Plants for dry soils

A dry bed with california-poppy, grasses and cactus
A dry bed with california-poppy, grasses and cactus

Hot, dry summers demand a lot from our plants. Here are some resilient survivors that really thrive in dry soils, whether in the sun or shade.

Months of drought and heat have stressed many plants in recent years. As an amateur gardener, one wonders which plants can cope with such dry periods, which are likely to become even longer in the future. Fortunately, there are a number of plants for dry soils that can get by with little water. While some thrive better in the sun, others are particularly comfortable in dry shade. If you’re worried that your garden will lose grace as a result, you’re sure to be reassured when you see the range of hardy plants available.

Which plants are suitable for dry soils?

Dry performers such as tickseed, bluebeard and woodland sage (Salvia nemorosa) display colorful flowers filled with nectar, which are also attractive to insects, like bees and bumblebees. For the most natural look, spread the plants loosely throughout the bed. If you want to add splashes of color in small areas, you can go for short-lived bloomers for dry soils, such as California poppy (Eschscholzia californica). Depending on the sowing time, its bloom can be delayed until fall. The man-sized annual mallow (Lavatera) also quickly fills gaps in the border.

A planted dry-stone wall with candytuft, lilacbush and thyme is a good and durable solution, even for small gardens. This is because it saves space, is low maintenance and provides shelter for insects and reptiles. Extreme sites such as dry shaded areas under trees come alive with Alpine barrenwort (Epimedium alpinum), common polypody (Polypodium vulgare) and Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum odoratum). Great masterwort (Astrantia major) and wild asters add beautiful accents of color.

You can also educate plants through proper watering. To encourage a fine root system, don’t water too often. Otherwise, the plants will become lazy and stop growing roots in order to get water. Therefore, it is better to water less, but thoroughly. After a new planting, you should water the bed regularly in the first year. From the second year, water only as needed.

Plants for dry soils in the sun

With many perennials, you can tell at first glance that they are sun worshippers. Typical characteristics of this are thick, firm and sometimes hairy leaves, and sometimes small or gray-leaved foliage. For example, catmint (Nepeta x faassenii) is a notable drought perennial. In general, the appearance of perennials in sunny positions is usually characterized by blue, purple, and pink hues. The blue flower spikes of anise hyssop (Agastache) vie with the fragrant floral profusion of white Lindheimer’s beeblossom (Gaura lindheimeri).

The yellow flowers of yarrow (Achillea) contrast beautifully with the blue flower spikes of woodland sage (Salvia nemorosa) or the wine-red flowers of bluebuttons (Knautia). The spurge plants (Euphorbia polychroma) are also able to cope with the drought and really shine in a fresh green. If you place scattered stones between the plants and add a mulch layer of gravel or chippings, the bed also acquires a modern character.

Sage flowers with a butterfly
Sage flowers with a butterfly

How to care for plants in dry, sunny places?

Heat-loving plants only really feel comfortable with a daily sun exposure of about six to seven hours. Especially over midday, there should be no extended periods of shade, such as from trees or walls. In order for perennials to thrive in a sunny and dry location, it is important to create certain basic conditions. In addition to the factors of sun and light, the soil also plays an important role. Waterlogging is not well tolerated by the dry-loving plants. Especially in winter, a permeable soil is important. If you have a heavy, moist soil, you can improve it with a sufficient amount of grit and thus ensure the necessary permeability.

In plantings with sun-loving plants, deliberately placed gaps create a loose, steppe-like character. Mulching is a good way to keep these gaps free of weeds as well. Mineral mulch, such as light-colored limestone chippings, porphyry chippings, or even dark basalt, is suitable for dry sites. The decision depends on the personal taste and on the regionally available materials, which should be given preference. The advantage of mineral mulch is that the surface dries quickly, and therefore weeds germinate poorly on it. Under the layer of mulch, which does not decompose, moisture is retained longer, thus ensuring balanced soil moisture. For this purpose, the mulch layer should be at least 7 centimeters (3 in).

In addition to sun-tolerant perennials, it is a good idea to complement the planting with bulb plants. They are ideal for dry locations, as they require a well-drained soil, especially in winter, to avoid rotting. On the one hand, bulb plants extend the flowering period in dry and sunny beds, and on the other hand, they provide additional accents. Tulip bulbs provide a colorful impression, especially in spring. To fill in flower gaps in June, many varieties of leek/Alpine rosy bells (Allium) are suitable, setting striking accents with their attractive flower balls.

In a characteristic steppe planting, grasses cannot be missing. They transmit the slightest breeze and provide lightness and spaciousness. A popular grass is feather grass (Stipa gigantea). It shines in the backlight and with its soft growth surrounds flowering perennials that bloom in a plate or candle shape. Blue moor grass (Sesleria) is a very long-lived and hardy grass for dry sites, as is upright-growing millet (Panicum) with its airy appearance. The dry, sunny location sometimes even encourages intense yellow, sometimes red, fall coloration of the plants. As the garden year draws to a close, another advantage of hardy perennials and grasses comes to the fore. Frosty nights cover the faded plants with hoarfrost and turn them into atmospheric, structure-giving elements in the garden.


Plants for dry soils in the shade

There is also a wide range of hardy, drought-tolerant plants for shade that are also attractive and colorful. A carpet-forming spring bloomer is the purple gromwell (Lithospermum purpurocaeruleum). Also common polypody (Polypodium vulgare) thrives in wall joints and is considered extremely adaptable. Known as an excellent fall bloomer, Wild Aster (Aster ageratoides ‘Asran’) forms large stands and brightens the shade with its delicate purple-pink florets. The shade-loving Great Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum) forms pretty overhanging white flower spikes in May and June. With a decorative carpet of foliage, the Alpine barrenwort (Epimedium perralchicum) delights, even in winter. Evergreen is also the dungwort (Helleborus foetidus). From April to June, the chickweed (Stellaria holostea), a wild perennial, blooms. With its greenish-yellow flowers, Robb’s spurge (Euphorbia robbiae) enhances light shaded areas in spring.

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