Drought Tolerant Plantings PDF Print

Limiting water usage will become increasingly more important as time progresses and our population continues to grow.  We do not give much thought to the water that we use for our gardens and beds, but as in California and other dry climates, the rationing of water may eventually become a necessity for all of us.  Rather than wait until the problem forces conservation techniques, why don’t we implement water saving principles now and maybe even prevent the need for rationing in the future.

One of the best solutions to limiting our garden and bed water usage is to introduce drought tolerance principles.  Drought tolerance involves more than just introducing drought tolerant plants into our existing environment.  The process as described in the book Gaia’s Garden - A guide to home-scale permaculture by Toby Hemenway (ChelseaGreen.com), is a 5 pronged approach to reducing water requirements and increasing the ability of a garden to sustain in dryer climates and seasons.

The 5 steps in this process are:

1.       Retain as much water on site in the existing soil as possible
2.       Create rain gardens or micro swales to hold water
3.       Plant densely and keep the soil shaded
4.       Install plants that are tolerant to dryer conditions and consume less water
5.       Mulch

Here is a breakdown of these 5 steps for more clarity.

Soil Water Retention

Without good water retention in your soil, even the most drought resistant plants will perish.  Heavy clay soils with a thin layer of topsoil will not sustain plantings without supplemental irrigation.  However, soils that are prepared correctly can act as water reservoirs to sustain plant life during dry times.  1 foot of properly prepared soil will hold up to several inches of water.

Quality soil can be created relatively quickly with a technique called sheet mulching or over time by adding organic matter such as compost.  Either system produces soil that is multi-layered and deep with organic matter.  This enriched soil provides a prime system for holding water and capturing rain as it falls.

Micro Swales and Rain Gardens

Rain gardens and Micro Swales are both designed to help contain water in the soil.  Micro Swales in an “S” shape profile act almost as small terraces.  These profiles help to keep water from running off and allow it to soak into the soil.  Rain gardens are small micro detention areas that collect rain water from hillsides and roof systems.  Any system such as this encourages the water to remain on site instead of running off into the storm system.

Dense Planting Patterns and Shading

When planting patterns are dense, the soil is shaded and remains cooler.  Shaded soil will not be as exposed to the sun and to evaporation of water.  Heavy mulching of beds will also keep the soil shaded and will help to retain moisture for the plants.  As plants die or as leaves fall off, this material should be mulched right into the soil.  This added mulch will also provide additional shading and organic material.  Soils with more mulch and organic material are much better at tolerating heavy rains.  Self mulching in a continual pattern will also increase fertility in the soil.

Install Plants with Decreased Water Requirements

Only after a proper soil base has been established, should you introduce plants.  Using plants that require less water will help your gardens and beds maintain themselves without demanding near the water of a topsoil over clay system.  Contact your local landscaper or landscape architect for a listing of drought tolerant plants that will grow well in your area of the country and will create the look that you desire.   Please check out our references page for ideas.


Creating drought tolerance involves more than just the selection of plants.  It is a detailed process that begins with the quality soil.  Soil that is prepared and maintained properly is the foundation for good water retention and decreased water loss through evaporation.


Special Thanks to Acornlandscapes.com for guidance on this article


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