By Sharleen Pratt, Master Gardener
We are into the middle of summer, a time to relax and enjoy all the hard work we have put into our gardens. I struggle with my plants receiving enough moisture during the summer months and each year I think more about drought tolerance and what I could grow that would require less water and care.
There are several drought tolerant perennials and we are lucky that many of them are native. Once established they will withstand periods of prolonged drought. Choosing native is a good choice as native plants are tolerant with our soils and climate and have evolved with the birds and pollinators who often use them for shelter and food.
Here are a few drought-tolerant plants that grow well in my garden:
Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
It has been growing at the bottom of my garden near the road and in full sun. It has a beautiful orange flower and is one of the top butterfly-attracting plants around. The stems grow 2-3 feet with narrow leaves that are dark green. If given the room, the plants will get bushy. The large seed pods are also attractive. It is a wonderful native plant that tolerates a broad range of conditions. Beware as this plant emerges very late in the spring and does not like to be disturbed, so mark it well in order not to dig around it.
Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum)
This is a tough plant that grows to about 6-12 inches. It has a lovely reddish pink to purple bloom with interesting seed heads. It has flourished in my native garden at the bottom of my property in full sun and exposed to winter salt. As the flowers fades and the seeds begin to form, the styles elongate (to 2” long) to form upright, feathery gray tails which collectively resemble a plume or feather duster. They are very unique. It spreads by rhizomes and can be naturalized to form an interesting groundcover.
Blanket Flower (Gaillardia)
This perennial is not native but has beautiful brightly-coloured daisy flowers, often with a contrasting central eye. They are all long blooming and if you have the time to remove the faded flowers, they will continue to bloom for several weeks. Mine is a compact form that looks lovely at the front of the border. It prefers hot, dry areas and are therefore, very drought tolerant! They have a life-span of 2 to 4 years, so cut the plants back hard in early September. This forces new leaf growth from the base and helps to prevent plants from blooming themselves to death.
Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia)
It forms an upright bush of fine-textured grey-green leaves that are actually fragrant when rubbed. The plant becomes a haze of lavender-blue flowers by the end of July. It continues to bloom for weeks. Russian Sage is an excellent filler plant for a border. Leave the woody stems over the winter months to encourage new shoots to appear. In spring, prune the plant back to 6”. It is very attractive to butterflies.
Little Bluestem (Schirachyrium scoparium)
This is a lovely native grass and is often found growing in open woodlands and prairies. It is a warm season grass so doesn’t start its growth until later in the spring. Its’ early growth has a blue/green colour. The flowers on this grass are very attractive and the seed heads are fine with a fluffy appearance. The mature seeds are greatly favoured by small birds. This plant is clump forming and grows typically between 2 to 4 feet. The plant looks lovely year-round and the deep roots penetrate deep into the soil. In the fall, it turns a golden to reddish brown. There is a large version called Big Bluestem, but I much prefer the Little Bluestem. These two plants are actually from a different genus so although they have some similarities, they are also quite different.
Here is an excellent article by the Toronto Master Gardeners with an extensive list of drought tolerant perennials for many different types of conditions.