Figaro's Blog

May 30, 2023

13 Favourite Plants for Creating Drought Tolerant Gardens

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For gardeners on the southwest coast (and for our southern neighbours in the Pacific Northwest), drought has long been an abstract concept. With our sometimes-interminably rainy winters, lack of water hasn’t been something we’ve had to worry too much about—unless we’re on an island. But extreme weather events in recent years have forced many of us to think again. In this post, we’ll share 13 of our favourite drought-tolerant perennials and argue for the importance of creating drought tolerant gardens.

How we used to think about water and gardens

Prior to the wildfires, heat domes and extended dry periods of the early 2020s, many coastal gardeners commonly believed:

  • drought isn’t something we need to worry about here.
  • water is an unlimited resource.
  • a plant’s light requirements are important; its water needs aren’t so much.
  • drought-tolerant garden designs don’t suit a West Coast aesthetic.

Challenged to change

It’s not new for us to have dry summers, but it is new for us to have extreme heat and dry periods that last well into the fall. Gardens—and the gardeners who care for them—struggled in the extreme heat and drought. We’ve seen the effects of these extreme weather events on communities, individuals, and—on a smaller scale—even on individual plants.

The British Columbia Drought Conditions Map indicates that for May 2023, Metro Vancouver is experiencing “moderate drought.” Moderate might seem not all that bad, but considering that we’re in the middle of spring—typically the tail end of a very wet season—the fact that we’re in active drought at all is concerning.

The extended drought of October 2022 also had many of us rethinking our water usage. We’re used to lawn watering restrictions, but when Metro Vancouver urged us to take shorter showers and curb non-essential water use, we sat up and listened.

Exploring our resistance to drought-tolerant gardens

Confronted with these realities, many gardeners have realized the need to shift their approach. We understand that we can no longer ignore drought and heat stress and the impact on our gardens. But after years of treating a plant’s water needs as secondary to its aesthetic qualities and light requirements, it can be difficult to adapt. Similarly, many of us have a bias against drought-tolerant landscapes as being “all gravel and yuccas.”

But designing for drought tolerance, or xeriscaping, isn’t a “look” or a style that compromises the beauty of a garden. Instead, it’s a thoughtful approach to creating a sustainable and resilient landscape that can thrive in our changing climate.

Styles of drought tolerant gardens

One misconception about drought-tolerant gardens is that they lack diversity and visual interest. In reality, these gardens can be just as vibrant and captivating as any other. By carefully selecting a variety of drought-tolerant plants with different textures, colours, and heights, you can create a visually stunning landscape that evolves with the seasons.

Drought-tolerant landscapes don’t have to be “all gravel and yuccas.”

Incorporating Mediterranean and other “summer dry climate” plants, succulents, ornamental grasses, and even drought-tolerant flowers can add depth and character to your garden.

What is Xeriscaping?

Xeriscaping means designing a garden for drought tolerance. While it doesn’t mean completely eliminating the use of water, this drought-tolerant approach to gardening means being mindful of water consumption and maximizing efficiency. By incorporating water-saving techniques such as mulching, drip irrigation systems, and rainwater harvesting, you can significantly reduce water usage in your garden.

A few favourite drought tolerant plants

Figaro’s Garden is responding to our drier, hotter weather by bringing in a greater selection of drought-tolerant plants, trees, and shrubs. There are too many to list, but here are some of our current favourites:

Lavender (Lavandula spp.)

Close up of English lavender spires against a blurred background

Lavender is one of several perennial aromatic herbs originating in the Mediterranean. It has many medicinal, home, and aromatherapy uses. Photo by Janine Joles on Unsplash

Known for its aromatic fragrance and beautiful purple flowers, lavender is a popular choice for drought-tolerant gardens. It thrives in full sun and well-drained soil.

English or common lavender (L. angustifolia) is the best variety for cooking or baking. English lavender blooms in late June and has a compact habit. We like ‘Hidcote,’ ‘Blue Cushion,’ and ‘Munstead.’ Spanish or French lavender (L. stoechas) is the one with the “ears” and is earliest to bloom. These can be more tender (hardy to zone 8) and are often used in potpourri and crafts because they are so fragrant. Look for ‘Ballerina,’ or ‘Anouk.’ Lavandin (L. x intermedia) is also known as “fat lavender.” A hybrid of English and Portuguese lavenders, it has the strongest fragrance and is taller than other lavenders. ‘Grosso’ is a common variety.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

Close up of rosemary needles on a dark background

Rosemary is a fragrant, showy evergreen shrub that provides great structure in the garden. It can be used in containers, borders, or hedging, placed to cascade down walls, or even clipped into a topiary. Photo by Babette Landmesser on Unsplash

A versatile herb with aromatic leaves, rosemary is not only drought tolerant but also a culinary delight. It thrives in sunny locations and well-drained soil.

‘Arp’ is considered one of the hardiest rosemary and also tolerates soggy soil. ‘Barbecue’ blooms summer-fall and grows up to 5′. ‘Tuscan Blue’ and ‘Spice Island’ are both prized for flavour and their upright habits. Creeping rosemary (R. officinalus Prostratus group) is a low-growing rosemary that’s good for cascading down walls or even as a ground cover.

Thyme (Thymus spp.)

Thyme growing in a garden

Thyme has many uses and varieties. Photo by Anja Junghans on Unsplash

An aromatic evergreen subshrub, thyme is well suited to small spaces and hot locales. Arguably the most useful culinary herb, thyme is also very useful in the garden. Great as a filler or spiller in an ornamental container grouping, it also makes a good edging for a pathway or between stones so that its oils are released when stepped upon.

We love T. vulgaris (Common thyme) and T. x citriodorus (Lemon thyme) for culinary use. T. serphyllum (Creeping thyme) and T. pseudolanuginosus (Wooly thyme) make wonderful ground covers for hot, dry locations.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Yarrow, or Achillea, is a drought-tolerant perennial with feathery foliage and clusters of small, colourful flowers. It attracts hordes of pollinators and makes a wonderful addition to a cut-flower, cottage, or meadow garden.

Colours range from soft whites, cream, and yellow to hot pinks and rusty oranges.

Smoke bush (Cotinus)

So named for its smoke-like plumes of flowers, smoke bush is drought-tolerant deciduous shrub. Photo by Jinomono Media on Unsplash

Cotinus, also known as smokebush or smoke tree, is a deciduous shrub or small tree that adds drama to any landscape. Its unique feature is its cloud-like, airy clusters of tiny flowers that resemble billowing smoke. With its vibrant foliage that ranges from deep purple to golden yellow, cotinus stands out as a stunning focal point in gardens, providing year-round interest.

Cotinus coggyria ‘Velveteeny’ is a “teeny” form of the popular Royal Purple Smokebush, eventually reaching 3-4′ tall and wide. It produces feathery plumes of grey-pink flowers in summer atop burgundy foliage. It is an easy to maintain dwarf, rounded form, and, like other smoke bushes, it is drought tolerant.

Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia)

Photo showing an ornamental scree / gravel garden within a park, with a neatly clipped yew tree hedge forming a boundary to the garden. The grounds are softened with herbaceous plants, evergreen shrubs and seasonal flowers, including bushes of Perovskia 'Blue Spire'.

Perovskia ‘Blue Spire,’ shown here in the right foreground, is a focal point in this xeriscaped gravel garden.

Perovskia, also known as Russian sage, is a deciduous woody perennial that lends a striking presence to sunny gardens. With its slender, silvery-grey foliage and abundant spikes of lavender-blue flowers, it has a dreamy and ethereal quality. It also attracts pollinators like bees and butterflies, making it a delightful addition to any garden or landscape.

Perovskia is tolerant of heat, drought, and poor soils.

Catmint (Nepeta spp.)

Flowering Faassen's blue catmint (Nepeta faassenii) plants in summer garden

‘Faassen’s Blue’ catmint (Nepeta faassenii) is a summer cottage-garden favourite.

Nepeta, commonly known as catmint or catnip, is a charming deciduous perennial herb. Its aromatic foliage and delicate spikes of lavender, blue, or white flowers create a soothing and inviting atmosphere. Loved by cats for its irresistible scent, nepeta also attracts bees and butterflies. Easy to grow and low maintenance, it’s a delightful choice for an informal or xeriscaped garden.

Nepeta racemosa ‘Blue Wonder’ and the compact N. x faassenii ‘Kitten Around’ are favourites here at Figaro’s.

Stonecrop (Sedum spp.)

A close-up of a green succulent ground cover plant, useful in creating drought tolerant gardens

Sedum ‘Divergens’ is also known as Old Man’s Bones for the way it breaks easily (luckily, broken pieces root equally easily!).

Stonecrop, or sedum, is a versatile and resilient perennial succulent that thrives in various garden settings. With its fleshy leaves and diverse forms, sedum offers an array of textures, colours, and heights to choose from. From low-growing ground covers to tall, showy varieties, sedum brings beauty and interest to rock gardens, borders, and containers. Drought tolerant and easy to care for, it’s a perfect choice for adding visual appeal and attracting pollinators to your landscape.

In addition to the many wonderful ground cover sedums, we like the taller ‘Autumn Joy’ and ‘Xenox’ varieties.

Wormwood (Artemisia spp.)

pots of silver artemisia on a nursery shelf. Artemisia is a favourite for creating drought tolerant gardens

Artemisia has wonderful silver foliage. Many silver-foliaged plants are drought tolerant.

Artemisia, a genus of aromatic and silvery-grey perennial herbs, is grown primarily for its stunning foliage, which makes a wonderful contrast to green and purple foliaged plants. With its finely divided foliage and feathery texture, artemisia creates a soft, ethereal atmosphere. From low-growing ground covers to tall, dramatic varieties, this plant offers a range of heights and forms. Known for its drought tolerance and deer resistance, artemisia is a reliable choice for adding beauty and resilience to landscapes.

We love Artemisia ‘Powis Castle,’ ‘Silver Brocade,’ and ‘Valerie Finnis’

Cape Fuschia (Phygelius spp.)

Yellow flowered phygelius on a nursery shelf. Phygelius is useful in creating drought tolerant gardens

Phygelius rectus ‘Moonraker’ is one of our favourites.

Perhaps not as well known as some of the others on this list, Phygelius rectus, commonly known as the Cape Fuchsia, is a striking perennial that brings elegance and charm to gardens. With its erect stems, this variety displays clusters of tubular flowers in vibrant shades of red, orange, or yellow. The trumpet-shaped blooms attract hummingbirds and butterflies. Phygelius rectus is a hardy and low-maintenance plant, perfect for adding a touch of movement and vibrancy to any garden or landscape.

We’re in love with the pale-yellow-flowered P. rectus ‘Moonraker.’

Coneflower (Echinacea spp.)

Echinacea blooms in pink and orange are useful in creating drought tolerant gardens

Echinacea purpurea or the purple coneflower is native to eastern parts of North America. Photo by Stephan H. on Unsplash

Coneflowers, or echinacea, are hardy deciduous perennials that produce vibrant, daisy-like flowers in shades of purple, pink, yellow, orange, and white. They are well-suited to dry conditions and are beloved by pollinators. Their sturdy stems and long-lasting blooms make them a reliable choice, while their cone-shaped seedheads can stand well into the winter to feed songbirds. Coneflowers are a must-have for anyone seeking vibrant, low-maintenance perennials.

Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)

Kinnickinnick close up of green leathery leaves in nursery pots. Oxalis is is useful in creating drought tolerant gardens

Kinnickinnick is a native, evergreen ground cover plant that is also drought tolerant once established.

Kinnickinnick, also known as bearberry, is an evergreen ground cover native to British Columbia. With its glossy, leathery leaves and delicate, bell-shaped flowers, Kinnickinnick creates a carpet of green that spreads gracefully. It is known for its tolerance to poor soils, drought, and cold temperatures, making it an excellent choice for challenging environments. Kinnickinnick is a natural choice for erosion control, slopes, or as a low-maintenance, year-round ground cover.

Read about more drought-tolerant BC native plants.

Redwood Sorrel (Oxalis oregana)

Oregon wood sorrel is useful in creating drought tolerant gardens

Also known as Oregon Wood Sorrel, Redwood sorrel is a drought- and shade-tolerant native ground cover.

Redwood sorrel, a shade-tolerant ground cover, has attractive clover-like leaves. Native to British Columbia, this spring-flowering plant features small white flowers with yellow centres. Though it likes moist soils, Oxalis oregana
can go all summer without irrigation, making it an ideal choice for planting under trees. As a perennial evergreen, Redwood sorrel maintains its attractive foliage throughout the year, adding beauty to any landscape.

In addition to those listed above, you might also consider the following in creating drought-tolerant gardens:

  • Agapanthus (Agapanthus spp.)
  • Baptisia (Baptisia australis)
  • Bay laurel (Laurus nobilis)
  • Blue spruce (Picea pungens)
  • California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica)
  • Elijah blue fescue (Festuca glauca)
  • Fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides)
  • Heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica)
  • Juniper (Juniperus scopulorum)
  • Lavender Cotton (Santolina chamaecyparissus)
  • Leatherleaf sedge (Carex buchananii)
  • Mexican Feather Grass (Nassella tenuissima)
  • Ninebark (Physocarpus)
  • Pampas grass (Cortaderia selloana)
  • Pine (Pinus spp.)
  • Red Hot Poker (Knifophia)
  • Rock rose (Cistus ladanifer)
  • Tall Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium)

Establishing drought-tolerant gardens

While these plants are drought tolerant once established, it’s essential to provide adequate water during their establishment period (which can range from one to three years) to help them develop strong root systems. Additionally, proper soil preparation and mulching around the plants can further enhance their drought resistance.

Amending the soil with organic matter, such as compost or well-rotted manure, can improve its structure and water retention abilities, creating an optimal environment for the plants’ roots to access moisture.

Mulching plays a vital role in conserving soil moisture and protecting plants from drought stress. Applying a layer of organic mulch, such as compost, straw or shredded leaves, around the base of the plants helps to reduce evaporation, prevent weed growth, and regulate soil temperature. Mulch acts as a protective barrier, shielding the soil from the drying effects of the sun and wind. It also improves water infiltration and reduces runoff, allowing the plants to make the most of the available moisture.

Mulch also aids in maintaining a more consistent soil moisture level by slowing down water evaporation from the soil surface. This reduces the frequency of watering required and helps the plants develop deeper, stronger root systems that can better withstand dry periods. Mulch also acts as an insulating layer, protecting the roots from extreme temperatures and minimizing fluctuations in soil moisture.

Until plants are established, you may want to follow best practices for dealing with extreme heat.

Making the shift to drought-tolerant gardening

It’s time to reimagine our gardens and embrace the possibilities of drought-tolerant landscapes. Let’s break free from outdated beliefs and stereotypes and design gardens that not only reflect our unique aesthetic preferences but also contribute to a more sustainable and water-conscious future.

Making the shift to a more drought-tolerant garden may require a shift in mindset and gardening practices, but the rewards are significant. The time for change is now. Let’s create gardens that thrive in the face of drought and inspire a greener, more resilient future for our coastal communities.





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