Ideas for a drought-tolerant garden

by Xanthe White / 21 February, 2013
Hot, dry summer weather can wreak havoc in a garden, but there is a positive side to drought.
Gardening - Ideas for a drought-tolerant garden

My garden is like a dust bowl, but I can’t bring myself to do anything about it. The lawn-mowing man has stopped coming, after his last visit produced little more than billows of dust. Even watering somehow feels redundant. The soil is so dry that the water from the hose flows down the hill towards me as fast as it hits the ground. Passion-vine hoppers are sucking the last sap from the withering plants, and other insects are thriving. And with so much live food on tap, the birds – in defiance of my overheated cats – seem more plentiful than ever. Along with the moreporks and tui, fantails have been visiting for the first time. Possums are much in evidence, too, as the dry weather has affected nearby reserves, so they are looking for easier sources of food.

What impresses me, though, is that once the first decent autumn rain arrives, drenching the soil and washing the foliage, plants that looked like write-offs suddenly revive. I’m not suggesting we sit back and watch our gardens wither away, but I’m starting to think the key to better gardening is less interference and growing the right plants for the conditions. This takes some faith on our part; faith that beneath the earth there are roots awaiting moisture to help them kickstart the plant back to life.

There are limits, of course, and a true drought will have casualties if we don’t intervene. A vegetable garden, for example, needs regular watering to keep it producing, and pot plants can’t endure drought the way garden plants can, with their complex root systems. In general, though, that slightly browny hue you see in the garden is the colour of late summer, and it does bring with it some benefits.

Drought ideas

Gardening - Helenium autumnale flower
Helenium autumnale, photo/Thinkstock.


If, like me, you keep running out of room in your garden, now is a good time to cull weak or struggling plants and make room for new ones. No working mother of two has time for namby-pamby plants that demand more attention than one’s beloved. My top-rating plants for water endurance include several native ferns. I’d always thought ferns were moisture-loving shade plants, but I’ve found Doodia media (rasp fern) and Pellaea rotundifolia (button fern) particularly outstanding through the hot summer. Clivia spp endure the driest of shade, but also cope with wetter conditions. Worth mentioning, too, are Coprosma spp, Lavandula spp, Anemanthele lessoniana (gossamer grass) and Loropetalum chinensis, which are all hardy and a suitable size for both suburban and rural situations where water is an issue.


Many late-summer flowers have bright vibrant colours. Achillea, heleniums, echinacea, scabiosa and rudbeckias will brighten a dreary garden at this time of year.

Gardening - scabiosa flower
scabiosa, photo/Thinkstock.


Even though we water the garden only modestly, our latest water bill showed such an increase that its helpful chart suggested we’d added two members to the household since the previous quarter’s bill. Having a slightly less lush garden can help you refill a depleted post-Christmas wallet.


If you do water your garden over summer, ensure the soil has a good covering of mulch. Ideally, mulching can wait until autumn when the garden is cut back, but bare earth loses water quickly, so it’s best to keep it covered.


Dead or dying foliage is just what compost needs to keep it healthy, as too much kitchen waste from summer fruit and peelings will turn it slimy. A generous addition of dolomite lime will sort out the fruit flies and odours and help keep the compost healthy, too. If you’re watering your lawn in this weather, growth will still be fast. Make sure you spread the clippings thinly around the garden, as a thick layer will generate high temperatures, making it a perfect breeding ground for flies.


Droughts are particularly hard on lawns, but they also provide an opportunity – without weedkillers or hard labour – to start again from scratch. Rotary hoe the dead lawn, then sow with fresh seed after the first autumn rains arrive.

Gardening - Rudbeckia hirta flower
Rudbeckia hirta, photo/Thinkstock.


It’s a good time to collect seeds from plants you like, including those whose seeds are edible. Beans, for example, that you have tired of eating fresh, can be picked, dried and stored for winter.


To have vegetables throughout winter, start sowing in autumn. Once a vegetable garden has acquired that rambly past-its-prime look, rip out the crops and replenish the soil ready for replanting in the next few weeks.

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