Water-Thrifty, Drought-Resistant Plants

As we strive to create flourishing landscapes—both in our own small spaces and in our communities at large—we are faced with diminishing natural resources on a very large scale. The traditional model of large, thirsty lawns and paved driveways that dispatch rainwater straight to the street is (thankfully, though slowly) becoming an outdated way of landscaping.

Instead, and as Diana Maranhao conveys in her book Water-Smart Gardening, we are becoming wiser about preserving and protecting our water resources: more and more, people are turning to a landscape of drought-tolerant, drought-resistant, and water-savvy plants.

A beautiful, lush, water-smart landscape began as 4-inch to 1-gallon sized plants. Now, the garden thrives in maturity. Photo: Water-Smart Gardening

If this water-saving method sounds appealing yet perhaps a bit daunting to you, you’re in good company! You don’t have to re-landscape everything all at once; you can start small, and you can start now, by introducing drought-tolerant plants into your landscape. As Maranhao explains, Nature has helpfully taken a lot of the guesswork out of it:

“There are drought-tolerant plants that grow naturally across the U.S. in every region and climate. They grow in colonies and drifts, sustaining themselves on nothing more than what nature provides, and have perpetuated their species through hundreds of years of extreme weather conditions.”

Let’s take a look at a handful of drought-resistant perennials—and let’s redefine the idea of a flourishing garden as one that contributes to both our immediate landscape and the wellbeing of our planet.

Coneflower / Water-Smart Gardening

Coneflower / Echinacea spp.

ZONES: 3–9. Coneflower grows naturally in dry meadows and grasslands, rocky hillsides, and prairies in southeast and central U.S. Oval toothed or deeply lobed leaves are covered with a stiff, hairy coating. Tall hairy stems rise in early summer to hold daisylike blooms in white, bright pink, purple, yellow, orange, and combinations, with large contrasting cone centers in black, brown, orange, and yellow.

  • SIZE (H × W): 2 to 4 feet x 18 to 24 inches.
  • SUN: Full sun.
  • MULCH: Chipped or shredded bark; river rock.
  • LANDSCAPE USE: Use coneflower en masse in cut-flower or perennial gardens, in drifts in meadows, singly in containers, on dry hillsides, and in rock gardens.

It doesn’t care to be disturbed once planted, but reseeds to naturalize if seed cones remain on plants. Sow seed or plant quart or gallon containers in spring. Deep, infrequent watering.


Flax / Water-Smart Gardening

Flax / Phormium hybrids

ZONES: 9–10. Flax comes from rocky hillsides, scrub areas, and riverbanks in New Zealand. Grown for its foliage that is narrow, linear, sheathlike, folded slightly inward, and growing in fans that form a vase shape. Long leaves in shades of dark green and white contrasting stripes, or in mahogany, plum, red, or blackish-red leaves with pink or yellow stripes.

Some shades turn deeper in cooler weather. Mature plants bloom spring to late summer. Tall, dramatic stems reach 12 feet, with yellow-green or reddish tubular blooms.

  • SIZE (H × W): 2 to 8 feet x 2 to 8 feet.
  • SUN: Full to part sun.
  • MULCH: Sand, gravel, rock, shredded bark.
  • LANDSCAPE USE: Grow in masses poolside, in sweeps on slopes, as background in perennial gardens, or as a dramatic container plant; overwinter indoors in colder climates.

Sold in 4-inch, quart, or gallon pots; water sparingly.


Lamb’s Ear / Water-Smart Gardening
Lamb’s Ear / Water-Smart Gardening

Lamb’s Ear / Stachys spp.

ZONES: 5–9. Lamb’s ear grows in a range of conditions from streamsides and open forests to dry, rocky scrublands; meadows; and hillsides in southwestern U.S., Greece, Turkey, Iran, and Europe. Often matting, sometimes tall and bushy, with thick leaves, often aromatic (some like it, some don’t!), usually furry, green with lighter or white undersides, deeply veined, with slightly curled or toothed edges. Short spikes of tubular blooms in pink, yellow, red, white, or purple appear in late spring.

  • SIZE (H × W): 6 to 36 inches x 12 to 48 inches.
  • SUN: Full sun to part shade.
  • MULCH: Rock, gravel, shredded or chipped bark.
  • LANDSCAPE USE: Use shorter types in drifts as groundcover in perennial beds, color borders, in rock gardens, bushy forms as focal point, in midground meadows, hills, and in containers.

Plant containers in spring; deep, infrequent watering, less in winter.


Lavender / Water-Smart Gardening
Lavender / Water-Smart Gardening

Lavender / Lavendula spp.

ZONES: 5–10. Lavender is native to the Mediterranean, South Africa, Canary Islands, and Spain; grows in exposed and rocky sites. It is evergreen, slowing or stopping growth in colder climates, then refoliating in spring. Lavender is grown for its aromatic (high in oils), green or gray-green small, linear leaves that are toothed or serrated, and sometimes softly hairy. Scented blooms in purple, lavender, pink, and white grow on short (3-inch) or long (to 3 foot) stalks in late spring. Continuous blooming year-round in temperate zones.

  • SIZE (H × W): 1 to 4 feet x 1 to 3 feet.
  • SUN: Full sun.
  • MULCH: Rock, gravel, sand.
  • LANDSCAPE USE: Grow in pots in colder climates; overwinter indoors. Grow in sweeps in the perennial garden, in blocks for formal garden, in drifts in the meadow, as filler in the color border.

Available in pots year-round, many cultivars. Water irregularly, deeply.


Penstemon / Water-Smart Gardening
Penstemon / Water-Smart Gardening

Penstemon / Penstemon spp.

ZONES: 3–10. Penstemon grows in a broad range ofconditions and climates in the U.S. Deciduous, partly or fully evergreen, bushy to linear shrubs grow in arid desert, prairie, grassland, woodland, and alpine regions. Over 250 species and many cultivars make diverse leaf types, narrow, ovate, leathery, shiny, waxy, green, and gray-green, forming at the base of the plant, whirling up the long stems or with leafless stems supporting tubular blooms in red, pink, purple, white, and orange in summer through fall.

  • SIZE (H × W): 4 to 40 inches x 8 to 36 inches, depending on type.
  • SUN: Full sun to part shade.
  • MULCH: Shredded or chipped bark, gravel, sand, rock.
  • LANDSCAPE USE: Use in wildflower, meadow, or prairie gardens; in sweeps in perennial borders; in drifts along driveways.

Available in quart, gallon, 5-gallon pots in spring; allow soil to dry before watering deeply, infrequently.


Red Yucca / Water-Smart Gardening
Red Yucca / Water-Smart Gardening

Red Yucca / Hesperaloe parvifola

ZONES: 8–10. Red yucca is native to Texas and New Mexico, growing in arid locations. Red yucca has the body of a yucca with tough, linear leaves with fibrous edges forming rosettes at plant base. Aloe-like flowers on 5-foot-long stems grow out of the base and are covered with tubular, deep to bright red and coral blooms, late spring into fall.

  • SIZE (H × W): Flower stalks to 5 feet x 3 to 4 feet clumps.
  • SUN: Full sun.
  • MULCH: Gravel, rock, stone, or sand.
  • LANDSCAPE USE: In cold climates, grow in a pot; overwinter indoors. Where hardy, cluster red yucca in the midground of desert scenes, singly as focal points, along dry streambeds, in drifts in dry perennial beds.

Water irregularly and deeply to establish; no winter watering; thereafter water deeply twice monthly during summer.

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You can have a colorful, striking garden that’s drought resistant, too!

Water-Smart Gardening gives you all the tools needed to create a water-smart landscape and garden. Drought is spreading throughout the country. Even areas that previously had plentiful supplies are feeling the strain, and the price of water is climbing. If you have to water your garden during non-drought years, many of the water-saving techniques from this book could still pay for themselves in no time.

Choose water-smart plants that survive and even thrive in low-water situations. Tap into the power of evolution and use plants native to your area. Time your irrigation and install water-collection devices such as cisterns and rain barrels. Creating a water-efficient garden can even be as simple as designing your landscape to harvest as much rainfall as possible, using berms, terraces, and raised beds.

Gorgeous photos throughout Water-Smart Gardening will inspire you with beautiful garden ideas and help you see your way to a garden that sips water instead of gulping it. Helpful how-to information gets to the nuts and bolts of everything from installing a cistern to using seep irrigation. Author Diana (Dee) Maranhao brings over 30 years of experience to help you create the garden of your dreams and save water at the same time.

Diana (Dee) Maranhao has been an active member of the horticulture and landscape industry for more than 35 years. She holds a degree in Ornamental Horticulture, and is a credentialed teacher in California, specializing in Ornamental Horticulture. Diana has spent much of her career in higher education, serving as a Horticulture Program Manager, Nursery Production Specialist, and educator specializing in Xeriscape-Low Water Use Landscaping, Nursery Production, and Plant Propagation. Diana has also been a horticulture editor and project editor for numerous educational texts, magazines, garden guides, and horticulture books. She has been a regularly featured garden columnist for more than ten years, authoring hundreds of gardening and horticulture articles for the public and the horticulture industry. Diana is also the author of Rocky Mountain Fruit and Vegetable Gardening (Cool Springs Press, 2014). She received the “2014 Professional of the Year” Award from Southwest Trees & Turf Magazine at Desert Green XVIII Conference in Las Vegas.