3 Tips for Drought Tolerant Gardening

Don’t sacrifice the look of a welcoming, lush garden because your weather won’t cooperate (we’re looking at you, sad droopy plants). We have a three step process for helping your existing garden become the lush drought tolerant garden of your dreams!

1 - Choose the best low maintenance, drought tolerant plants.

There are high performing, drought tolerant shrubs for any zone! Sprinkle a few reliably vigorous plants throughout your garden and they’ll take the spotlight during periods of drought. This helps take the visual pressure off of your less happy plants. Here are some of our favorites:

Zones 9 to 11

Austin Pretty Limits® oleander
USDA zones 8 to 11

Estrellita Little Star™ firecracker bush
USDA zones 8-10

La Vida Grande Indian hawthorn
USDA zones 8-10

Waxwing Lime™ mirror bush
USDA zones 9-11

2 – Plan to water the first year.

In a plant’s description, you’ll often see the caveat, “drought tolerant once established”. This essentially just means that during the first growing season it’ll need to be watered when precipitation isn’t providing enough water to keep the soil moist. We have a few tips on how to be water-wise in your own garden and how to water your newly planted drought tolerant shrubs:


  • Apply mulch after planting. Mulch will help retain soil moisture better than any other product.
  • When you notice the soil is dry or almost dry, you’ll want to water your new shrubs at ground level. By watering at the base instead of from above, you’re saving water from being lost to evaporation or misapplication (being applied to foliage or empty spots in the garden bed). 
  • Water in the morning, this gives the water more time to soak in before the heat of the day comes along to evaporate what’s left on the mulch or soil surface.
  • Water deeply each time. Plants that are watered more thoroughly, but less often will perform better than plants that are watered lightly and more often. 
  • Be sure to water all around the rootball as well as just outside of it to encourage the roots to expand outward. 
a gardener watering a shrub with a hose

Although this may seem counter intuitive for a water wise garden, watering when necessary during the first year is really critical for setting the plant up for success. Once it has developed a healthy root system it’ll be able to access water in the surrounding area to help support its foliage and flowers.

3 - Keep an eye on pruning.

To stay dense and lush looking, some plants benefit from regular rejuvenation pruning or a bit of shaping in the springtime. Just make a note of how dense your plant is looking during the growing season and plan to trim it at the appropriate time.

TIP: If you’re seeing a lot of damage in spring or it looks like your plant is “shrinking,” that indicates it would benefit from a bit more water than it’s getting.

a close up of a gardener pruning a branch
Common drought-tolerant plants and their pruning needs:

if desired, trim to shape after flowering (will remove possibility of fruit in fall)

pruning is not recommended

benefits from a heavy spring prune

doesn’t generally need pruning, but if desired prune just after spring’s first flush of growth

Butterfly Bush
benefits from a heavy spring prune

if desired, trim to shape after flowering

benefits from rejuvenation pruning every 3 to 5 years

benefits from rejuvenation pruning every 3 to 5 years

doesn’t generally need pruning

Firecracker Bush
if desired, trim to shape in spring

benefits from rejuvenation pruning every 3 to 5 years

Indian Hawthorn
if desired, trim to shape after flowering

doesn’t generally need pruning

Mirror Bush
trim as desired

benefits from rejuvenation pruning every 3 to 5 years

can benefit from rejuvenation pruning every 3 to 5 years

doesn’t generally need pruning

Plum yew
if desired, prune to shape in early summer

benefits from both a heavy spring prune and rejuvenation pruning every 3 to 5 years

benefits from rejuvenation pruning every 3 to 5 years

Rose of Sharon
doesn’t generally need pruning, if desired it can be trimmed to shape in spring

depends on the species, those that bloom on new wood in summer can be pruned in early spring if desired and those that bloom in spring on old wood can be pruned after flowering

St. John’s Wort
if desired, trim to shape in spring

if desired, trim to shape after flowering

if desired, trim to shape in spring

Have a question about water-wise shrub gardening? Ask in the in comments below!

Comments (6)

  1. Nancy

    What flowering bushes do you recommend for a mostly shaded area?

  2. Lauren Wellman

    I have a Candy Corn Spirea. When should I prune it?

    • Kristina Howley

      Double Play Candy Corn spirea blooms on new wood and can be pruned in the early spring. You can give it a nice even trim to keep that tidy, rounded habit.

  3. Barbara

    I have Cats Meow Catmint. It has been in the ground for three years in full sun but won’t bloom. Help!

    • Kristina Howley

      Oh no! I’m sorry to hear it. Have you tried giving it a hard prune about now in the summer? This could trigger some new growth. If that hasn’t worked, you could apply a bloom-boosting fertilizer.

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Picture of Kristina Howley

Kristina Howley

I am all in when it comes to gardening. Almost every part of the experience delights me – new leaves emerging in spring, pollinators buzzing in summer, birds devouring berries in fall, and the somber beauty of seed heads in winter. Thanks to a background in horticulture and gardening my own clay-filled, flowery USDA zone 5b plot, I’ve learned plenty of practical things as well. I like sharing these joys and lessons with my fellow gardeners and soon-to-be gardeners any way I can.


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