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How to Make Your Landscape More Drought Tolerant

The East Vancouver Island Basin has been in a Level 4 drought since early July. Low rainfall during the spring and the extreme heatwave in June and into July resulted in uncharacteristic conditions. However, shortages are becoming more frequent, and the question of how to conserve water and protect the water tables, especially on the Gulf Islands is on many minds. Today, we take an excerpt from Climate-Wise Landscaping: Practical Actions for a Sustainable Future by Susan Reed and Ginny Stibolt on making landscapes more drought-tolerant. .

Excerpt from the book Climate-Wise Landscaping

Methods for building a more drought-tolerant landscape will differ depending on local climate. A landscape in a temperate zone that receives 30 or more inches of rain evenly dispersed through the year should look quite different from one in an area that receives less than 5 inches of rain per year. When we modify our landscapes to be more water-wise, they also become more sustainable for the climates in which we live. (See Section I for more ideas on sustainable lawn care and lawn substitutes.)

Creating more resilient landscapes that can withstand water shortages, water-use restrictions, and periods of hotter weather is one of the biggest steps we, as homeowners and property managers, can take to reduce our environmental footprint. In addition, such landscapes will save us money and time: drought-tolerant plants will last longer in the natural conditions of the local climate.


Choose drought-tolerant plants.

Wherever possible, use plants that will be able to survive droughts. Study local natural or untended areas to find which plants can survive on their own. See II-2 on page 58 for a list of plant characteristics that increase drought-tolerance.

Choose native plants.

When choosing trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants for the landscape, native plants are a good place to start because they have evolved to thrive in local rainfall patterns— not only the total rainfall,but also the seasonality of the rainfall such as wet and dry seasons. (See “A Primer on Native Plants” on page 103 in Section IV: Ecosystems.) ;

Choose more long-lived plants.

Perennials and woody plants can develop extensive root systems that efficiently soak up moisture from the soil. We can help this process by encouraging roots to grow outward by adding a top dressing of locally made composts spread beyond the root ball of the plants we install. This action doesn’t apply to annuals, which finish growing before their roots extend very far.

Plant in groups.

The plants will be more drought tolerant together. As discussed in Sections II and VII, install groupings of plants that approximate natural arrangements in the local area. A group of plants such as a thicket or grove is generally more drought tolerant than single or specimen plants for a number of reasons— much of it has to do with multiple plants sharing soil spaces and interacting within the soil’s ecosystem.

Install plants with similar water needs together.

Design the whole landscape to recognize the overall water and drainage patterns. If a group of plants needs more moisture, strategically position them to take advantage of runoff from roofs and driveways or overflows from rain barrels, or plant them in a swale.

Avoid thirsty lawns and other moisture-loving plants.

Avoid lawns entirely in arid or semi-arid climates. In areas that receive at least 20 inches of annual rainfall, keep lawns small and manage them sustainably with a diverse mixture of mowable plants. (See Section I for more on lawns.) Unless there is a water feature in the landscape or some other reliably moist area, avoid plants that need regular supplemental irrigation.

If you are looking for more ways to make your landscape more climate-wise, be sure to check out this book. Climate-Wise Landscaping is the ideal tool for homeowners, gardeners, and landscape professionals who want to be part of the solution to climate change.

Author Sue Reed

Author Ginny Stilbolt

Sue Reed is a registered Landscape Architect with thirty years' experience designing sustainable landscapes that are ecologically rich, energy efficient, and climate-responsive. Sue served for 14 years as adjunct faculty at the Conway School of Landscape Design and has led numerous workshops on the subject of ecological landscaping. Sue is the author of Energy-Wise Landscape Design, for which she also provided much of the photography.


Ginny Stibolt, has an MS degree in Botany from the University of Maryland, and moved to Florida in 2004. She has written 4 peer-reviewed books on gardening in Florida and hundreds of articles to educate Floridians on how to build sustainable landscapes


Ginny Stibolt, has an MS degree in Botany from the University of Maryland, and moved to Florida in 2004. She has written 4 peer-reviewed books on gardening in Florida and hundreds of articles to educate Floridians on how to build sustainable landscapes

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