Spring and summer droughts are becoming increasingly common across many parts of the UK. With temperatures rising and rainfall becoming less consistent, drought-resistant plants have never been more important to gardeners. A drought-tolerant garden can be more sustainable, saves you time and effort, and cuts back on the water bill. It’s also a great option if you’re away from home for long periods.
There are many garden plants that are well adapted to dry conditions, thriving on little water even in hot, sunny weather. Like all plants they will require watering for their first season after planting – make sure to install a water butt to collect rainwater if you don’t have one already! – but once established, these drought-resistant plants will pretty much look after themselves. Here we’ll take you through some of the best drought-tolerant plants to use for a garden that will look fantastic but let you leave the sprinkler in the shed.
There’s a place for salvias in every garden. They can be one of the most long-flowering of all perennials, are loved by pollinators, and come in an almost endless array of colours, sizes and flower shapes. On top of that, they thrive in dry conditions! For flowering duration there’s no beating the award-winning Salvia ‘Amistad’, a border hero that sends up spires of deep purple blooms continuously from June right through to November. For containers or smaller spaces, try the compact Salvia ‘Salvatore Deep Blue’, which packs a punch at only 35cm tall. If you’re looking to plant en masse, Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ is an ideal choice, providing low maintenance swathes of colour that will be abuzz with bees all summer long. Salvias don’t have to be purple, though! Try the pretty shell-pink Salvia ‘Dyson’s Joy’ for a pastel colour scheme, the elegant ‘Clotted Cream’ for a calming and refined white or ‘Hot Lips’ for adding a sizzling pop of colour to a hot border.
Low-maintenance, highly drought-tolerant and providing year-round interest with its attractive silvery foliage, lavender is an obvious choice for any dry, sunny spot. English lavender ‘Munstead’ is one of the best, producing masses of deep blue-purple heads on neat, compact plants. These are ideal for edging paths or borders or creating a low hedge.
Verbena bonariensis has become a key figure in dry borders and prairie planting schemes. Its slender, airy stems rise above other plants, creating height and texture. This reliable hardy perennial is incredibly easy to grow, requires little maintenance and will self-seed if allowed to create beautiful, naturalistic drifts.
Echinacea or coneflower is a hardworking perennial in any garden, providing valuable late summer colour with its nectar-rich blooms, standing up to dry conditions and needing little maintenance. It’s also a staple of prairie planting schemes. You can’t go wrong with the classic Echinacea purpurea, but if you’re looking for something a bit different, try the white version Echinacea purpurea ‘Alba’, the fiery bicolored red and yellow Echinacea ‘Parrot’, or the floriferous ‘Cheyenne Spirit’ in hot shades of red and orange for a superb addition to a hot border.
Grasses are a staple of any low-maintenance, droughtproof garden. Stipa tenuissima is a fantastic choice: requiring very little water, it provides year-round interest, structure and movement to borders, whilst providing a matrix through which drought-tolerant herbaceous perennials such as salvias, verbena and echinacea can grow for a stunning combination. Pennisetum alopecuroides or fountain grass is a very decorative ornamental grass producing beautiful pink-tinged flowerheads like little squirrels’ tails. The tall, upright Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ has become very popular as a screening plant – a low-maintenance, airy alternative to a hedge.
Trees & Shrubs
A selection of well-placed trees and shrubs is key to creating structure, height and year-round interest in any garden or outdoor space. There are a variety of drought-resistant shrubs and small trees to choose from – with the bonus that many are evergreen!
Rosemary is a wonderfully hardworking shrub. As well as being drought-tolerant, it provides year-round interest, repeat flowers over a long period, and is a valuable culinary herb! Rosemary comes in different forms to suit different spaces. Upright shrub forms such as the lovely ‘Tuscan Blue’ are perfect for adding evergreen structure to borders, whilst prostrate or semi-trailing forms such as ‘Corsican’ look wonderful tumbling over a wall or in sun-drenched pots, hanging baskets or window boxes.
‘Rock rose’ is a name that is shared by two related but distinct groups of plants: Helianthemum and Cistus. Both are evergreen and thrive in free-draining and nutrient-poor soils, requiring plenty of sun and little water. Cistus grow into larger shrubs than the typically low-growing Helianthemum. For a good-size shrub (to 1m) consider Cistus x purpureus ‘Alan Fradd’, which bears lovely, large white flowers with yellow centres and an attractive splash of crimson to the base of each petal. Cistus x pulverulentus ‘Sunset’ is a great smaller shrub (to 60cm), producing deep rose-pink flowers all summer long. Though they are much smaller sub-shrubs, Helianthemum are too good to ignore, though: Helianthemum ‘Golden Queen’ forms neat, low clumps that become smothered in sunny golden yellow buttercup-shaped blooms from late spring to mid-summer. At only 20cm high, it is ideal for containers, rockeries and the front of borders.
Native to California, Ceanothus or Californian lilac knows a thing or two about heat and drought! This gorgeous evergreen shrub is perfect for adding height to a border or as a specimen plant. Larger varieties such as ‘Italian Skies’ can also be used as a small tree, developing an attractive bare trunk over time. In late spring or summer, the small, glossy deep green leaves become smothered in dense clusters of tiny blue flowers, which are an absolute magnet for bees.
Hailing from the Mediterranean, this elegant evergreen tree provides year-round interest with its narrow, silvery foliage. Our olive tree standard is ideal for patio pots and will happily overwinter outdoors in most parts of the UK providing it is in a sheltered spot; alternatively you can move it into a greenhouse or conservatory over winter.
Thyme is another herb that is just as useful in the garden as it is in the kitchen. This mat-forming evergreen makes excellent dry ground cover as well as being a lovely addition to containers, rockeries and the front of borders. The pretty clusters of tiny flowers are also very attractive to pollinators. Thymus ‘Silver Posie’ is a particularly attractive variety, boasting a silver variegation to the leaf that intensifies in winter, making it a great addition to winter and spring container displays.
Forming a low, evergreen carpet, Lithodora is ideal for the front of borders, rockeries, gravel gardens and containers. Lithodora diffusa ‘Heavenly Blue’ is one of the best varieties, producing masses of vivid electric-blue flowers from late spring throughout summer.
Thriving in dry soils, walls and rockeries, this endlessly cheerful little daisy produces dainty white and pink flowers non-stop all spring, summer and autumn! It will readily self-seed to form a delightful carpet, making it ideal for ground cover. It also looks great as a gap-filler around taller plants in borders. Erigeron ‘Stallone’ is a floriferous variety with a lovely mix of white and pink flowers.
Surprisingly drought-tolerant once established, aubretia quickly spreads to form an evergreen mat which becomes smothered in four-petalled purple blooms throughout spring. As well as ground cover, it is perfect for rockeries, the front of borders and cascading over walls.
We hope this selection of drought-tolerant plants has given you some ideas for your own low-maintenance, sustainable garden that will thrive in a dry climate. For more ideas, see our list of drought-resistant plants and our guide to plants for dry, sunny borders. You might also find our water-saving tips useful!