University of Vermont
Department of Plant and Soil Science

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DROUGHT-RESISTANT PLANTS FOR THE NORTH

Dr. Leonard Perry, Horticulture Professor Emeritus
University of Vermont

With the northeastern United States and most of Vermont experiencing abnormally dry to severe drought conditions, many gardeners are concerned for their gardens.  Conserving water through cultural practices such as mulching or adding organic matter to the soil helps during a drought, as does collecting rainwater or recycling dishwashing water.  Another option is to plant drought-resistant plants. 

If a drought in your area isn't too severe, or doesn't last for too long a period, it may just be best to weather the extreme conditions.  Most established herbaceous perennials and woody plants will survive some water stress, although they may not grow or flower as well.  Newly planted ones should be watered well and deeply, once a week, for a month or so or until good roots have developed.  This is especially true if planting during a hot and dry summer period.  Since most are available in pots, they can be planted through the summer into early fall.

If your landscape and garden are facing a more severe or prolonged drought, or you're tired of the extra watering even if water is available, you may want tough plants.  Most such lists of suitable plants are for arid climates, such as the Southwest or Texas, and often are termed “xeriscape” plants. 

The following are a few drought resistant plants you might consider for northern landscapes.  Keep in mind that they aren't cacti, so they still will need some occasional water, just not as much as many others not listed. 

Many annual flowers actually will tolerate some dryness, especially if in good soil with lots of compost or organic matter, if well-rooted, and if well-watered the first few weeks.  For attractive foliage consider the bright colorful leaves of amaranths, or the silver leaves of dusty miller.  Some other drought-tolerant annuals include zinnia (especially the Profusion series), sweet alyssum, spider flower, and portulaca or rose moss.  Cannas have large thick leaves and attractive flowers, and love heat, but they must be dug and overwintered above freezing.  Most spring-flowering bulbs are good choices, too. Order these in summer, or buy in fall for fall planting.

Many perennial flowers withstand some drought, including for early summer bloom yarrow, blue stars, false indigo (Baptisia), ornamental strawberry, lupine, and peony.  For later summer bloom consider daylily, black-eyed daisy (Rudbeckia), coneflower (Echinacea), catmint, phlox, Russian sage (Perovskia), and sedum.  Some choices for dry shade include the dead nettles (Lamium), vinca (but only if it won’t become invasive), and hosta.  For foliage perennials, consider wormwood (Artemisia), hens and chicks (Sempervivum), and lamb's ears (Stachys).  Most of the ornamental grasses also tolerate drought, such as the low blue fescue, switch grass, or feather reed grass.  The herb thyme makes a good groundcover for drought in full sun.

For shrubs that tolerate dry conditions, try flowering quince, Caroline Allspice (Clethra), cotoneaster, bayberry, potentilla, and many of the old-fashioned shrub and species roses.  Some evergreen shrubs include junipers, yew, and Russian arborvitae (Microbiota) which resembles junipers.   Some vines you might consider are sweet autumn clematis, the honeysuckle vine, and Virginia creeper.

Drought-resistant deciduous trees (those that lose their leaves in winter) include species of oaks, hackberry, hawthorne, and elms.  Some good evergreen tree choices are the white fir, spruces, pines, and white cedar. 

Besides the few plants mentioned here and in lists online, such as mine, (pss.uvm.edu/ppp/pubs/OH73drought.htm), you can find ones suitable for your area at complete garden centers and nurseries.  Or, use these “botanical” clues to determine if a plant can handle drought conditions:

•    fleshy thick stems and leaves, such as perennial sedum and hens-and-chicks

•    waxy coated leaves, such as the herb rosemary, or annual wax-leaf begonia

•    densely hairy leaves, such as the perennial lamb's ears, or mullein (Verbascum)

•    silvery, grayish or bluish foliage, such as the annual dusty miller or dianthus—some are annuals, others biennial or perennial, or perennial false indigo

•    narrow leaves, such as the tender perennial beeblossom (Gaura), or ornamental grasses

•    prickly or spiky leaves, such as the perennial globe thistle (Eryngium), or yucca


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