6 Flowering Perennials for Hot Dry Locations
Before we moved to our current home, I gardened on a sunny hilltop location with heavy, rocky clay soil. To say that the plants I planted there had to take the heat was an understatement. And yet, through some trial and error, I managed to grow a garden that required little care and supplemental watering only during dry spells. I figured I’d take a moment to share some of the plants that worked for me in my zone 5 full sun garden.
Keep in mind that when I’m talking about drought tolerance I’m referring to established plants. Any perennial will take a year to really become established in its new setting, and during its first year it will require some extra attention, namely in the form of keeping the plant well watered (about an inch of water per week is a good rule of thumb, and more during hot dry spells.) After its first year, the perennial should be much more acclimated and ready to face some rugged conditions.
Echinacea (Purple Coneflower)
My theory is that anything I can find flourishing (and looking lovely) in a ditch somewhere is probably a pretty sturdy plant. Echinacea fills the bill. It grows with minimal care and watering.
That said, there are many echinacea cultivars, and some grow better than others. Echinaceas have become quite the popular plant with hybridizers, and some of their creations–from the double-flowering to the designer colored–will likely take you by surprise by departing quite a bit from the typical coneflower. I could probably write several articles on echinaceas alone, but for now I’ll just suggest a few cultivars that are worth checking out. My favorites (so far) include: ‘After Midnight,’ ‘Pink Double Delight,’ ‘Fatal Attraction,’ ‘Coconut Lime’ and the wildflower species, Echinacea purpurea.
Echinacea grows in zones 4-8. It blooms in mid- to late-summer and lasts through early fall. Seed heads are attractive through the winter, and provide great food for birds, but you may want to cut some or most of them down to prevent excessive seeding if you don’t want your Echinaceas to spread.
Liatris spicata (Blazing Star, Gay Feather)
Here’s another perennial whose wild look-alike (the invasive purple loostrife) you’ll see growing in marshy ditch banks. But unlike purple loostrife (which is on quite a few DNR invasive species hit lists), liatris behaves itself in the garden and handles dry soil.
Liatris is another perennial I love because of its carefree nature. It grew for me readily without being fussy or complicated. Not only that, but it’s absolute crack to bees and butterflies–if you need pollinators in your vegetable garden, plant some liatris nearby to attract them. I have watched all kinds of butterflies visit my liatris plantings, from monarchs to giant swallowtails.
Depending on its location, liatris blooms from mid- to late-summer into mid-fall. It’s hardy from zones 3-10. It doesn’t spread excessively (in fact, it can be a bit slow in that department, so plant more if you want a nice patch.)
Take a look around at city plantings or plantings around businesses and you’ll find Hemerocallis everywhere. That’s because daylilies are among the easiest plants to grow. They take harsh conditions without complaint and are pretty much guaranteed to show up and flower their little heads off for weeks. Each daylily bloom lasts for just one day, as the name suggests, but each plant produces multiple blooms. Some rebloom after the first flush of flowers.
I know a few gardeners who don’t like the daylily because they find the spent flowers unattractive. If you’re a fussy gardener who can’t stand the look of a dangling deadhead, this may not be the plant for you. But if you’re okay with a natural look you’ll find that there are gazillions of daylily cultivars (this plant is another hybridizer favorite) in a rainbow of colors and bloom shapes and sizes to choose from.
Daylilies do well in zones 4-10 and take full sun to partial shade. (They won’t produce as many blooms in a shadier location, I’ve found.) Established plants do best if divided every 3-4 years or so. Yes, digging and dividing is a chore, but there’s one bonus–more plants!
Nepeta (Cat Mint)
Nepeta is a great, hardy plant for challenging locations, but be warned–it’s a member of the mint family, and therefore it spreads readily. Most gardeners don’t find it a nuisance, but if you’re into a tidy, fastidiously kept garden (in which case this list may not be fore you, anyhow) this is a plant to avoid. But again, if you like the natural look of a garden left to its own devices, you can’t miss with nepeta.
There are a few different species and cultivars of nepeta, but the low-growing ‘Kit Cat’ looks like a winner. (I haven’t grown this myself.) ‘Walkers Low,’ despite the name, is a fairly large plant, reaching about 30″ tall with a broad spread. Read plant tags and keep the space you have in mind before planting nepeta.
Nepeta is another bee and butterfly favorite. It grows in zones 3-8 in full sun to partial shade. Its flowers and leaves are aromatic and yep, some cats find it irresistible.
If you like a plant with a lot of pizazz, then gaillardia is an inspired choice. Some cultivars are so vividly colored that they’re a little bit difficult to figure out how to fit into some garden settings, but no one will ever complain that they don’t “pop.”
Not only is gaillardia eye-catching, but this is one perennial that can take the heat and endure drought–it was custom made for hot and dry locations. About the only down-side to gaillardia is that it can be somewhat short-lived in the coldest climates.
Gardeners seem to have mixed feelings about gaillardia (some love the look, some find it garish), but if you’re looking for a tough plant that won’t wilt in a hot dry spot, then this perennial should be on your list.
Grow gaillardias in zones 3-10 in well-drained soil. Gaillardias can self-sow if not deadheaded, and the seedlings often don’t resemble the parents, so nip off the seed heads if you want to prevent the plant’s spread or keep the strain in your garden true to its cultivar.
I started malva indoors from seed last year, kept it in the house way too long (which left it stunted), finally planted it in the garden (figuring it would just sort of fade away) and was stunned by the way it leaped up from the ground, grew, and bloomed like crazy all within the span of a few weeks.
Mallow is another type of perennial that grows wild and doesn’t require any special care. (Some find it “weedy” for this reason; I find it utilitarian.) It looks pretty growing toward the back of the garden, and it flowers prolifically from late-spring right on into fall, when it starts to slow down a bit. I find the foliage somewhat dull, so I plant malva behind plants that will hide their “feet” but not their flowers.
Plant malva in sun to partial shade in zones 4-8 and watch it take off. Grown in too much shade it may flop and require staking, but give it sunlight and it should be tall and stately.
The secret to a good garden, I’ve found, is to find what works and stick with it. I experimented with lots of plants and found some that were well suited for my location and others that failed to impress. The unimpressive ones, or plants that require excessive care and babying, are a waste of gardening energy in my opinion.
If you’ve got a hot, dry spot give these perennials a try. I’d love to hear about your results!