Drought-Tolerant Plants for Your Water-Wise Garden

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Drought-Tolerant Plants for Your Water-Wise Garden

Year-end reports from 2022 indicate that much of our planet is experiencing extreme drought conditions. Water levels in rivers, lakes, and reservoirs shrank to record lows, and dry conditions fueled wildfires across the continents last year.

Here are just a few of the discouraging highlights:

  • Asia. According to the Nature Conservancy, about 400 million people in China depend on the Yangtze River for drinking water and irrigation. The Yangtze, Asia's longest river, also is a significant source of China's hydropower. Yet, it reached record low levels last summer.
  • Africa. According to the World Meteorological Organization, the Horn of Africa, the continent's easternmost section, experienced its most prolonged drought in four decades in 2022. Humanitarian groups warned that the long drought is increasing food insecurity issues for more than 50 million people.
  • Europe. A report released by the European Commission found that the continent's droughts last year were the worst in at least 500 years. In August, nearly two-thirds of Europe was under either drought warning or drought alert conditions.
  • North America. Although a wet winter has helped some areas rebound in the western United States, ongoing “megadrought conditions” persist. In 2022, wildfires scorched Arizona, Colorado, California, Oregon, and Washington. The publication Nature Climate Change found that the dry conditions that have persisted in the southwestern U.S. for the past 22 years are the worst since at least 800 A.D.

With major drought conditions happening around the world, it is natural for gardeners to be concerned about their plants. Even if you practice water conservation habits, your water supply can sometimes be out of your control. What about if your well dries up? If you rely on tap water for your irrigation, what happens if the supply dwindles or becomes unavailable?

To help you plan for a lack of water, we've put together a list of plants that have the best chance of surviving on small amounts of water. Adding these drought-tolerant fruits and vegetables to your garden will help reduce your water usage and some of your worries.

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1. Swiss chard


Swiss chard, a member of the beet family, is a dark leafy green vegetable with colorful stems and deep roots. You can eat this nutritional superpower in soups, stews, stir-fries, and salads to gain potassium, iron, and vitamins A, C, and K. It prefers full sun and tolerates high heat and low water conditions. Here's more on how to add Swiss chard to your garden.

2. Beans


Both bush beans and pole beans can thrive with little effort on your part – and that includes irregular watering. You can add low-maintenance beans to your drought-tolerant garden even if you don't have much space. Pole beans, which will climb a trellis or pole, often produce a harvest four to five times a summer. Here's more information on how to grow and harvest beans.

3. Amaranth


You can use this drought-tolerant plant as a leaf or a grain in salads, stir-fries, porridges, grain bowls, and patties. Amaranth likes the sun, tolerates high heat, and handles low amounts of water. An added bonus is the plant's pretty flowers. Here's more on how to grow amaranth.

4. Peppers


Peppers seem to love the summer heat, and they tolerate low water conditions. There are many varieties of peppers, but they all contain vitamins and antioxidants and pack a punch of flavor. Here's a guide for growing bell peppers, but most of the advice is the same for all varieties of this drought-tolerant plant.

5. Okra


If you associate okra with Southern cooking, that's no coincidence. This plant will thrive in high summer temperatures, and it handles drought conditions. Plus, it is a high producer, so you get a lot of bang for your buck. Somewhat similar in taste to eggplant, okra works well in soups, stews, and tomato dishes. Here are some tips for growing and harvesting okra.

6. Mustard greens

Here's another Southern favorite that tolerates heat and drought conditions. These leafy greens are high in Vitamins A, C, and K, as well as a host of micronutrients. Mustard greens are easy to grow and maintain in the ground, raised beds, and containers. If you prefer a milder taste, harvest these green when they're young. Here are other tips for growing and harvesting mustard greens.

7. Eggplant


Here's another heat- and drought-tolerant plant to add to your summer garden. Perhaps best known for its starring role in the Italian dish, Eggplant Parmigiana, eggplant comes in quite a few varieties, including some bred especially for drought tolerance. Here are some to look for:

8. Tomatoes


Tomatoes like the heat and will wilt some when water is scarce. However, established plants will rebound nicely with deep watering. Here are some tomato varieties known as drought-tolerant:

If water is an issue, the smaller the tomato variety, the better your chances of success. Here's more on growing tomatoes with less water.

9. Sweet potato


Nutritious and versatile sweet potatoes are surprisingly easy to grow. According to the USDA, sweet potatoes can sometimes handle weeks without water by shedding their leaves and then recovering when deeply watered. Here's a guide for planting and harvesting sweet potatoes in the home garden.

10. Quinoa


As a member of the amaranth family, quinoa is rich in protein, fiber, and Vitamin B. Plus, it is easy to grow in less-than-ideal conditions. Seedlings require frequent waterings, but established plants are reasonably drought-tolerant. Here's an introduction to growing and harvesting quinoa.

11. Squash


We've all had friends and neighbors who are eager to give away their zucchini each summer. That's because this prolific vegetable is so easy to grow and harvest. As a member of the squash family, zucchini and its cousins also are surprisingly drought-tolerant. Here's a guide for growing summer squash in your home garden. (But don't forget pumpkins for the fall!)

12. Herbs


I have a basil plant that needs constant watering, but fortunately, not all herbs are as thirsty. In fact, some herbs are more susceptible to overwatering than underwatering. Here are herbs to consider for your drought-tolerant garden:

Most herbs produce lovely flowers that make them attractive additions to your drought-tolerant garden. Here are tips for growing herbs.

Now that you have an idea of what plants can tolerate drought conditions, here are some tips for conserving water in the garden.

  • Water your plants at the coolest time of day – usually, early morning so they can absorb the moisture before it gets too hot.
  • Some plants need to be watered at their roots (like tomatoes and zucchini), and others (like salad greens) prefer an overhead sprayer. Research which ones like which method to avoid wasting your time and resources.
  • Use mulch to help the soil retain moisture in the ground and keep the root zone cool. Organic wood chips and shredded bark will also help enrich the soil.
  • Install a rain barrel to capture water that you can use to water your plants.
  • Eliminate leaks in your hoses and sprinkler system.
  • Learn how much water your plants really need. Deep, less frequent waterings encourage the plant's roots to grow downward. When that happens, the plant can maintain moisture even when the soil surface dries out between waterings.

Here are some more resources for planting and maintaining a drought-resistant garden.

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