirl – thanks for all that. Connie is seriously terrific on the radio.

  16. At Blithewold we (the guys) only water any new sod and a couple of the garden lawns but the great lawn and other big swaths are left high and dry. The odd thing this year (wet spring, dry summer so far and hot&humid ala D.C. environs) is that we have a bumper crop of clover! (Why??!) It’s really quite pretty. As for drought tolerant plants, I can’t remember when or what we last ordered from High Country. My very fave for a hot/dry/sunny garden is the old standby, lavender. Can’t go too far wrong with the Mediterranean herb-y things generally…

  17. I garden in southeastern PA and have had good success with several plants from High Country Gardens, most notably Nepeta x faassenii ‘Select Blue’, which I’ve planted over a fairly large area as a ground cover. It’s in full sun and well drained soil, but I never water it, and it does fine in the heat and humidity.

    Others I’ve bought from them include Agastache rupestris, Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’, Panicum virginicum ‘Heavy Metal’, and Helictotrichon sempervirens. These are commonly sold and grown in the east as well, and they’ve done well for me.

    I’m right with you on this topic. I’ve been growing more and more drought-tolerant plants, and High Country Gardens is a compelling source of new ideas for me. Their catalogs have symbols that help us Easterners avoid the plants that would only do well in the dry West.

  18. BPB’s comment that Easterners would do well to emulate the tallgrass prairie of the Midwest is excellent advice.

    Although the Eastern U.S. was once fully forested, a great many gardeners there now contend with little or no forest cover due to prior logging, farmland use, or urban/suburban development. In cleared full sun areas as well as transition areas at the edge of woodlands (full sun/part shade), the use of prairie plants makes a lot of sense.

  19. So first, full disclosure – I am plant obsessed but live in an apartment, but have more plants outside on my balcony than most people do in their yard.

    Since you mention High Country Gardens and your hatred of lawns (they have their place, but rarely in my personal opinion!) why not plant masses of creeping thyme instead of lawn?

    It flowers, is rather drought tolerant, and is down-right gorgeous. It handles walking well. There isn’t anything that is easier to root (I’m crazy enough I have a large normal thyme plant I rooted from cuttings leftover from a recipe – yep – from the grocery).

    HCG sells flats full of thyme for paving areas, but I’d encourage you to but a small amount from them and grow more out – it could be very inexpensive.

    As to various forms of rot, drought tolerant plants, and the Northeast. Well, I need to move. But it seems to vary. I’m convinced that some drought tolerant plants are more resistant to fungi – specifically due to their thicker leaf coatings and complex resins. Others will literally rot and explode with the slightest bit of excess water. I’m partly convinced that it could be solved with good drainage and careful locating, but again, I go to relative extremes to grow unusual things. Using raised beds and sand or aggregates (think turface or haydite depending on the situation) could likely work some magic.

  20. The advice for Northern Illinois used to be about 1/4 inch of water every couple of weeks to keep a dormant lawn just barely alive. So I’d move a fan sprinkler around to save one section at a time, as the grateful birds flocked in for a shower and butterflies landed on the dampened soil. It’s not just about the grass.

    We were in drought for several years, convincing many Austin gardeners to install drought tolerant landscapes. When the rains came this summer some of them began to rot. Austin may be heading into a more normal hot, dry phase – it’ll be interesting and perhaps educational to see what happens next.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  21. You east coast gardeners I tell ya!!! Be thankful for the wonderful trees and shrubs you can grow. Stop wishing for the plants on the other side of the country. This is one year, get a grip. I am currently in year 12 of a drought in Northern Arizona, but this is a desert. Granted rocky mountain, mile high desert, but still a desert. I try just about everything because I am stupid. Always want the things we cant have, experiment and learn.

    Maybee 30 years from now, I will know what works and what doesn’t.

    But I do know I would kill for some of your trees, and magnificent understory plants and shrubs. We all want what we cant have.

    Grow what works in your area, your one year, or 5 year drought with humidity is much different then the intense sun, dewpoints in the single digits here in the mountains. My yard has had no rain since march, we average 10 inches of precip a year. That is where some of the high country plants that I have purchased need to be watered every week, or they are toast. That is what they are talking about watering the xeric plants, this climate, not yours.

    I’m just ranting, but get a grip. Global warming will take a long long time, weather bites no matter where you live, gardening is hard. Deer are evil, rabbits are best fed to the vultures. Gardening everywhere is difficult. Gardeners are gluttons for punishment. That is why we do it.

  22. Has anyone had experience with the new low mow lawns. From what I hear they take time to establish (and lots of water) but then need much less all the way around than conditional turf. Could this really be true? BTW I’m killing my lawn this summer too Susan.

  23. “Rainfall is more extreme, either nonexistent or coming in deluges.” My situation is similar to firefly’s–dry one year, rainy the next. This kind of yo-yo-ing has been going on for a decade. In a dry year, Russian sage does great. In a wet year, it peters out. Two wet years in a row? Good bye Russian sage. And a clay soil garden in a dry year is a very different thing from a sandy soil garden in a dry year.

    And drought can be very local. Mr. Ellis Hollow and I live about an hour from each other. My place can be wet like his; was wet like his this spring. But let me tell you, at the moment my well does not runneth over. I suspect he has benefitted from many recent storms that have flown by me to the north. Maddening when you can hear thunder and smell rain but never see a drop.

    We have been discussing this here: http://www.coldclimategardening.com/2007/07/08/lucky-7/
    (Post and comments, esp. Ted B.)

  24. I have an urban house in the Los Angeles, California area. The front lawn has been replaced with natives and drought tolerant plants, including an annual meadow for the first time this year. The meadow was underseeded with Yarrow which, now that the meadow has bloomed and gone, forms a green and grass-like (from a far distance) cover. It takes occasional foot steps quite well.

    More details at

    Ironically, I probably use the same or more water on the natives than on the former grass, since I don’t mind brown grass in the summer.

  25. I work at a local garden center in Chicago and all the gardeners from California come in to purchase our Mister Landscaper irrigation system which is an economical above ground one that saves 70 percent of the water. It’s so easy that even a klutz like myself can install it in an afternoon. Visit their website at Misterlandscaper.com.

  26. Wow. Lots of comments on drought tolerance. Good stuff. We posted a Drought Alert on the SafeLawns.org site last week and I encourage you all to visit there. Mowing height is key; if no rain is predicted, just don’t mow. That’s the best thing you can do. Fescues are the most drought tolerant of the cool-season grasses; buffalo grass is the most tolerant warm-season grass. Avoid St. Augustine grass in all areas where droughts are prevalent; this species has the least ability to recover from drought. Of course, going organic in your lawn maintenance will give you far more drought tolerance in general. Last year when our HGTV crew filmed in Dallas with organic lawn care guru Michael Bosco, the organic lawns were all green; the chemical lawns were brown. It was 108 average high each day and the city was on water restrictions. Hope this helps.

  27. Here in the SE, we’ve had SO much heat, with very little rain this summer that it’s really separating the ‘drought-tolerant’ plants from the moderately drought-tolerant ones with the ones that are totally dependent on regular rain (uh, hydrangeas come from a part of the world that gets 60 in/yr). Hello?

    The plants from the SW US, Mediterranean perennials, and prairie plants have all held up reasonably well, with the less-tolerant things suffering. I think it’s a great practice to look at plants from those areas to use in low water-use perennial gardens.

    Even in my natives-dominated home garden, we’re needing to spot-water now, but we’re certainly taking notes. I’m planning a program about drought-proofing your garden this fall, actually. We still have water for irrigation here in the SE, but for knows for how long. Also, our Zoysia lawn areas are pretty crispy, but so far hanging on without water, although the clover patches (it’s a ‘freedom lawn’ have long since died.

  28. Gardening in N.j is interesting because lately all the moisture is in the air, but not falling out . New grass seed died but it did at least grow giving me some confidence in my ability. Suburban concrete and blacktop drought conditions. My postage stamp size
    garden looks like a pretty schizo off it’s meds. Asters are leaping and arching between everything.
    Think I’ll take the hint and grow clover-help out my peeps ,the bees.
    Any suggestions for dry shade? you know beside rocks.

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