Guide to Drought Tolerant Landscaping: What, Why, and How
As heat waves intensify and drought digs its heels in across the country, water conservation is more important than ever.
How serious is drought in the U.S.? Quite, as of Summer 2022, especially in the Western United States. The uptick in regulations limiting water use in places like California, Utah, Las Vegas, and even the typically rain-soaked Houston demonstrate the severity of current conditions.
Drought touches everything: ecosystems, industry, food production, city water supplies, recreation—virtually nothing is immune from a shortage of water, and that shortage is very much here.
In short: it’s a perfect time for homeowners, contractors, and landscape designers to focus on drought tolerant landscape design.
Table of Contents
What is Drought-Tolerant Landscaping?
Let’s walk through some definitions:
Drought-Tolerant refers to plants that will stay happy and continue to grow when water is scarce. Native plants are frequently drought tolerant, having evolved to thrive in local conditions. Throughout the West, Artemisia and Salvia are reliable drought-tolerant (and native) winners.
Drought-Resistant plants take it up a notch, surviving for long periods without any water at all. Many succulents like Agave, along with tough shrubs and perennials like juniper and Achillea/yarrow, are examples.
Climate-Adapted plants originate from other parts of the world with climate conditions similar to your local region. Plants from Australia, South Africa, Chile, and the Mediterranean often perform beautifully in California’s dry conditions for example, thanks to the climate these regions share in common. Climate-adapted plants are great for reducing water demands, and some, like Russian Sage and Lavender, can be popular with pollinator species.
Xeriscaping is an approach to landscape design and maintenance developed in the 1980’s by Denver Water. It aims for landscapes that require little to no irrigation at all—essentially the same goal as drought-tolerant or drought-resistant landscapes. Xeriscaping is commonly associated with desert landscapes heavy on decorative stone, but in fact it can be applied to virtually any landscape style, provided the design can thrive with little more than the water it receives from natural precipitation.
Water-wise is also often used to describe water-saving drought-tolerant gardens that require little to no irrigation to thrive, but it also refers to good water management, namely capturing and infiltrating water onsite to recharge groundwater supplies.
Lest we get lost in the jargon, let’s remember that each of the above terms is engaged for a common goal: using less water in our landscapes, and being efficient with the water we do use, two goals which neatly summarize drought-tolerant landscape design.
What about Drought-Tolerant style?
To be clear: there is no single drought-tolerant style.
Just as native plants look different from one region to the next, so too are drought tolerant landscapes (which often feature native plants!) capable of achieving a huge range of design styles.
As with xeriscaping, the thought of drought-tolerance tends to conjure images of sun-baked rock gardens or succulent-heavy desertscapes. This is one flavor of drought tolerant design, but certainly not the only one. Provided the plants you select can get by with minimal irrigation, they can contribute to a drought-tolerant design, replete with trees, shrubs, flowering perennials, wispy grasses, or pretty much any other plant type you may desire. Not every plant is drought tolerant, but there are more drought-tolerant species out there than you probably think.
Why Drought-Tolerant Landscaping?
Lawns are the worst offenders, hogging the majority of irrigation water in most residential landscapes, particularly in hot, dry climates where lawns require vast quantities of water to survive.
Big water consumption means big opportunity. By converting water-intensive yards into drought-tolerant landscapes, we can make a meaningful and necessary reduction in water use and do our part to alleviate the widespread impact of drought.
Opportunities of Drought-Tolerant Landscaping
Drought is not exactly good news, but look on the bright side: a lot of positive opportunities come along with reimagining your yard as a drought tolerant landscape.
Low-Maintenance (and Low Cost!). Opting for drought tolerant landscaping cuts back on the time and expenses you must devote to irrigation, resuscitating struggling plants, and replacing failed ones.
Take Advantage of Rebates. Governments and other agencies across the country offer a wide range of incentives for switching to drought-tolerant landscaping. There are deals to be had!
Increase Habitat. By opting for native low water species in your drought tolerant design, you can support your local ecosystem and patch up holes in fragmented habitat corridors.
Reduce Heat Islands. Expanding tree canopy, increasing planted surface area, and opting for light-colored hardscape materials all help to cool surface temperatures.
Reduce Home Energy Consumption (and expenditure!). Shade from canopy trees can make a big impact on home energy consumption, helping to reduce the amount of energy required (and paid for!) to keep a house cool inside.
How To Create a Drought-Tolerant Landscape
Now for brass tacks. Let’s look at the steps we can take to design landscapes that reduce water usage.
Any discussion of drought-tolerant landscaping necessarily starts with planting choices:
Drought-Tolerant and Drought-Resistant Planting.
To reduce water consumption, replace thirsty ornamental species with drought-tolerant or drought-resistant species. These can be native or climate-adapted, so long as they perform well with minimal water.
Looking for suggestions? Our roundup of ornamental grasses includes many drought-tolerant species, including several natives, while our guide to drought-tolerant plants recommends drought-tolerant favorites by state. Olive tree fans can also browse our breakdown of 10 olive varieties for residential landscapes.
A note on natives: whenever possible, we recommend prioritizing low water natives, which offer exponentially more habitat value than climate-adapted species, and tend to require the least maintenance to thrive.
Not all natives are low-water. Plants from damp habitats like streambanks may have higher water demands than natives from dry habitats. That being said, natives from dry climates are mostly low-water, and it’s easy to confirm the water needs of any species you consider.
Little to No Lawn.
Lawns require lots of water to stay green and healthy, and are particularly water-intensive in arid climates. Lawns are also routinely overwatered, and irrigated with spray sprinklers, which lose more water to evaporation than drip irrigation.
Beyond water concerns, lawns also offer scant habitat value, and generate air and water pollution via the mowers, blowers, fertilizers, and pesticides that must be enlisted to keep them green and tidy.
Lawns are vastly overused across the country, and our tolerance for them is inflated from overexposure. They’re not evil unto themselves, and in fact can be rather lovely, but lawns are not appropriate for every climate.
For landscapes in areas affected by drought or with a dry climate, we recommend skipping decorative lawns entirely. If people in these regions need lawn for functional reasons—say, as a surface for kids to play—include enough to meet that functional need, but no more.
It can be challenging to think beyond the lawn, but options abound. Looking for ideas? Try this blog on grass alternatives, which lists several drought-tolerant groundcover species like Sedum and creeping thyme, along with material alternatives like gravel and decomposed granite. You could also take a spin through our roundup of no-grass front yard ideas.
Our advice when replacing a lawn? Consider the area occupied by the lawn and how it can be used to generate the most positive impact on the overall design. Usually, the answer will be a combination of features: a seating area here, expanded planting there, a focal point tree over there, and so on.
There are 1,001 reasons to plant trees, and more than a handful of them relate to drought-tolerance. We’ll get into details below, but bottom line: trees can keep your yard cool and your soil moist, supporting greater drought-tolerance in both cases.
Beyond planting choices, there are other steps you can take to improve drought-tolerance in your landscape:
Reduce Temperatures in the Yard.
Plants use water less efficiently when they got hot—that means they require more water to survive when temperatures climb. Keeping plants cool has the opposite effect, improving their water efficiency.
To cool things off, try adding canopy trees to your yard—their shade will reduce ground-level temperatures. Increasing the amount of planted area in the yard can also help, especially if it involves replacing dark paving with planting.
Opting for light colored paving and building materials is also an excellent way to minimize ground-level heating. As anyone whose walked an asphalt parking lot in full sun can attest, dark colors absorb heat, light colors reflect it.
Increase Permeability and Infiltration.
Permeable surfaces allow water to soak back into the ground, where it builds back groundwater reserves, improving plants’ ability to endure dry spells. Planting, mulched areas, gravel patios, and decorative stone beds all make for excellent permeable zones.
As added perks, capturing and infiltrating water onsite also reduces pollution in local waterways and mitigates local flood risk, in both cases by keeping water onsite and out of city drainage systems.
Maximize permeable surfaces on your property, and use permeable areas to capture runoff from impermeable hardscape surfaces. It is particularly important to capture runoff from driveways, which is laden with heavy metals and other toxic chemicals from vehicles.
Tree roots increase the rate at which water soaks into the ground, while groundcover planting is highly effective at slowing down surface runoff long enough for gravity to coax it down into the soil. Adding trees, groundcover, and planting in general will give your onsite water management a big boost, keeping your soil moist, your ground cool, and your plants’ water reserves well-fed.
Trap Moisture in Soil.
Apply mulch to exposed soil in planting areas. This insulates the soil, keeping it cool and preventing it from losing moisture to evaporation.
Groundcover planting (or other planting) is even better than mulch, because its roots enrich the soil (it also offers critical habitat for the caterpillars birds depend on for food). In place of bare mulch zones, try adding small patches of native groundcover in open areas between denser moments of ornamental planting.
Shade from canopy trees or structures can also help to keep soil cool, in turn helping it retain its moisture.
Note: When placed in full sun, rock mulches absorb and reradiate heat, and can contribute to warming up the soil. This isn’t necessarily a problem, provided the plants in a full sun rock mulched bed are tolerant of heat.
An inefficient or leaking irrigation system can single-handedly erase all the gains you may have made through drought-tolerant planting and design. Don’t let this happen to you!
Routinely check your irrigation system to ensure it is leak-free and functioning properly.
Use high-efficiency drip irrigation for all plants, save for lawns, which do best with spray irrigation (another reason to skip lawns).
Incorporate a weather sensor into your system, or simply turn it off by hand when wet weather is coming – whatever it takes to avoid watering in a rainstorm.
Apply irrigation at the end of the day to minimize loss of water to evaporation.
Plant in Hydrozones.
Hydrozones are groupings of plants that share similar water requirements.
When placed next to high water plants, low water plants often end up receiving more water than they need. By grouping low water and high water plants in distinct zones, you minimize the loss of water to over-irrigation.
Of course, drought-tolerant designs should try to avoid high water plants entirely, unless the local climate provides enough precipitation to meet the majority of high water plants’ needs.
Cover your Pool.
Evaporation at it again! An exposed pool in full sun will lose significant water to evaporation. Throw on a pool cover, and this problem is solved.
Get Started With Your Drought Tolerant Landscape Design by Yardzen
Yardzen’s award-winning online landscape design is tailored to clients in all fifty states in the US. Through the American Rewilding Project, we are committed to creating designs with climate-adapted plants and water saving landscaping in drought-prone regions unless homeowners specifically opt out.
Our design process begins with understanding your space, your aesthetic preferences, and a discussion of your budget and vision to minimize surprises when it comes time to build.
Our top-notch designers then develop a personalized vision for your yard, shared through 3D renderings, 2D plan drawings, and plant and material lists. Your design will capture the look, feel, and function you are hoping for, all while keeping costs within range.
Once your design is complete, we’ll help you connect with a local contractor from our Pro Network of vetted professional landscapers to install your new design.