15 drought tolerant plants that will also be happy if it rains! – The Middle-Sized Garden

September 4th, 2022
Posted In: Gardening know how

Drought tolerant plants are at the top of the list if you have gaps to fill in your garden.

The record-breaking heat and drought in the UK this summer left our gardens fried and frazzled. And there are predictions that future years will also hold droughts and hotter temperatures.

But however hot or dry the long-term trend is, we can still have unexpectedly wet summers. Last summer there was twice the normal level of rainfall in my area.

So we don’t want to fill our gardens with drought tolerant plants which will struggle or die next time we have a wet summer.

So I’ve checked with some gardens I’ve known for some years, including my own, to see which plants did best in this year’s drought- but also looked good in last year’s unusually rainy summer.

Former garden designer and baking influencer, Jane Beedle, has a garden which survived this summer’s drought and last year’s wet weather, looking good in both. So here are her recommendations.

Drought tolerant plants for your garden

Jane’s garden looked good last summer when we had twice the normal rainfall, and it’s also looking good this summer after our record breaking heat wave and drought.

What’s the difference between drought tolerant and drought resistance?

It’s a question of degree. Drought resistant plants will survive very, very dry conditions for a prolonged period of time. Drought tolerant plants are plants that will survive unusual periods of drought, but will need a little more water than drought resistant plants.

It’s also worth remembering that even drought resistant plants can struggle in their first year.

There is a debate in the gardening world about whether you should water perennials and shrubs in their first summer, to help them get established, or whether it’s better to let them find their own way.

But you are more likely to lose a plant to drought if it’s in its first summer.

What are the best trees for dry gardens?

If you’re revamping your garden, then start with thinking about the trees. They provide the essential structure for a garden.

If you’re at the beginning of creating your garden, see Pollyanna Wilkinson’s tips on how to design a garden.

Young trees in particular will usually struggle if there’s a drought in their first few summers. So it’s generally considered to be advisable to keep watering them, however drought tolerant they are once established.

Olive trees – drought tolerant and often best in pots

Olive trees in pots

Jane grows two olive trees in pots. Olive trees won’t be happy in wet clay soil, so keeping them in pots works well.

Olive trees are very drought tolerant. But any plant in a pot will have to be given both fertiliser and water regularly, as it can’t get either out of the ground. Olive trees will survive most UK winters, which rarely go below minus 6C or 21F.

But if you live in a colder region, you will either need to wrap the tree in protective covering or take it indoors to a greenhouse in winter.

Pyrus calleyrana ‘Chanticleer’

Pyrus calleyrana ‘Chanticleer is known as the ‘perfect street tree’ because it is such a good survivor. As well as being drought tolerant, it absorbs pollution. It’s also low maintenance and pest free and it doesn’t grow too tall.

Ornamental pear tree is one of the easiest drought tolerant plants

Ornamental Pear or Pyrus Calleyrana ‘Chanticleer’ has a neat upright shape, white flowers in spring and good autumn colour. It’s a very easy going tree and features in my post on the best perfect for privacy trees.

If you live in the United States, Pyrus calleyrana has become highly invasive in several states. Check whether it is invasive near you before buying it.

Silver birch – good in dry and damp summers

One of my favourite trees, the silver birch, is also recommended for dry summers. It won’t like very hot or humid weather, but it’ll be fine in the occasional wet summer.

Silver birch is very hardy and can survive temperatures down to minus 46C/minus 50F. Silver birch is considered invasive in some parts of North America, so check where you are.

Jane bought quite a mature silver birch. ‘It took four men to carry it through the house.’ However, if you buy a larger tree, you will have to water it well until it gets established. Give it a good watering once a week, letting at least a watering can full of water seep down deep into the soil.

Don’t just sprinkle water on the soil. That will encourage the roots to seek the surface water rather than to grow down deep.

Drought tolerant tree - Himalayan Silver birch

Himalayan silver birch is a good drought tolerant tree.

What are the best drought tolerant shrubs?

Pittosporum

In Jane’s garden, Pittosporum ‘Golf Ball’ and ‘Irene Pattison’ handled the heat and drought this year without needing any water. And they also looked last summer, with twice the normal rainfall. Pittosporums are generally hardy down to minus 8C/17F, so they’re happy through a typical UK winter.

‘Golf Ball’ is a neat rounded shrub, often recommended as a substitute for box balls (see our 3 best alternatives to box for topiary post.)

Drought resistant evergreen shrubs

Here Jane has two drought resistant evergreen shrubs. Pittosporum ‘Golf Ball’ is in the foreground, with Sage, kept trimmed into shape, behind it.

Nandina domestika

There are a number of varieties of Nandina domestika. It’s an evergreen shrub, and Jane has two types. One is ‘Limelight’ which is a bright citrus green.

She also recommends Nandina ‘Obsession’, which handled last year’s double dose of rainfall and this year’s record temperatures of 40C/104F without showing any signs of stress. It has red-tinted leaves and white flowers.

Drought resistant plants in Jane's garden

A group of drought tolerant plants in Jane’s garden. The grass in the pot is Carex Everillo, but she wouldn’t normally say that it is particularly drought-proof. It has survived fine this year.

Fatsia japonica – the shrub that puts up with almost anything

Fatsia japonica is one of the most obliging plants. It will grow in quite deep shade and put up with neglect. Fatsia also has wonderfully sculptural leaves and it flowers in winter. So it has alot to offer wildlife.

It’s not very hardy, only down to minus 10C/14F, but that’s fine in most UK winters.

Fatsia japonica - drought tolerant and good in shade

Jane has planted a Fatsia Japonica in a shady corner, just behind a beautiful pot.

Drought tolerant perennials for beautiful borders

This last summer has really tested our borders in the UK. Some drought tolerant plants , such as crocosmia, seem to have suffered. But there are a few stars in Jane’s garden (and in mine too).

Anemanthele lessoniana

Also known as Pheasant’s Tail Grass, this is an easy-going grass which will be happy in sun or partial shade.  Many ornamental grasses are drought resistant plants, but not all. This one, however, features in the Dry Garden at Beth Chatto Gardens, which are never watered and are in the driest part of the UK. If you want to do a complete dry garden border, then here is dry garden advice from the Beth Chatto Gardens’ head gardener.

Other drought tolerant ornamental grasses include Stipa (gigantea and tenuissima, Calamagrostis, Panicum and Pennisetum.

Beth Chatto Gardens sells plants for dry areas online.

Echinacea purpurea

Echinacea purpurea

Echinacea purpurea (Purple coneflower) will keep flowering for months on end if you keep dead heading it. It’s loved by pollinators, but doesn’t always come back reliably after winter, although it has in Jane’s garden.

Hylotelephium (formerly known as Sedum) ‘Autumn Joy.’

This is a real star of the late summer and autumn garden, flowering for months. It’s best in full sun, and can get floppy in a shady spot. Hylotelephium is also very cold, and can over-winter down to minus 30C.

Sedum 'Autumn Joy'

This used to be called Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ but has now been re-named Hylotelephium. ‘Autumn Joy’ is also sometimes referred to by its German name ‘Herbstfreude’. A very easy going plant which withstands drought exceptionally well, but also performs in wetter UK summers.

Nepeta (Catmint)

There are several pretty, long-flowering catmints, with blue flowers, such as Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’ and Nepeta ‘Walkers Low’. Nepetas are not just low maintenance drought resistant plants. They’ll deal with really quite a wet summer, too, although they won’t enjoy very boggy conditions. And they’re hardy down to about minus 20c/minus 4F.

You’re generally advised to plant Nepeta in full sun, but it seems happy with partial shade in my garden.

Nepeta Six Hills Giant

Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’ at West Dean Gardens. When I visited Borde Hill Gardens earlier this year, the nepeta was surviving the drought better than the lavender.

Perovskia ‘Blue Spire’ (now Salvia)

This elegant member of the sage family featured strongly in Doddington Place’s Rock Garden, which has not been watered for twelve years. After the long, hot July it looked as bright and cheerful as ever. It has recently been re-named by the botanists and should be referred to as Salvia ‘Blue Spire’, but so far, everyone still seems to be calling it Perovskia.

Perovskia Blue Spire

Perovskia ‘Blue Spire’ at Doddington Place Gardens in Kent. Doddington Place has a Rock Garden, which is full of drought tolerant plants.

Salvias

Salvias are also in the sage family – and sage is well known as one of the most reliable drought tolerant plants. This is an enormous family, so you will need to check which salvia you are buying. Some are very tender and won’t even survive a UK winter, while others will happily live for years when winter temperatures go down to minus 35C/minus 30F.

Jane recommends Salvia ‘Greggii’, which is hardy down to about minus 10C/14F, and which flowers for months on end. She says that she chops it back to a small mound in late spring, and then plants around it. Every year it grows back into a large bush, and the flowers go on for months.

Salvia 'Greggii' a long flowering drought tolerant plant

I also have Salvia ‘Greggii’ in my garden. It has flowered since the end of June, even through the hottest weeks when almost everything else in my garden was brown or lacking in flowers.

Verbena bonariensis

Verbena bonariensis is very popular for its tall, airy wands tipped with purple flowers. It’s loved by pollinators, too. Like Salvia ‘Greggii’, it hardly seemed to notice our 40C/104F heatwave.

Last summer it was just as pretty. And the seedheads remain into winter, feeding the birds and looking good in frost.

Verbena bonariensis is drought tolerant and wildlife friendly.

This cloud of purple flowers is Verbena bonariensis, seen in garden designer Shaun Mooney’s rented garden in pots.

What is the best drought tolerant ground cover?

Teucrium chamaedrys

Also known as Dwarf Germander, has been one of the most drought tolerant plants in my garden this summer. It’s a low evergreen shrub with tiny pink flowers which are loved by bees.

I planted it about four years ago and it now drapes itself elegantly over the path. It was happy last summer too, in the wetter weather. This sweet little plant is good in either sun or shade, so it’s a very useful ground cover.

Teucrium chamaedrys

The little pink/lilac flowers are fading now, but the bees are still buzzing around my Teucrium as it lines my path.

Drought tolerant plants for pots

You can plant any plant in a pot, and I successfully grew salvias in pots for a season. And even if you choose drought tolerant plants, you’ll still have to water pots regularly because the plants can’t get their roots from the soil. But these plants are less likely to wilt under the relentless heat of a hot, dry summer because they are ‘Mediterranean’ plants.

Pelargoniums

The classic Mediterranean plant for pots. They often come in vibrant pinks and reds. Jane’s garden has lots of green foliage and with pops of colour. Just one pelargonium is very effective.

Pelargoniums are drought resistant plants

Pelargonium is a classic drought tolerant plant for hot summers. It adds pops of colour to Jane’s garden, both this year and last.

You always have to water and feed plants in pots, because even in a wet summer, very little rain can penetrate a pot full of flowers and foliage.

Tulbaghia violacea

This charming summer bulb underplants a small cherry tree in a pot in Jane’s garden. She also has it growing in one of the borders, where it has flowered happily without being watered.

You’re advised to grow tulbaghia in full sun, but Jane has the pot on the shadier side of her garden, where it is flowering well.

Society Garlic - long flowering and drought tolerant

Jane says that this Tulbaghia violacea or Society Garlic has flowered since June in her garden. It looks like a mini agapanthus, but keeps flowering for much longer.

And a good drought tolerant climber…

Star jasmine

Jane notes that some clematis have flagged this summer. They’ve had fewer flowers or their flowers have been smaller, and they haven’t looked happy. But star jasmine or trachelospermum jasminoides has flowered in her garden for around two months, providing useful nectar for pollinators. The glossy leaves look healthy, and this climber also did well in last year’s wetter summer.

Trachelospermum jasminoides

Trachelospermum jasminoides or Star jasmine in Dan Cooper’s courtyard garden. See Dan’s tips for grouping pots here.

See the full interview with Jane and her garden in video

Video on drought resistant plants

Pin to remember drought tolerant plants

And do join us – see here for a free weekly email with more gardening tips, ideas and inspiration.

Plants for dry and wet summers!

Related Posts