The July cool spell was wonderful and rain was miraculous, but the sad fact is that it is still hot and dry. We have months to go until the first real cold front blows into town, so now is a good time to think about adding some heat- and drought-tolerant plants to our gardens.
There are three groups of plants that will stand up well to both heat and drought: natives, herbs and succulents. It stands to reason that many native plants will be more tolerant of drought and heat than cultivated imports. After all, in the wild, no one is watering and pampering them.
Almost every region of the country has a sunflower that grows easily. Beach sunflowers can thrive in full sun and sandy soil that drains quickly. Various varieties of the helianthus will do well in clay soil, rocky soil or whatever you might have in the garden. In addition to loving the sun, these beauties are a good source of food for both people and wildlife. Birds love the seeds, as do people, and butterflies that land on the flat flowers enjoy the nectar.
Coneflowers are another native plant that does well in home gardens. The pretty daisylike flowers come in white, pink and purple. They are beloved by butterflies and have been used as medicine for centuries. Members of the echinacea family, they are native to prairie land, which is naturally sun-drenched and dry. They will grow happily in hot, dry gardens and provide pretty flowers throughout the season. These are generally perennials and can be planted now to replace those spring annuals that are burning up in the August sun.
If you like bright flowers, check out the butterfly milkweed. Asclepias tuberosa grows from New England to Utah and south to Arizona, Texas and Mississippi. It is another great food source for butterflies, and its vibrant red-orange or yellow flowers will bloom from frost to frost. Milkweeds produce papery seed pods that are distributed by the wind, and they will often come up as volunteers in your garden (or the neighbors’). It is not invasive, but it is happy to provide a source of seeds and additional plants if you like. It’s another prairie native and doesn’t need water or shade to keep producing bright flowers. The bright yellow aphids that can sometimes be found on the plant stems are great at attracting ladybugs, which will help you keep pests under control in your garden.
The huge family of native flowers called salvia are also nicely adapted to heat and drought. They are available in many colors and many variations of shape and size. The salvia gregii is one of the toughest flowering plants around and a consistent bloomer throughout the spring, summer and fall. It is also a favorite of hummingbirds who dip into the trumpet-shaped blossoms for nectar.
Mexican petunias, or ruellia, bloom pink, white or purple and grow either tall or very short. The dwarf varieties make a great border for flower beds, and the tall plants will fill in a shady spot where other blooming plants won’t grow. They bloom profusely with virtually no care.
Native grasses are a great choice for hot, dry gardens. They wave in the breeze to give the illusion of coolness, and some provide showy seedheads for texture and color in the landscape
The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center (www.wildflower.org) is an excellent source of information about which native plants will do well in your yard. They have a large garden of plants that do well in Austin as well as other resources to help you decide which plants are right for every spot in your garden. It is also a great place to go spend a hot summer morning or afternoon.
Herbs have been around for a very long time, and most of the culinary herbs that we favor come from hot and dry climates. Oregano, thyme, rosemary and lavender are all Mediterranean herbs that are well-suited for arid times. Typically herbs that have woody stems and/or gray leaves require less water and can take the heat. Many herbs native to Mexico are also good heat-loving garden plants. Lemongrass, lemon verbena and spearmint (herba buena) all love the heat and will please the gardener and cook alike. Bay leaf, garlic, peppers (especially the wild chile petin), and other common herbs make your garden beautiful as well as useful and can stand up to heat, drought and little attention from the gardener staying close to the air conditioner.
Succulents are by their very nature water-thrifty plants. The succulent is built to store its own water and it will grow, bloom and flourish with little or no care at all. And cacti are not the only succulents available, although there are some beautiful and thorn-free cacti on the market. Many of the succulents are cold-hardy as well. They are native to mountainous regions that get quite a bit of cold in the winter. The agave havardiana, for instance, is native to the Davis Mountains of West Texas and will grow in zones 5-10. Its deep green, huge leaves are spined, so keep it away from walkways and playgrounds, but it will make a dramatic statement in your arid garden.
Ice plants, in colors ranging from pale yellow to deep purple, make great ground covers. Purslane will go in the salad as well as the garden and requires no care. Small succulents look great in rock gardens, in containers and especially in strawberry pots, where several can be combined. Yucca plants provide a sculptural element to the garden and beautiful flowers in early summer.
Add these heat-loving plants now to enjoy for the rest of the growing season, or put them on your list to plant when the weather cools down a bit. As you follow the watering guidelines during the traditionally hottest month of the year, consider how much time and money you can save by replacing water-guzzlers with water-thrifty plants.
Judy Barrett is the publisher of HomegrownTexas.com, a monthly online magazine, and author of three books on gardening from Texas A&M University Press. A fourth book, “Yes, You Can Grow Roses,” will be released in the fall.