What Is Drought Tolerant Gardening?

Drought-tolerant landscaping with flowering shrubs and plants next to white brick wall

The Spruce / Sarah Crowley

Drought-tolerant, water-wise landscaping has become more popular and even mandatory in regions that experience little or sporadic rainfall. Some regions and cities impose fines or offer rebates and incentives to homeowners who replace their thirsty lawns and gardens with water-wise plants and hardscape. If you drive by a home with a dying lawn, the residents probably have stopped watering it and are planning to add gravel, river stones, permeable paving, and low- or no-maintenance ground covers, shrubs, trees, and perennials that don't need frequent irrigation.

What Is Drought-Tolerant Landscaping?

Drought-tolerant landscaping means growing plants that don't wither and die without water. Aloe, artichokes, and lavender are a few examples of drought-tolerant plants.

What Does Drought Tolerant Mean?

What does drought tolerant mean in relation to landscaping and the environment? Let's break it down.

The word drought means: a period of dryness especially when prolonged; specifically: one that causes extensive damage to crops or prevents their successful growth.
The word tolerant means, in the broader sense: the capacity to endure pain or hardship, and, more specifically, relative capacity of an organism to grow or thrive when subjected to an unfavorable environmental factor.

That understood we know that, through lack of rainfall and supplemental water, drought causes plants, crops, and wildlife to become parched and eventually die.

The Native Plant Connection

Most drought-tolerant plants are usually the plants that are native to a particular region. Native plants are the plants, shrubs, and trees that graced the country long before settlers from other lands showed up with their plants and a garden hose.

Check with local universities, master gardeners, and native plant organizations to find out more about the native plants in your area.

Drought Tolerant vs. Drought Resistant

The terms drought tolerant and drought resistant are often used interchangeably—and incorrectly so. While drought-tolerant landscaping and plants are able to grow or thrive with minimal water or rainfall, drought-resistant plants can survive for long periods of time without water.

In others words, drought-resistant plants take drought tolerance one step further. For example, Jatropha, a heavily veined succulent with large green leaves and dainty flowers, stores water at the base of its trunk, and once established, can survive for long periods without water. Plants that have relatively low water requirements or plants that are well adapted to an arid climate are often described as drought resistant or drought tolerant.

Other Terms for Drought Tolerant

Xeriscape and xeriscaping are terms used to identify a landscaping style that uses drought-tolerant plants to help conserve water. Water-wise refers to landscaping with plants that grow well in a garden that manages water sensibly.

Additional terms for drought-tolerant include water-smart, water-conservation, dry garden, dry landscaping, and desert landscaping.

Why Have a Drought-Tolerant Garden?

In areas that often suffer from drought—like Texas, for instance—the question would be, why not create a water-wise garden?

Record-breaking droughts in Georgia, Texas, California, Australia, and other regions have resulted in mandatory water rationing and incentives for water-wise landscaping that requires minimal to no irrigation. This can be done by cutting down on or eliminating thirsty turf grass, introducing drought-tolerant plants that are native to the area, and incorporating hardscape and more outdoor living spaces like patios, gravel pathways, and decks.

Why You Should Rethink Your Lawn

What do you use your lawn for? Why is it there? If the best answers you can come up with are, "in case somebody wants to play on the grass" or "it's there because everyone in my neighborhood has a green grass lawn," Is that an educated, conservation-minded, do-right-for-the-planet kind of mindset? Then it's time to reconsider.

If you absolutely have to roll on something green once or twice a year, consider turf alternatives, like synthetic turf, drought-tolerant ground covers like creeping thyme, white clover, or even mulch. Who knows—you might discover in the process that there are many alternatives to replace that water-guzzling patch of grass. Better yet: satisfy your lawn fix and visit a local park that hopefully has a smart water recycling program in place.

Common Drought-Tolerant Plants

While cactus and succulents are obvious examples of drought-tolerant plants, here are several other water-wise plants to choose:

Add Hardscape

A balanced landscape design incorporates both softscape and hardscape, thus creating better curb appeal through diversity. This is especially true with a water-conservation garden. Natural hardscape connects a landscape with a building, highlighting architectural features and emphasizing natural materials and textures.

In addition to plants, incorporate hardscape elements like gravel, rocks, stone, brick, wood, and pavers. Think about it: an all-plant landscape can be too one-note; it requires more maintenance and consumes more natural resources, like water.